Friday, February 24, 2012

2 Swans A-Flying

As I walked past the back pond in our neighborhood park last Sunday two white swans decided to take flight.
The small body of water is about 100 yards in length and it took about 2/3 of that distance for these largest members of the duck family to reach enough speed and develop sufficient lift to actually become airborne. They began the process by running across the water as rapidly as they could with their wings flapping. But I missed that part. The pounding of their long pinions against the stagnant air alerted me to the event and when I looked over at the pair they were already several inches airborne and flapping like crazy (albeit gracefully) to gain altitude. Ultimately the upward force generated by their fluttering propelled them up and over the small dam at pond’s end and up and out of the recreational area. And the distinct “pop” of each downward stroke became more of a continuous hum.

They were I presume the same male and female residents that (with their offspring) have resided in our neck of the woods this past spring, summer and autumn – and possibly for the previous several years. I had believed that this species mated for life but several swan-centric websites, including Wikipedia, report that while they “form socially monogamous pair bonds that last for many years, and in some cases these can last for life. Modern genetic techniques are starting to reveal that 'divorces' are more common than previously thought, as is mating with other swans outside of the social pairing, without breaking the social pair bond.” I assume if any of the latter behavior was going on that the adulterous party would have the decency to not misbehave in its own bed-pond – but who knows how far a swan can stretch its “social pair bond” without fracturing it.

In any event, this taking-to-flight was something that I had never before seen in person. Perhaps it was some form of spiritual vision. (It was, after all, the Sabbath.) Or maybe I was just hallucinating because I was hungry.

I do have to say that they did look quite “meaty” as they floated up and out of sight. Which is not the way that I always saw them. Mars and I have joked in the past about dining on these and the Canada Geese that sometimes share the upper pond with the Swans. (On this occasion thirty or so of these suburban pests were resting silently on the banks of the lower pond, just beyond the end of the runway. Probably jaded by the (at least) daily takeoffs of the large white avians not one of them removed its white-patched black head from under its brownish gray wing – just another day at the airport.)

I am a fan of roast duck and duck confit. Mars is not – nor is she a devotee of any dark meat. We both assumed that Swans and the Canada Geese, while a member of the same family as the smaller, tasty, web-footed water birds, would have relatively little meat on the bone – particularly for the work involved.
There’s an exchange in the movie “Duck Soup” between Groucho and Chico Marx that goes like this: [Chico speaks with an Italian fruit seller’s accent.]
G: Here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
C: Why a duck?
G: I’m all right. How are you? I say here is a little peninsula, and here’s a viaduct …
C: All-a right. Why a duck? Why a duck? Why-a-no-chicken?
G: I don’t know why-a-no-chicken. I’m a stranger here myself.

So I wonder “Why-a-no-swan?”

It’s time to Google.

“Swan meat has been regarded as a luxury food in England since at least the reign of Elizabeth I. A recipe for baked swan survives from that time. ‘To bake a Swan Scald it and take out the bones, and parboil it, then season it very well with Pepper, Salt and Ginger, then lard it, and put it in a deep Coffin of Rye Paste with store of Butter, close it and bake it very well, and when it is baked, fill up the Vent-hole with melted Butter, and so keep it; serve it in as you do the Beef-Pie.’” (Wikipedia)

And, according to the posting “The Smart Shopper’s Guide to Swan Meat” on (a piece worth sharing in its entirety):

“It’s gratifying to know, in these troubled times when so many are struggling financially, that you can purchase swan meat for just $50.00 a pound. That’s right, there are deals to be had and ways to satisfy the well-known American craving for swan at bargain-basement prices. The kicker is, you’ve got to purchase the entire bird. But at rates this low, why would you not.

“Presumably, when you order a bird from 1-800-STEAKS.COM, you’re getting a black swan as shown in the web page photo. The page doesn’t actually specify that it’s a black swan, nor does it tell you how much meat you’re getting for your money, because, heck, why not make things more fun by making the customer guess, right? At the time of this writing, I defy you to search the page content and find any details beyond the fact that you’re getting swan for $999.00–a steal at $500 off the regular price of $1,499.00.

“Since it really is kind of important to know where in the size spectrum between a chicken and a sperm whale the swan in question lies, it’s off to Wikipedia we go, you and I, where we learn that a mature black swan weighs anywhere between 8 and 20 pounds. Very good, now we’re getting somewhere. But in what form will our swan be delivered to us? After all, it’s swan MEAT that we’re after, and that is what the site advertises. So should we expect it to come pre-packaged, or frozen whole with the feathers still on it, or what?

“Finding no immediate information, off we go again to do more research, this time to the Exotic Meat Market, which offers competitive prices on black, mute, and black neck swans, and is pleased to answer some of our pressing questions.

“Ah! The swans are live. We will not be receiving our 8 to 20 pounds of swan meat in nicely prepared parcels. No, our swan meat will be arriving in the freshest of all possible conditions, honking and hissing and flapping its wings and ready to vigorously assert its personal views on being converted into table fare. So we shall have our work cut out for us, but the Exotic Meat Market sweetens the deal with prices that make us want to shout for joy, they are so ridiculously low.

“Here, for instance, is the pricing information for a single live, male black swan:
Regular price: $1,299.00
Sale price: $599.00
Black Swan – Live Male blswlima [Add to cart]

“I’m not sure what “blswlima” means. Maybe the swan comes with Lima beans. Regardless, you can see right away that here is a platinum deal if ever there was one, with the Exotic Meat Market undercutting 1-800-STEAKS.COM by $200 on their regular price and $400 on the sale price. I know, I know–it makes you want to rub your eyes in disbelief. Disbelief is a common reaction to prices like these. Nevertheless, it’s true: you can purchase live, aggressively fresh swan meat–between 8 and 20 pounds, we’re still not entirely clear on that–for a low, low, not-quite-six-hundred bucks.

“And that’s not all. Mute swan, a non-native species which is rapidly becoming a weed bird in United States lakes and rivers, also sells for just $599.99. And black neck swan, regularly $2,499.99, is currently on sale for a paltry $1,999.99. That’s a $500 SAVINGS! (Though it should be mentioned that the black neck swan doesn’t come with Lima beans.)”

“” in its sales page for swan meat tells us that it was a status symbol to eat swan “until superseded by turkey early last century.” Go figure.

But, even if the flesh of a Swan is not in fact stringy, greasy and skimpy, it still seems blasphemous to eat it – with good reason. Swans have been religious symbols even longer than they have been status symbols – and not just Leda.

“In early Celtic mythology, the equivalent to the Cretan Triple Goddess was called Brigit. The swan was sacred to Brigit. On the arrival of Christianity (Celtic Christianity developing and remaining somewhat apart from that of Rome for many centuries), the sometime Goddess Brigit reappeared as Saint Brigit or Saint Brigidine. Later she came to be identified by many with the Virgin Mary, the swan being part of the baggage.
“The swan has also been a Christian symbol of dignified retirement from worldly things, perhaps by association with the dignity attributed to the Virgin Mary.

“Christianity at that time was profoundly Mariolatrous, none more so than the Bavarian church - and it still is. This Mariolatry was one of the aspects of Christianity that so offended the patriarchal Arabs at the time of Mahomet, and why he was so insistent that there was no god but Allah – rather than the de facto Holy Trinity of Father, Mother and Son.

“The grail itself was a royal, sacred, essentially female symbol associated with fertility. The swan was a royal, sacred, originally female symbol associated with the Mother, the ultimate manifestation of fertility, and her later surrogates.” (

Wow – Mariolatrous (“an excessive and proscribed veneration of the Virgin Mary.”) Now that is a definite “ten dollar word”– one that I never would have found out about (along with the price of swan meat) if I hadn’t stumbled upon the two swans taking off.

If you really want to learn about life you have to get up from your computer, go out into in natural world, and observe – then run right back home and Google your little buns off.

Running swan photo from

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Animals in Translation

Okay. This was actually stunning news to me. Squirrels remember where they bury their nuts.

I read this in Temple Grandin’s book “Animals in Translation”. Ms. Grandin is a Doctor of Animal Science and professor at Colorado State University, bestselling author, consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior – and a person with high-functioning autism. Much of her academic work centers on her belief that autistic people and animals view the world similarly – for example both see EVERY detail; both think in pictures rather than words. Her general technique is to observe how she herself thinks and behaves in a particular situation – and when she sees an animal behaving in the same manner she deduces that they are thinking similarly.
For example it is apparently a proven fact in the world of animal behavior that ants use landmarks to find their way to and from a place. When taking a trip for the first time when an ant walks by a potential marker such as a gray stone it will stop and look back at it. Grandin does the same thing when she is driving an unfamiliar route. That is because, unlike non-Autistic people, she cannot imagine what the landmark (e.g. a red barn) would look like from the other side. Likewise ants.

Makes sense to me – or at least I can see it from her point of view.

As you might expect this means Grandin feels that animals are more intelligent than most of us would give them credit for – hence the squirrel/acorn thing.

For years it was thought that squirrels buried acorns randomly in the fall and were just as haphazard in their springtime retrieval of them. Then, through careful observation, it was noticed that they actually recovered the vast majority of them. It was then hypothesized that the little tree rodents used odor of the oak fruit to locate it. But if that were the whole story then the squirrels would just as frequently dig up the cache of other of their brethren as their own. But they didn’t. Somehow they remembered where their own nuts were. Pretty impressive when you think that, based this time upon my observations, an average tree-rat probably buries several score of acorns. (She says six hundred.)

Grandin avers that they do it by “triangulation” – “the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the point directly (trilateration). The point can then be fixed as the third point of a triangle with one known side and two known angles.” (wiki)

Unfortunately she does not provide anecdotal autistic evidence (as in the ant story) or any other kind of proof for her assertion of the squirrel’s geometric acumen – which, if true, clearly outstrips that of any human being.

Of course historically the fluffy gray tree rodents have outsmarted humans for decades and/or we have underestimated them

So perhaps the apparent look of bewilderment that frequently comes over the face of a squirrel as it rushes around our yard in search of its cached crop of nuts is not caused by an inability to recall where the acorns were buried but rather stunned surprise at remembering the combination, opening the lock, and finding an empty safe deposit box.

This could become the case this year because of the warm snow-less winter that we are experiencing here in CT. One result of the abnormally mild winter is the multitudinous murders of crows that should have migrated through our neck of the woods – but instead have remained for multiple months.

Crows also are acorn-caching animals. But more importantly they are also opportunistic eaters with a self-serving imagination that allows them to believe that the nuts they are harvesting are ones that they have planted. (I am imagining this last bit of crow rationalization – but from my perspective it’s a lot easier to believe than the whole squirrel triangulation thing. I mean really – would you trust a crow?)

The bigger problem for our squirrels this year however is going to be the absence of triangulating landmarks. After the acorns fell from our oaks Marsha and I had a couple of other large trees and a two Roses of Sharon taken down. Had we realized at the time that this foliage might have been variables in the squirrels’ geometric calculation we undoubtedly would have waited until after the nut burying season to lop down the lumber. But we didn’t. So we didn’t.
Who knows if the tree rodents used this now-missing flora as “known points at either end of a fixed baseline” – but presumably they have a backup plan. Or can develop one quickly.

Temple Grandin says that intelligence is the ability to come up with a new solution to a novel situation. In one town the handicapped sidewalks were designed with one ramp per flag – that is at a four-corner stop there would be eight flags and eight ramps, each ramp leading into the crosswalk. The seeing-eye dogs were taught to lead their person down the ramp into the crosswalk. Then, to save money, the town began putting the ramps on the corner – four way stop, eight flags, four ramps. Thirty percent of the dogs continued down the ramp into the street and attempted to cross diagonally – not a huge surprise. However seventy percent walked down the ramp, turned right (or left), walked to the crosswalk, turned left (or right) and crossed between the white lines – the first time that they encountered the new configuration!

Okay squirrels – show us what you’ve got!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

They cannot text...

...because they have claws, and no opposable thumbs.

6:30 am,
"caws" come from all directions –
crows planning their day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Signs of Spring - Too Soon

Haiku based upon a conversation with a Connecticut native whose traditional sense of seasonal change is being thrown off this year by the winter that never came and a non-hibernating, dead skunk she encountered that morning on her drive in to work.

First sign of spring is
not crocus, not daffodil
'round here it's road kill.

Monday, February 06, 2012

It Takes a Worried man

I am a worrier. And like most good practitioners of this agonizing art I stress best with respect to things that I cannot do anything about. Right now I am fretting over the effect that our currently non-existent winter, followed by an early spring, followed by an existent winter, could have on the perennial plants that should, at this time of the year, be hibernating under frozen ground and several feet of snow.

It is early February with weather that feels more like early March. This was preceded by a January that also felt more like early March. And a similar December and November. We did have some snow on Halloween weekend, and five inches one day in January but that has been it. Temperatures have been above normal.

The finches, cardinals and juncos that normally would be all over my sunflower and Niger seed feeders are off somewhere in the wild dining on their “natural sources of food”. The squirrels are here at the feeders in abundance – person-supplied fare apparently being their only “natural source”.

The crows, which stop here briefly on their migration from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic to chow down on fallen acorns, are, as we speak, stalking across the front lawn. By now the fruits of my oak trees should have been long ago buried in fluffy white stuff. And the crows should have been long-gone before Christmas. But they’re not. That they are still finding acorns seems numerically impossible but obviously isn’t.

In early March of an ordinary year I would impatiently begin raking back the accumulated leaves of the cold season looking for the first tiny burst of green popping up through the thawing earth. Even then I would worry about prematurely exposing them to the still-possible winter elements, but my eagerness would overcome my fear.

Now, since we have been in virtual March all winter-long, I am wondering if I should cover them up even more and keep them totally in the dark as to what’s happening climatologically. I’m having fever dreams of the over-eager bulbs and buds beginning to bloom and Mother Nature (or global warming or whatever) deciding to zap them with three months of ultra-extreme winter compressed into one week. I can actually hear the noise of each over-extended sprout splitting in the sudden blast of bone-chill – a literal cold snap.

Or the toasty trend could continue, maybe even accelerate, and my over-wrapped plant babies could fry in their cocoons.

Maybe it is best to just let nature take its course – que sera, que sera. After all, these perennials and their ancestors have a lot more experience with this sort of thing than I do. And they didn’t get to survive this long by making dumb decisions.

Besides, there are lots more frightening things to panic about – POTUS Newt and FLOTUS Callista for example. Then again that might be too scary for even an inveterate worrier like me.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Multiple Choice Haiku

Frequently Mars and I come upon one of our gray squirrels sitting upright on its haunches at the top of the topmost branch on our flowering crab tree and staring Zen-like into space. My mind, which is always active although not necessarily full of thoughts, cannot believe that the brain of the tree rodent is not equally busy.

Multiple Choice Haiku

What do squirrels think,
perched in tree-top Buddha pose?

(a) Food. Food. Food. Sex. Food.

(b) Really, it’s nothing!

(c) Where IS that acorn?

(d) All of the above.

(e) None of the above.