Sunday, March 23, 2008

Robins have displaced the crows in my neighborhood.

Robins have displaced the crows in my neighborhood. Because of the general lack of color this time of year these latest visitors, even with their dull brown backs and barely flushed chests, are a much brighter addition to our landscape than then their uniformly sable predecessors.

The red-breasted thrushes are appearing in groups of up to six or seven on lawns all around town. The crows traveled in much larger hordes and were much, much noisier. They also began their days earlier and ended them later. We hear the robins less often and their songs are akin to those of an acoustic folk balladeer. The crows are more reminiscent of the Jimi Hendrix rendition of the National Anthem as performed by a chorale of less talented yet more highly amped guitar wannabes.

This change to the aural environment is definitely welcome.

There is no unique group name for a gathering of robins - unlike the murders, hordes, parcels, or musters of crows that preceded them. Nor is there one for the Cardinals, another regularly seen, sweet-singing piece of ornithological eye candy - not even obvious ones like "college" or "see" (i.e. The Red See). This seems odd since other equally common birds such as sparrows and starling have their own collective designations - a host and a murmuration respectively. Cardinals, being territorial, are at the exact opposite end of the gregariousness scale from the crows. I'm not sure how large an area each couple has under its jurisdiction but for as many years as we can remember there has never been more than one pair (plus offspring) in our yard at a time.

Robins are somewhere in between, but closer to the solitary end of the spectrum. We periodically see small groups of these birds encamped in our front yard. However, unlike the crows who seem to be in perpetual verbal and gestural conversations with their immediately surrounding confreres, the robins behave more like an audience of strangers at an opera whose physical proximity is an accidental offshoot of their common aesthetic interest rather than a desire for socialization. More frequently they show up unescorted - waiting calmly and patiently for dinner to mistakenly pop its head up out of the ground.

Crows are the high school gangs of the bird kingdom - seemingly unable to establish any identity for themselves outside of their chosen group setting. Cardinals, in spite of their flamboyant appearance and frequent extramarital dalliances (a.k.a. "extra-pair copulations") are the monastic cenobites. As humans they would, with their mate, build that solitary log cabin deep in the wilderness and sustain each other on nuts and berries gathered from the countryside and songs of their own creation.

The murders of crows have also been replaced by slightly smaller collections of Grackles. Grackles have no group name of their own. Like a junior varsity or minor league team they get whatever identity they have from their association, however tenuous, with the big leaguers - in this case the crows. Although unrelated to their much larger fellow birds the Gracula indicate by their every action that they consider them to be that to which they aspire but they cannot quite pull it off. In this instance size does matter. For example the back and forth walk of the larger crow is blatantly brazen braggadocio. A Grackle just looks ludicrously Chaplinesque. Like the crows the throngs of Grackles will soon stop appearing - driven by their own seasonally induced imperatives.

The robins on the other hand will faithfully decorate our landscape for the next three seasons and in some cases beyond that. They blend perfectly into our quiet middle-class neighborhood of modestly sized houses and yards - efficiently going about their mating, nesting and eating protocols while calling minimal attention to their presence other than with an occasional musically whistled "cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up" or a sharp "chup".

It is, after all, the way that most of us get our sense of selfhood around here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Further Proof That Sciuridae Sciurus Will Ultimately Take Over

The lawn is flooded -

Pools of rain 'neath bird feeders.
Who knew squirrels swam!

Sciuridae Sciurus

Monday, March 17, 2008

Season's Spinning Round Again

Spring is almost here. And it's not just the calendar that tells me this. More importantly the worms are back. They lie twisted and flaccid along the edges of my driveway or pink and swollen along the sides of the road - looking as if they were washed ashore by the mid-March rains that have soaked into the recently unfrozen earth.

But then I wonder - where have they been for the past bitter cold months? Did they migrate to a warmer climate along with the birds that feed upon them - grouped together in tiny vee formations inching their way along I 95 South? Did they hibernate - fattening up and then deliberately slowing down their metabolisms as they hunkered down in their winter bunkers? Or did they just crank up the heat in their little worm burrows, throw on a couple of layers of red flannel fleece, bundle together, and sip on cups of hot chocolate for warmth?

Actually, according to Google's number one answer to the query "worms winter":

While other creatures are winging and swimming south as you read this, underground worm activity is also at a peak. Surprised? Fall and spring are a worm's favorite seasons! Dark, cool, and moist. That's how worms like it. Believe it or not, worms are responsible for eating many of the fallen leaves and debris that result from autumn season. They hang around because there's good stuff to eat, and they like the cool temps and moist conditions fall brings.

When temperatures drop or soils get too warm or dry, worms know what to do. If it starts getting chilly, many kinds of worms tunnel deep into the soil before it freezes. Worms "migrate" downward, burrowing deeper to get past the frost. Sometimes they dig six feet deep! There they stay in their burrows, prisoners below soil frozen hard as rock and topped by ice and snow. They coil into a slime-coated ball and go into a sleep-like state called estivation, which is similar to hibernation for bears. (The mucous, or slime, keeps the worms from drying out.) Worms will survive in frozen or dry soils by estivation until conditions improve.

Wow! There's an awful lot of stuff in there that I just didn't know - plus this additional vocabulary lesson provided by my online dictionary.

estivation (also aestivation)

1 Zoology prolonged torpor or dormancy of an animal during a hot or dry period.
2 Botany the arrangement of petals and sepals in a flower bud before it opens. Compare with vernation.

noun Botany
the arrangement of young leaves in a leaf bud before it opens. Compare with estivation .
ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from modern Latin vernatio(n-), from Latin vernare 'to grow (as in the spring),' from vernus (see vernal ).

of, in, or appropriate to spring: the vernal freshness of the land.
vernally adverb
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from Latin vernalis, from vernus 'of the spring,' from ver 'spring.'

Granted my wordbook's definition of estivation talks about "dormancy.....during a hot or dry period", and the connection between estivation and vernation has nothing whatsoever to do with limbless invertebrates. Still it seems kind of strangely serendipitous that the path dictated by the dictionary's word citations led me from the behavior of worms in the winter to the arrival of spring, which of course is what started this whole thing to begin with. I remember once hearing the author William Least Heat Moon wondering whether outside events arranged themselves to answer the questions that we were currently asking, or whether they are always there and our curiousness just makes us aware of them.

Anyway, the worms are back because they never left. But why did they come to surface? According again to

Dr. Dennis Linden, Cindy Hale, and other worm experts say that worms do NOT surface to avoid drowning. In fact, they come to the surface during rains (especially in the spring) so they can move overland. The temporarily wet conditions give worms a chance to move safely to new places. Since worms breathe through their skin, the skin must stay wet in order for the oxygen to pass through it. After rain or during high humidity are safe times for worms to move around without dehydrating. It is true that, without oxygen, worms will suffocate. But earthworms can survive for several weeks under water, providing there is sufficient oxygen in the water to support them.

One more thing: Remember what can happen to worms left in sunshine or daylight? Their skin dries out and they can no longer breathe. Naturalist Jim Gilbert has this friendly advice: "Next time you see earthworms under your garage door or on your sidewalk after a rain shower, why not pick them up and put them in a shady garden spot so they can safely go back into the soil. This could be your way of thanking the earthworm population for many jobs well done."

So the totally motionless demeanor that I have been observing on my driveway must be just some kind of possum-like deception. These seemingly lifeless invertebrates are actually relocating themselves, at roughly half the speed of Xeno's paradox of motion, searching for the next best place to play their role in the cycle of the seasons.

As for my part: mulching my autumn leaves helps to feed the earthworms; transporting the languid little guys across the driveway hastens the nurturing of my pre-spring soil. Just like them, all my lifes a circle.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Isaac Newton & Miss Mannners Be Damned!

Finches dine upturned.
Squirrels too. Gravity and
Gravitas flouted.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


One hawk, three pigeons,
Two street lamps - tenth mile apart.
In sight, out of mind?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

An(other) Inconvenient Truth

Robins never left.
Finding food, stayed the winter.
Global WOrming p'rhaps?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Consequences of an Inadequate Avian Immigration Policy

While my neighbors sleep
Migrating crows case houses.
Hitchcock's "Birds" reborn?

Click here to see Alfred Hitchcock's personalized trailer for "The Birds".

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Out in the Country

(Photos by Mars - please click on the photos to enlarge them)

"When does it get easier?"

It was locker room chatter -- that meaningless banter that goes on between guys to fill the time and clothe the awkwardness that precedes and follows the workout itself. The rhetorical questioner was younger than me. We had established on other days that he still had twenty plus years to retirement while I had just crossed the Medicare border. He also lagged behind me in the number of years he had been exercising -- being a five-year health club member while I have been at it pretty much every day for more than twenty.

"It doesn't. The idea is to keep it from getting harder." I replied almost before his query was finished.

I have probably had this exact same "conversation" previously -- perhaps even several times before. I say that because the words flowed out of my mouth with absolutely no apparent conscious input from my brain - which was off somewhere else trying to remember what I though was a pertinent quote from Alice in Wonderland.

"A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. 'Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

But I was also thinking that over time it actually had become less difficult. And more importantly it had come to be much easier to navigate the landscape of the rest of my life -- where the running really counted.

Mars and I got into the exercise game twenty-plus years ago. At that time the world -- e.g. yard and house maintenance and improvement, family activities and work -- seemed to be causing me to go faster and work harder than I was able to without feeling tired most of the time. On Saturday night I was barely able to understand what was happening on "COPS!" -- never mind staying up late enough to watch it.

The world was running faster than we were, so we decided to begin jogging and see if we could catch up with it. We gradually worked our way up to three miles a day until the company for whom Mars and I both worked opened the corporate health club to which we both still belong.
Mars had become an even more enthusiastic exerciser -- but less of a fan of jogging. She immediately stopped and switched to kinder/gentler cardio activities that she later combined with weight training and some yoga.

I however, feeling that I was still running behind, continued for several more years. Then I too gradually shifted to a regimen of lower-impact cardio, strength training, and yoga. And I found that not only could I function on Saturday nights, but I could now also comprehend the meaning of entire written paragraphs in only a single reading -- even after sundown.

Then we retired and life became "six Saturdays and a Sunday" -- the health club being closed on the Sabbath. And on each of the "Saturday" nights I can now actually read and understand complete chapters of books without immediately falling asleep -- even in a horizontal position.

Our outside world has slowed down a little -- but only as much as we allow it to. And we both are more aware of doing things in our inside world (e.g. "the club") that allow us to keep that speed going - something that at our gym they call "functional fitness, training your body to handle real-life situations."

I didn't actually recall the entire Alice in Wonderland quote time during my locker room conversation but I must have remembered the gist of it since I ended that talk with some more words that seemed to come unbidden from my mouth:

Sometimes a treadmill
Is more than just a machine.
It's a metaphor.

Later, at home, I found the complete Alice quote on the Internet. And, in that free-associating mental state that the World Wide Web engenders the words "A slow sort of country!" led my mind to the recent Coen brothers film/Cormac McCarthy novel which takes its title from a poem by William Butler Yeats:

"That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect."

Mars and I have hiked several times in the West Texas desert that forms the setting for the novel/film - and we would like to do it again. It is indeed not a country for old men (or women). Unless, of course, they keep themselves functionally fit.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Fair Game

A book review in haiku.

It takes more to tell
an interesting story
than just having one.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Unfinished Business

Vestige fall colors
Banned by near-equinox snow --

Winter's residue.