Duck Feet

There are many stories that can be told about Dr. Ernie Provost.  He was a legend when I took his Vertebrate Natural History1 class.  “He’s forgotten more than most people ever know” was commonly used to describe him.  His own turns of phrase could be more colorful; for example, he would describe  any task or obstacle that promised to require a significant fee in blood, sweat, and/or tears as “a ring-tailed bitch-kitty.”  It was an epithet often used for his exams, and his courses in general. 

“Uncle Ernie” had a blue million2 stories attached to his name: some dealing with combat on volcanic sands, others with tracking down rattlesnakes in coastal scrubland. But if there is one Uncle Ernie story that has achieved contemporary folklore status among wildlife and ecology professionals, it probably involves duck feet.

Provost taught Ornithology at one time. He taught Ornithology students, as he did in Natural History, that while birds were all related, each species was unique.  Much about a given bird can be gleaned by its morphology, from the shape of a bill to the structure of its feet.  A mallard foot is different from a grebe foot, a barred owl flight feather is different from a redtail hawk flight feather, and a finch bill likewise differs from that of a whippoorwill. Therefore, he required that students study, not just the whole individual, but the feathers, feet, wings, and tails to learn how to identify species by a piecemeal approach. 

Fast forward to the Practicum – the exam of concepts and identification using actual specimens.  Among the assortment of bones and wings was a series of study skins, with paper bags covering all except the feet. To pass the test, the students needed to identify the critter based only on what could be seen. 

It was clear that one student hadn’t studied enough.  He might have recognized whole specimens, he might even have differentiated known ducks by their wings.  But the minutia of webbing and talons was beyond him.  The professor, sitting behind a desk at the front of class, couldn’t help but notice the increasing agitation on that side of the room. 

Finally, the frustrated young man stalked up to the desk, threw his paper down, and stomped towards the door.  Provost glanced at the page with its conspicuous blank spots, and called after the fellow.

“At least give me your name so I can mark that you were here!”

The dude turned around and held up one leg towards the professor. Hiking up his pants leg to expose his boot, he replied, “You tell me, you son of a bitch!”

That story was first told to me, with some embellishment, by Dick Payne, a professor at ABAC and acolyte of Provost’s; his version involved the wrapped bird specimens being thrown across the room to make identification that much harder.  Other versions of the story, mostly attributed to a nameless professor, have cropped up since then.  The story has become part of the mythology of college wildlife classrooms.  When I pressed “Uncle Ernie” for the truth of the matter, he gave me the unadorned account which I have related to you.

1 “Life history strategies of vertebrates with emphasis on ecology, behavior, taxonomy, and systematics.” Part lecture, part lab.

2“a blue million” was another term Provost frequently used; means “an awful lot”

A Tale of Tourist Attractions

What do a mound, an arch, and a bottle of catsup have in common?

When my family drove to Ohio to visit some dear old friends,  I convinced wife and son to detour through western Illinois.  You see, I had recently learned of Cahokia, and was bent on visiting.  Cahokia is the site of the largest known urban settlement of the Mississippian culture.  The population exploded in the mid-11th century; between its ritual center and outlying settlements, estimates put the local populace at nearly 40,000 during the 13th century.  If accurate, that would make the greater Cahokia landscape the largest urban population in North America until the late 18th century!  At its center was a platform mound rising 100 feet and covering 14 acres, formed by earth and sod carried one basket at a time.  Over a hundred smaller mounds rose across the local area.  Archeological finds point to Cahokia as a major center of trade, and likely a social and religious center as well, with complex social structures.

Given the dense population, it is easy to assume that supplying food and firewood, and disposing of waste, would have been increasingly difficult.  It is likely that poor nutrition and polluted water lead to rampant disease and short lifespans.  This further suggests that regular immigration was necessary to maintain the population level, though such inflows couldn’t last (the city was abandoned in the 14th century).  It is not too much to assume that traders, emissaries, pilgrims and perhaps simple tourists came to witness the center of Mississippian culture.  And here I was, a tourist of echoes, visiting the ruins whose builders and rulers have long since vanished, unable to our modern homage. I wonder how they would process the fact that people in a land they couldn’t conceive of would deem the ruins of their city of worldwide cultural significance (UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 1,154 worldwide).

The visit was all that we had expected. The interpretive displays in the museum were excellent, and my boy was at the point where he would actually read and appreciate the panels of text accompanying the artifacts and reconstructions.  We climbed the great mound and explored the nearby reconstructed timber circle (“Cahokia Woodhenge”) in the warm sunshine. I could have spent a leisurely day there.  Instead, we hopped in the car before noon and headed west across the Mississippi River and a more modern place of tourist pilgrimage.

St. Louis’ Gateway Arch is considerably younger than the mounds we recently quitted, being built in the 1960s. It is also far taller (over 600 feet).  The arch segments are triangular in cross section, constructed of carbon steel covered by stainless steel.  It is an engineering marvel.

It was also expensive and crowded.  We stood in a long line in the warming late-May sunshine, before descending into the cool darkness of the visitor center.  This was followed by a two hour wait for our turn to actually enter the arch, during which we ate overpriced snacks, wandered through the museum, and sat listlessly against a wall.  I imagine boredom and expensive rations were experiences we shared in common with ancient Mississippian tourists.  But we thought, if nothing else, the boy could say he’d been to the top of the world’s tallest arch.

A little more walking, another 15-minute stand-around, and then we crammed into small tram capsules that slowly raised us several hundred feet in the arch.  Then we walked the last bit to the apex, where we vied with the crowd to look through the windows.  Thankfully, the wind wasn’t rocking the top!  It was certainly a view, with the city laid out on one side and the river and ancient floodplains stretched out on the other. After a couple of minutes, the height-shy young’un was ready to vacate.  And so this family of introverts headed groundward within ten minutes of our arrival, and left the crowd behind with all speed.

We were tired, but there was one stop to go.  It was admittedly the silliest coup to count, but we were a little punchy by this point. 

You see, when we checked in at our motel in Collinsville, the desk clerk asked what our plans were.  When we spoke of the UNESCO World Heritage Site four miles down the road, she confessed she wasn’t familiar with Cahokia Mounds.  However, she said we “absolutely have to see the Giant Catsup Bottle!” and gave explicit directions to said marvel.

Yes, friends, she was referring to the Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower, a bit of novelty architecture from 1949 that is, indeed, shaped like a bottle of catsup.  The faux condiment container supplied water to the Brooks catsup plant. The tower needed significant restoration by the 1990s, and those needs were met by volunteer fundraising, to the tune of $80,000.  It isn’t on UNESCO’s radar, but it does hold a coveted slot on the National Register of Historic Places.

So, as no doubt many pilgrims of roadside attractions have before us, Mom and Dad took Junior to gaze upon a slice of novel Americana.   I remarked that I was now ready to go see the world’s largest ball of twine and maybe get our dinner from a hotdog-shaped restaurant, before turning in at a motor lodge shaped like a tipi.  Or, to make a Lord of the Rings reference, “I just came back from the ruins of Amon Sul, but please, I’d love to go see the largest pumpkin in the Shire.”

To summarize: Spent the morning in a world-famous archeological site that even locals haven’t heard of. Spent the afternoon standing in lines with crowds to do “the done thing” and count coup.  Finished up with roadside kitsch. Clearly, the mounds ruled the day.

Yet, they were all tourist attractions.  The city of St. Louis is proud of the stainless steel arch.  The town of Collinsville is proud of their water tower.  And the enigmatic people of 900 years ago were likely quite proud of the great ritual mound at the center of their own metropolis.

Madstones

Have you ever heard of a Madstone? It’s a bit of old deer lore I was reminded of recently. 

Madstones, also called bezoars, beazlestones, or enteroliths, form in much the same way as pearls in shellfish (due to their rarity, some deer experts consider them even more valuable).  A foreign body, such as a coin, hairball, or even a clump of dirt, remains in the stomach rather than passing through the intestines.  Over time, mineral salts (particularly phosphates) and food particles coat the object.

Madstone from my Dad’s collection

Bezoars come in several different types.  The madstone-type is usually smooth and rounded like a river pebble.  Hairballs coated with minerals are called trichobezoars, and may be either soft and stringy or hard and urchin-like.  Balls of plant fibers form phytobezoars, and may be either smooth or knotty and rough.  A combination of hair and plant fiber may form phytotrichobezoars, which are often soft and velvety.  Size-wise, bezoars can run from smaller than a pea to nearly twenty pounds.  Bezoars are often found in the stomachs or throats of horses, occasionally found in ruminants such as deer, cattle, or goats, and rarely seen in cats, dogs, and even humans.  They don’t present a danger to the animals unless the bezoar blocks the intestine.

Magical power has long been ascribed to these stones.  During the Middle Ages, for example, bezoars were thought to cure epilepsy in children, break fevers, prevent plague, cure rabies, and neutralize any poison from snakebite to arsenic (the word bezoar is derived from the Persian word padzahr, which means “expelling poison”).  Even in modern times, some people collect the stones for their reputed curative powers or for just plain good luck.

Beazlestones are also found in deerhunter’s lore.  Some local traditions say that white or piebald deer carry the stones in their throats, others say that any deer can have them.  According to the folktales, a wounded deer coughs up its madstone, bringing good fortune to the hunter that finds the pebble.  More likely, the stone is found in the rumen when the deer being dressed. In these times when most deer go through a commercial processor, I expect many madstones are never recovered. 

Finding a madstone is a bit of luck in itself. Whether or not they bring good luck is a question I leave to you.

The Immortal Complaint

This is a tale of two fellows linked by a letter of complaint: from Nanni the disgruntled customer, and Ea-nasir the merchant.  It seems Nanni paid good money for products, and when his assistant went over to collect the items, he was offered third-rate merchandise and treated rudely.  The irate customer wrote on every bit of the complaint form, detailing his many injuries at the hands of this shameful purveyor of shoddy goods. He made it absolutely clear that in the future the goods would be brought to Nanni’s  own yard, and they’d better be top notch or he wasn’t paying.

The letter was found in Ea-nasir’s house along with some others, but we don’t know if Nanni got satisfaction.  We can’t ask him, because Ea-nasir has vanished, along with his business, like dew on a desert breeze. 

The letter was written on a clay tablet in Akkadian cuneiform, around 1750 BCE.

My son, who does his best to keep his old man appraised of all the geek things, sent me a meme involving Ea-nasir.  It turned out to be but one of many, framed around “The World’s Oldest Complaint Letter”.  There are also quite a few videos of variations of the same joke: Customer service hasn’t changed in four thousand years.

By Zunkir – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

While I can appreciate the humor (such that it is), this isn’t what struck me about this artifact.  It was the names.  The further back you look in time, the fewer individuals can be seen.  A thousand years back, we have records of the heads of state or notable churchmen and nobles whose names graced deeds or court records archived in stone buildings.  Two thousand years ago, writing was perhaps more common in some locales but still available to a minuscule fraction of the general population, and almost no parchment or papyrus survived the ages; even the names of the mighty which were chiseled on stone  are now too often weathered to obscurity.

Farther still, when writing was necessary for civilization to function yet still mystic enough to be wielded by specialists,  a powerful man at the apex of a city-state would use some of his power to immortalize his likeness and his name on a stone tablet, or perhaps have the embellished story of his military victories drawn on baked clay; like as not such mementos would be destroyed or lost when the next big man came to power.

Yet the astoundingly short list of identities to survive the rise and fall of kingdoms, countries, languages and cultures, include two folks who were not great warriors, not great lords, not godspeakers.  No, they were tradesfolk, strictly middle-tier. 

To put it in perspective, imagine that millennia from now the museum talks mention the names of folks known in the North American continent: maybe half a dozen presidents, a few prime ministers, a few military figures and one or two social leaders.  And on a shelf in one corner of museum is piece of paper – a miraculous missive to one Crazy Eddie, purveyor of used vehicles, from an angry Frank.

AlbatrossGiftsCo

I was reminded of a scene in the movie The 13th Warrior.  Buliwyf, the illiterate leader of a warband, had become intrigued by a civilized fellow’s magical ability to write (or as he put it, “draw words”).  As he lies on his deathbed, he hinted to his friend his last request: “A man might be thought wealthy if someone were to draw the story of his deeds, that they may be remembered.”  By that mark, Nanni and Ea-Nasir only have loose change in their accounts, but they remain among the richest people of the Bronze Age.

Additional Information:

See the full translation of the tablet.

Buliwyf’s request

What Does It Mean to Own Land?

I was on an online forum discussing ownership of property and how to manage the land. One participant, perhaps seeing this as a moment to remind me of my place in the ecosystem (and not knowing I revere Leopold), took the position that one cannot own land; that we are merely stewards of the land. 

In a sense, that’s true.  But whether I choose to nurture or exploit this pack of dirt is a matter of ethics; whether someone else believes I have treated the land well or poorly is determined by that individual’s personal philosophy.  And it wasn’t my point.

I can most definitely own land. I recognize that my ownership is fictive, species-specific, and overlaps uncounted other claims of ownership. The songbird claims territory, but only others of its species care. You can have several different species proclaiming dominion over the same tree, but ignoring each other.  Other critters, such as the white-tailed bucks who are pawing the ground and rubbing off the bark of saplings, have home ranges, but their defensible territory seems to be located within sensory distance of wherever they happen to be when another buck is in the vicinity.

I pounded in a stake to mark the invisible line through the woods. If I chose, there would be consequences for any human walking across that invisible boundary. On the other hand, a flock of turkeys can meander back and forth across the same line without any consequence.

So, in the human world, my claim to this acreage is power – the power to protect 20 acres from being turned into a housing development or an unofficial dump. But yes, that power lasts only as long as I maintain my claim– by guarding the border and paying the taxes. When I die, it’s out of my hands. But I can protect it while I’m here.  In theory, I can sign an easement to lock away the legal rights to turn the hardwood forest into anything other than a hardwood forest, but that protection is still a piece of paper, and in jeopardy if someone wants to cut or build badly enough.

But for now I am the owner of record, duly recorded in a deed book in the courthouse. And of course, my claim of ownership is irrelevant to the animals that dwell in the same space. But I feel better knowing that the land that has suffered two centuries of abuse can rest for a decade or three.

Meet the New Orb-Weaver…

This weekend I received texted photo of a spider, with the question: “Friend or Foe?”  What she meant, of course, is whether the arachnid posed a danger to her.  The picture she sent was that of a Joro spider (Trichonephila clavate). I told her it wasn’t dangerous, but in truth it requires a more complex answer. 

Fat and Happy Joro

Until recently, I could comfortably identify the big spiders around my house as either the garden or writing spider (Argiope aurantia) or the golden silk orb weaver (Trichonephila clavipes).  When late-summer spider season hit and webs were being spun in every available tree and porch pillar, the usual suspects aren’t in attendance.  Instead, the Joro spider, an Asian native, has set up shop all over Athens and throughout our woods in a neighboring county. 

In the Fall of 2014, a fellow in Madison County, Georgia, sent photos of a strange spider to the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia.  This is the first record of the Joro spider in North America. They probably arrived, as so many invasives do, in packing material for goods shipped across the ocean. Since then, they have expanded their range across the Piedmont of Georgia and South Carolina.  Given that the spiders lay egg sacks with hundreds of eggs (up to 1500!), it is easy to see how they overwhelm the other large orb weavers in the ecosystem.

My ecologically-aware friend was incensed.  “…are we just meant to let them naturalize, or are we supposed to be coming up with ways to get rid of them?”

Golden Silk Orb Weaver

Good question.  If one species takes over a niche from another species, that is cause for a naturalist’s concern.  Unfortunately, unless the usurper causes some economic harm, you aren’t likely to have any of the Powers That Be care enough to devote resources to it.  Not that there is likely to be a way to combat this species that doesn’t threaten all other spider species. 

No, I think we will see the Joro continue to spread and naturalize.  They will capture insects with as much efficiency as their predecessors, and their bites are just as harmless to humans. Whether the transition of arachnid power will impact the ecosystem beyond displacing some species remains to be seen. 

Links:

Spiders in Georgia: Identify the spiders you find.

Autumn Equinox

The Autumnal Equinox is officially the first day of Fall, but such hard demarcations have little relevance in the natural world.  The temperatures always lag behind the changes in angle and duration of sunlight that create the differences in season to our tilted Earth.  For months the Georgia air grew more oppressively hot even though the sun has been easing southward since late June.  For the past month or so, I’ve watched as the daily temperatures crept down; highs solidly in the 90s have given way to the 70s.  Warm evenings, thick and heavy with moisture and the distant rumble of thunder make me feel sluggish, and ready to shelter in a climate controlled room. But tonight is pleasantly cool, and I think we are safely done with summer temperatures.  A scattering of trees are showing their colors, but it will be late October or so before the wave of reds and yellows that has already begun north of the border will sweep into Georgia.  The changing of the seasons, and the turning of the leaves, is more abrupt and decisive around Athens than it was in Waynesboro; mark it down to a difference of 70 miles of latitude and 400 feet of elevation. My seasons are muted and indistinct by comparison to, say, New England, with their long summer days, long winter nights, and winters as brutally cold as ours are brutally hot.  

Of course, as we look towards shorter days, the inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere have had their first official day of Spring as their days lengthen.  People in their temperate zones are enjoying the warming air and breaking buds as we did 6 months previously.

Spring is nice. but Fall is my favorite season, and the promise whispered on every cool puff of air whets the anticipation.  

COVID’s Fifth Column

I must say, a submicroscopic agent is proving to be more efficient than any army, navy, or air force our country has ever faced.

The Axis powers of World War II couldn’t kill Americans nearly as fast as this virus.  It took them 44 months to kill 405,000 Americans.  In a little over 18 months, COVID-19 has taken the lives of 662,000 Americans.  The virus will soon kill more Americans than all of the combined militaries ever arrayed against the U.S. (not counting the Civil War).  This coronavirus is quite an efficient killer. 

It doesn’t deserve all the credit, though.  It has had considerable help from fifth columnists – celebrities, politicians, radio hosts, and social media influencers – who spread lies about vaccines or about the medical professionals who have tried to stem the tide of this disease.

Politicians were, and continue to be, powerful agents of the fifth column.  From Trump – who downplayed the threat from the beginning and throughout, even after he himself fell ill – to DeSantis’ efforts to keep schools from requiring masks in the classrooms, those with authority can sabotage a nation’s defensive capability. 

But ordinary citizens can do their part at undermining their communities as well. Anyone can get a social media account and write text or shoot a commentary video on their phones.  They can add their voices to the echo chambers, fan the flames of petulance, and sow the seeds of doubt in ground fertile for such a weed.  Enough popularity may earn them a radio spot or a sponsorship for more videos, and thus more credibility for their incredible opinions. 

I see reports from the front lines: from hospital workers I know who struggle to go to work swathed in protective gear, working long shifts because so many of their coworkers are sick, or dead, or have killed themselves.  These workers, no matter what department they worked in previously, are pressed to care for the sick, hold the hands of the dying, bag the dead.  Beds line the hallways, stretchers and cots lie where they can fit.  I know a fellow who can’t book a surgery for his cancer because the hospital is filled with COVID patients. 

And yet.  I also know people who feel a mask is an offense against their dignity, even an offense against their God. So many people around me believe wearing a mask or getting a shot is an individual choice, and that they have no responsibility to their community. They believe the vaccine is somehow not worth the risk, or (what the hell?) contains tracking devices. 

I don’t listen to radio talk shows as a rule, but while surfing channels last week I heard a host defending the use of ivermectin – you know, the dewormer commonly used by veterinarians.  He sounded quite exasperated, in the “Why is the Left still going on about this?” sort of way.  Not that the Left doesn’t have their fringe conspiracy nuts as well.  The virus doesn’t care which end of the political spectrum you cling to, though; it only wants a foothold in your body.

Several talk show hosts have gotten sick or died, their systems overrun by the virus.  Some have gone on record saying they wished they took it seriously and gotten the vaccine.  But there are plenty of other voices to take their places, to drown them out.

I know this new fifth column isn’t deliberately working for the disease.  I mean, the disease will kill them as quickly as anyone else.  No, they have their own agendas: votes, ratings, adulation, fear of da gummit, or whatever.  But at the end of the day, they still serve a virus.

Ghost Pipe

I learned something new! I love it when that happens.

In the last few months I moved from just below to Fall Line to deep in the Piedmont.  As a result the collection of counties I am responsible for have gotten hillier, wetter, and slightly cooler.  I’m seeing a different suite of flora and fauna than before, including some things that haven’t previously been on my radar.

A bowshot from National Forest land in the high hills of North Georgia, something caught my eye beneath the white pines, oaks, beeches, and maples.  Small white stalks rose from the leaf litter, curling over at the top with a petaled capsule like a lamp post for gnomes.  I snapped some photos so I could look up what kind of fungus this was when I got home. 

Monotropa uniflora is known by several common names, including ghost plant, Indian pipe, ghost pipe, or corpse plant. It was much more interesting than I gave it credit for.  For starters, it isn’t a fungus; it’s a plant in the heather family.  Instead of spraying spores to reproduce,  ghost pipe requires native bees to visit its flower and carry its pollen. Unlike heather (and most plants), ghost pipe doesn’t produce chlorophyll, so it can’t use sunlight to make energy.  So how does it live?

That’s the next interesting bit.  There are many fungi that engage in mutualistic association with plants.  These fungi, known as mycorrhizae, colonize the roots of plants. They assist the plant in collecting water or nutrients, and collect carbohydrates created in the plant’s chlorophyll factories above.  The ghost pipe is a parasite of certain mycorrhizal fungi.  This is a switch; usually a fungus parasitizes plants.  But we have a plant stealing sugar from a fungus that said fungus “traded” from a tree that produced that energy in the sunlit canopy 80 feet above. Thus, it can grow in the densest, darkest forests.  Ghost pipe pops quickly up after a rain, and flowers in early summer to autumn; I was fortunate to have wandered the woods at just the right time to see them.

Curiosity is an important trait for any aspiring naturalist.  Knowledge can be gained by seeking answers, but curiosity is the driver.

Encounter With a Shrew

I have a brief encounter I’d like to relate.

I’d just finished a meeting on the northern edge of the state, and I wasn’t entirely ready to head to lower lands.  So I found a pull-off where I could park the truck and ambled down next to the river.  Here the water was deep enough to roll on fairly smoothly, but only lightly clouded compared to the brown waters a few counties south.  I sat here for a few minutes, trying to be present – my mind pushing away the people I’d dealt with earlier and the long drive ahead of me.  Off in the distance rose the high, thin whine of Brood X cicadas.  By my knee, an adult dobsonfly, another short-lived but far quieter insect, twined around a grass stalk.

It’s not hard to lose track of time beside running water, but home called so I didn’t tarry too long.  Back up to the roadside, I paused to take one more look at the river.  I don’t recall hearing anything noteworthy, but my eyes flashed down to the ground.  There, beside my boot, a shrew about the size of my thumb lunged out from under a leaf to grab an earthworm by the middle.  The tiny insectivore backed into the leaf litter with its thrashing prey.  I knelt and flipped over the leaf, revealing a tunnel of sorts in the humus; the shrew was already away to eat and resume its neverending hunt. 

My meetings with shrews are rare enough to make this close encounter notable. I wouldn’t want to handle a shrew, of course, as they are among the only venomous mammals.  A nip from one of these fellers would cause localized pain and swelling for a few days, but their toxic saliva renders worms, insects, and even mice paralyzed and comatose.  Shrews store their captured prey in caches for later use.  Given their high metabolic rate – starving in a matter of hours if not fed – storing ready food is not a bad strategy.

This is a common theme with me, but one which I hope will sink in. Take the time to stop, to be still, to look and listen.  How can Nature grace you with a moment if you aren’t there to appreciate it?