JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County,
in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, USA

July 20, 2006

BLACK CHERRY TREES FRUITING
Black Cherry trees are now heavy with pea-size, black fruits. The cherries are too small and the pits in them too large for most people to bother with them, but sometimes I walk up to a tree and nibble off a mouthful, work the flesh off with my teeth, and spit pits. After a while you feel like you've eaten some cherries but it takes a lot of nibbling and spitting to get there. Black Cherry trees are PRUNUS SEROTINA, of the Rose Family. See leaves and fruits at http://www.papageien.org/df/df_alex_prunus_serotina.htm.

The above link is in Germany, and you'll see that there, where the tree is grown as an ornamental, its name is "Traubenkirsche," which means grape-cherry. That's a good name, since Black Cherry fruits grow in grapelike clusters, not individually on their own stems like horticultural cherries.

Ruth has a big Black Cherry in her front yard. It's had space to grow a beautiful form, and beneath it the shade is heavy on these hot, summer days. You can stand there looking across the grassy hilltops surrounding us, the heat shimmering atop them, and feel sheltered, and welcomed by this tree. Above, Mockingbirds and Robins gorge themselves on the fruits, making such a racket that they're clearly having fun with such easy, abundant food.

Of course the big cherry pits don't pass all the way through the birds. Fruits are swallowed and stored in the birds' crops, which are bags appended to their esophagi. You can see where crops are located at http://www.backyardnature.net/birdguts.htm.

In the birds' crops the fruits' flesh gets worked off and shunted on toward the stomach, but the pits are kept until they are clean and then you see the bird, who probably has been nonchalantly perching just waiting for this moment, suddenly stiffen a bit, cock his tail slightly, open his beak, and one or more shiny cherry pits pop from his mouth.

Black Cherry seeds and leaves contain high levels of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison, but cherry flesh is perfectly good to eat. In fact, as you might expect of a tree harboring such a powerful toxin, it's medicinal, considered to be "antitussive; astringent; pectoral; sedative; stomachic; tonic." The term "antitussive" means good for coughs, and maybe this is why they make Black Cherry coughdrops.

You can also make a green dye from the leaves, and of course the wood is so pretty and therefore valuable that people have robbed Black Cherries standing as shadetrees in other people's yards. You can read a lot more about the medicinal uses of Black Cherries at http://www.pfaf.org/database/plants.php?Prunus+serotina.

*****

BARN SWALLOWS IN FLIGHT
As I biked home the other day a flock of maybe a dozen Barn Swallows circled above the pasture downslope from the road, just beyond the power line. Their excited twittering caused me to look over just in time to see something wonderful: Suddenly two birds broke from their seemingly random, uncoordinated circling, flew toward one another, right before meeting they both arced their flight upward, and then their beaks touched in midair. Instantly they broke away from one another and in half a second lost themselves once more in the general circling.

I'd seen an adult feeding a fledgling.

I wasn't surprised to see this, for Barn Swallows can even mate in flight, and you've probably seen them skimming the water's surface drinking. These birds are sublimely adapted for life on the wing.

Seeing this here in the lush, humid, super-green Kentucky countryside sent me back to that day not long ago described in this year's March 25th Newsletter when I stood "in all that wind, sunlight and dry heat amidst gyrating coconut palms and the thunder of the ocean surf not far away" seeing great numbers of migrating Barn Swallows on the northern Yucatan coast. They were about to make the great leap across the Gulf of Mexico to the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coasts, and I worried that with all that day's wind surely many wouldn't make it.

But, now I'm sure that a lot did make it, and before long the fledgling I just saw receive a meal from its parent would be returning south to overwinter. How satisfying amidst all of today's destruction and misery to witness an event happening exactly as it should, when it should, for no motives other than that it is natural that it should be so.

You can learn more about Barn Swallows and see them at http://www.naturia.per.sg/buloh/birds/Hirundo_rustica.htm.

*****

FIRST SQUASH FLOWER OF THE YEAR
Having arrived here a little after gardening season already had begun, my garden now is a bit behind other people's in the area. For example, my neighbors have been enjoying yellow crookneck squash for a couple of weeks, but my first squash flower only appeared last week.

Squash flowers typically come in male and female kinds, as shown and explained on my squash-flower page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_sqwsh.htm.

In the past it seems that my first squash flowers have always been male. Therefore, when last week I saw that my first flower was a female, with a tiny, immature squash below its large, orange corolla, I was curious. Would this squash develop, since there's no male flower around to pollinate the female?

I figured that the fruit would not develop because that's the way it usually is in Nature. However, I know that with horticultural plants sometimes they do tricky things with the genes so the usual rules don't always apply. For example, there's the new Diva Cucumber, which produces only gynoecious (all-female) flowers and are parthenocarpic (grow fruits without pollination).

The day after my first flower, two more blossoms appeared, but this time one flower was a male and one was a female. About five days later the results of the experiment were clear: The first flower's immature squash had not grown at all, and in fact was puckering in at the sides and turning brown. However, the younger squash from the second female flower, which had been accompanied by a male flower, was growing like crazy, and it sure tasted good.

*****

TRASH BUG
One late afternoon this week I was reading beneath the big American Elm beside the house when I began feeling a slight stinging on my naked back. I reached around and withdrew the strange-looking object you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/trashbug.jpg.

The picture shows what appears to be a tiny glob of stuck-together, flaky material adhering to the tip of my finger. The glob is smaller than a pea.

What you're seeing is a well-camouflaged larva of a Brown Lacewing of the insect family Hemerobiidae. Lacewings are closely related to the antlions or doodlebugs who make conical pits in the sand. The camouflage of the larva in the picture consists of flecks of gray and green lichen similar to that encrusting the old elm's bark. For camouflage material Brown Lacewing larvae can choose almost anything small, loose and dry, including the sucked-dry remains of their prey!

Lacewing larvae are very aggressive predators on aphids, insect eggs and other small critters. In fact, another name for Brown Lacewing larvae is Aphid Wolf. Judging from how the one in the photo dug into my back, they can attack not-so-small prey, too. Like antlions, lacewing larvae use their sickle-like mandibles to tear into their prey and suck them dry. They've been used as biological control agents in gardens.

The University of Kentucky produces a "Lacewings of Kentucky" page where you can see adult lacewings, eggs and other larvae -- including a Brown Lacewing lava from Texas that has camouflaged itself with the suck- dried bodies of ants! The page is at http://www.uky.edu/Ag/CritterFiles/casefile/insects/lacewings/lacewings.htm.

*****

HUMMINGBIRD CLEARWING MOTH
Readers who have been with me a while may remember how I enjoyed the sphinx moths who each summer evening near Natchez visited the Four O'clocks next to the barn. The term "sphinx moth" is a general one, referring to the Sphinx Moth Family, the Sphingidae, in the order of the moths and butterflies, the Lepidoptera. There are many species of sphinx moth.

This week as I swept the porch I found a dead sphinx moth on the floor, with no indication of why he'd died. This was a different species from what I had in Mississippi, however, one that looks more like a Bumble Bee than either a hummingbird or a moth. It was the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, HEMARIS THYSBE, and you can see the very one I found at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/sphinx-7.jpg.

Like the Natchez hummingbird moths, caterpillars of Hummingbird Clearwing Moths are "hornworms" -- thick- bodied, greenish caterpillars bear spinelike "horns" on their rear ends.

*****

BUTTERFLIES & BACILLUS THURINGIENSIS
My Newsletter last week reporting a piddling community of butterflies at Polly's Bend caused Sleazeweazel in Florida to shoot off a very interesting email about BT, or Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium much marketed in garden magazines as an "environmentally friendly pesticide." Sleaze characterizes BT as "almost identical to Anthrax, affects not just Lepidopterans, but Dipterans and Coleopterans as well, in other words, a very significant percentage of all life on earth, and certainly most of the pollinators."

Remember that "Lepidopterans" are butterflies and moths, "Dipterans" are flies and "Coleopterans" are beetles.

I posted Sleaze's remarks on our message board, in the "Environmental Concerns" section, and Wren in Louisiana replied with a very thoughtful message expanding the discussion to genetically modified species that produce the BT toxin. However, she wasn't as anti-BT as Sleazeweazel.

You can read the entire, very thought-provoking exchange at the message board at http://cybermessageboard.fatcow.com/backya2/viewtopic.php?t=104.

*****

KEN'S RAT SNAKE
The other day Ken in Mississippi emailed me. When I saw that images were attached I got interested because some time ago Ken sent a funny squirrel picture, the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/sqrl-egg.jpg showing a squirrel eating a Wood Duck egg, and the squirrel has the sneakiest look on his face you can imagine.

Again I wasn't disappointed. This time the first picture was of a Gray Rat Snake, ELAPHE OBSOLETA. It's a simple picture showing the snake draped atop a tree stump, and it doesn't strike you as special until you read Ken's note that the snake had been traveling across his yard, the stump was in his way and, instead of detouring just a few inches to the right, the snake went right over the stump. The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060720.jpg.

The second picture was even more remarkable. It shows the same snake a few seconds later going right up a tree trunk as if it were on level ground. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/ratsnake.jpg.

If you hold a Rat Snake you can understand how it might be able to climb tree trunks like this. In cross section a Rat Snake is shaped like a loaf of bread -- a rounded top with straight sides meeting the flat bottom at more or less right angles. The squared sides pressed against a tree's bark irregularities give the snake a bit of hold, kind of the way a tire with a good tread holds to the road better than a smooth one. But it's not a very firm hold. Rat Snakes fall out of trees with unnerving regularity, and that can surprise a poor soul daydreaming below!

The Rat Snake is one of the most common snakes in eastern North America, often seen in abandoned houses and barns as well as up trees. Read more about them here.

*****

WATER SNAKE IN THE WATER TANK
Down at the water tank next to the mint spring I sat watching things. Most of the action was provided by water boatmen jerkily jetting about in a deliciously 3-D world of crystalline water where billowy columns of alga-globs rose in irregular clumps from the tank's shadowy floor, like green thunderheads.

A slender, yard-long, dun-colored snake with perfect dark-brown diamond-shapes down its spine rose up through the clear water, nudged an alga mat out of the way and stuck about half an inch of his head from the water. His body rose from the tank floor's blackness like a nearly vertical column, then his head hooked down a little at the water's surface. It was a handsome snake with a black, forked tongue that flipped in and out lightning fast. You can see the species at http://www.duke.edu/~jspippen/herps/nwatersnake.htm.

It was a Northern Water Snake, NERODIA SIPEDON SIPEDON, and though he was looking right at me from less than a yard away I sat perfectly still and thus remained functionally invisible to him. My image registered as a form in his mind, but his brain could not determine that anything about my form was any more or less significant than a tree's or a rock's.

Long he looked and then I experimented with a very slight head nod. I saw the submerged part of his body tense but his own head didn't move at all, thus, according to snake theory, his exposed head remained invisible to me, too. For ten minutes the game progressed, until I had to thump a horsefly biting my leg, and the snake quickly withdrew into the tank's inky depths.

*****

SNAKE BRAIN
Curious thing, this snake brain. I've been writing an essay on how humanity seems to be aware that human- caused disasters are about to change our lives -- global warming, consequences of nuclear proliferation and the all-out war between Islam and the other Abrahamic religions, for instance -- yet the vast majority of us just continue as always, as if we don't see what's coming. For example, when given a chance to vote, we even vote for politicians representing the status quo. Seeing the Northern Water Snake looking right at me but my image not registering in his brain as anything unusual, it occurred to me that maybe mass human behavior is governed strictly by our reptilian brains.

You've probably heard that we humans have a three-part brain, the "root" one being reptilian. Our brains are rather like a house that has had rooms added twice. Mammals, of which humans are one, arose from reptiles. Thus our "nuclear brain" is reptilian. As evolution proceeded and more complex mammals arose, a new wing of the brain appeared, the "limbic brain" or "mammalian brain." Finally, when we humans came along our much more complex behavior was made possible by a second new wing of the brain, the "neo-cortical brain (neocortex)" or "monkey" brain, which was set like a helmet over the reptilian and mammalian brains.

Our reptilian brain supports basic physiological functions such as circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination and mating. It's also involved in territorial behavior, pecking order, defense, aggression and the emotions of anger and fear. Reptiles are capable of these behaviors, for they have reptilian brains.

The point is, mob behavior and voting patterns of groups stirred up by demagogues deal with issues exactly within these reptilian domains -- territory, status, defense, aggression, anger, fear...

The more sophisticated mammalian brain is concerned with emotions of love, sadness, jealousy, and hope, so humans share these traits with "higher" mammalian species such as cats, dogs, horses and other warm blooded animals.

Note that the emotions of the mammalian brain -- love, sadness, jealousy, and hope -- seldom set mobs and stirred-up voting groups to action. One could say with good reason that a dog has more feeling, more empathy and love, than a mob. One could also say that our recent elections appear to have been contests between issues of the reptilian brain and those of the mammalian brain.

I hope you will have the fun of figuring out for yourself which political party's issues are most reptilian in nature.

The most recently evolved "monkey brain" -- appearing only within the last 3,000,000 years or so -- enables humans to manifest higher functions of imitation, speaking, writing, planning and symbolic reasoning and conceptualization. Neither is this mob stuff.

So, in order to save Life on Earth from the biosphere collapse well underway already, how can we enable the thought processes of the masses to blossom beyond the limitations of the human reptilian brain? How can we insert mammalian empathy and love, and monkey-brain rational thought and spirituality into the equation?

I don't have a clue. I'll just give you some links in case you want to study this matter more.

For more insight into the reptilian brain, go to http://www.reptilianagenda.com/brain/br121804p.shtml.

To see how our three brains interact in daily life visit http://www.claudesteiner.com/triune.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net