Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Talk Nerdy to Me

Being The Nature Geek, there's a lot of nature subjects that I love to talk and write about. But there are some cases where just a single word deserves its own special mention. Whether they're an obscure term for something, highly technical, or just plain fun to say, these words are some of my all-time favorites.

Crepuscular (Kra-pus-q-lar)
This one always makes me think of a medical term for a cut or pimple that has become infected. "Eeew, that thing has gone crepuscular!" But far from being disgusting, crepuscular refers to an animal that is mainly active at sunrise and sunset. Deer, armadillos, and fireflies are all crepuscular animals.

Rhamphotheca (Ram-po-thee-ka)
Being the bird nerd that I am, of course I am going to throw in an ornithology term here. The rhamphotheca is the keratin sheath that covers the bone part of a bird's beak. It gives the beak its color and can add some extra shape as well, such as the hook on an eagle's beak, or the serrated edges on the beak of a merganser.  

Ootheca (Oo-thee-ka)
Ootheca, what an awesome term for an insect egg case! An ootheca is a special kind of insect egg, in which a group of eggs is encased by a layer of protein, which can sometimes be foamy, as in the praying mantis eggs in the photo on the left. I first learned of the term ootheca when working with Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Aren't you glad I didn't post a photo of cockroach laying a big ol' ootheca? I figure after last week's creepy post I'd be nice and give you all a break.

Some of my favorite geek terms aren't actually vocabulary, but are scientific names. Here are the two scientific names that I love to say over and over.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Arc-to-staff-a-lus uva-ur-see)
The only thing just as fun as this plant's scientific name is its common name, kinnikinnick! (That one is pronounced "kin-nick-a-nick") Kinnikinnick, also called bearberry, is a woody groundcover plant found around the world in northern areas and in high altitudes in warmer regions. With its evergreen leaves and red berries, I might give it another fun name and call it "mountain mini holly," even though it has no relation, or connection to Christmas, or really even a resemblance, to holly.
Oncorhynchus mykiss (On-ko-rine-kiss my-kiss)
An appropriate name for a fish so pretty you just wanna kiss it! Oncorhynchus mykiss is the scientific name for the rainbow trout, found in streams and river across the United States. This smooch-tacular latin name refers to the fish's hook snout (Oncorhynchus) and its Kamchatkan name (Mykiss). 

There are certainly some fun words in science out there. When you learn them not only do you have something new and fun to pronounce in your vocabulary, but you also up your geek cred! Today I'm going to end with a Google challenge. A bunch of my geeky friends have submitted some of their favorite words to share with you. I challenge you to find out what they mean...you just might add a favorite word or two to your own repertoire! 

Nethergeek: Somnambulism
Engineering Geek: Tuberculated
Painter Geek: Bioluminescence
Pigeon Geek: Synanthrope

Carcass Geek: Kleptoparasitism
Ram Geek: Nutlets
Bio1 Geek: Rhinorhea
Weasel Geek: Thigmotactic
Squirrel Geek: Marcescent

SCUBA Geek: Chemotaxis
Rescue Geek: Ophiophagus
Moo Geek: Coprophagy (you can look that one up here!)
Grackle Geek: Rictal bristles

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Nope with 30 Legs: the House Centipede

A couple months ago, this photo appeared in my Facebook news feed thanks to my friend the Cephalopod Geek. A short time later, another friend, the Turtle Geek, shared a story about one of these creatures crawling on her arm. In both posts, the responses of horror, revolt, and outright terror came in rapid fashion. I have no doubt that some of you by now are no longer reading this, having flung your computer (laptop or desktop) across the room.

The creature above is called a house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) and it Freaks. People. Out. Why? Well let's start with its appearance. It has 15 long pairs of thin, wiggly legs, and on females, the last pair are longer than the body. Combine those legs with fast zig-zag movements, and you've got a recipe for nightmares.

But house centipedes don't have to be a source of stress, they can be something rather interesting and even beneficial! Let's take those things that creep you out and put a new spin on them, shall we?

1. Leeeeegs! So many leeeeeegs!
It's true, house centipedes do have quite a few legs, 15 pairs in fact. But when they first hatch as wee babies, they only have 4 pairs of legs. Yup, they're born pretending to be arachnids with those 8 legs of theirs. As house centipedes grow, they gain more legs each time they shed their skin. They go from 4 pairs to 5, then 7 pairs, then 9, 11, 13, and finally 15 legs once fully grown. Each time the house centipede grows, it only has more legs to hug you with.
House centipedes have the ability to break off some of their legs when caught by a predator, which then keep wiggling on the ground to serve as a distraction. This is the same strategy employed by many lizard species, which can break off their tails in response to predators.

2. They run so fast, it creeps me out!
They do run fast, and when you look at the numbers, it should make you marvel instead of cower. These guys can clock in at 1.3 feet per second! Now let's take that into consideration of the house centipede's body size, which is between 1 to 1.5 inches. This means the house centipede can run a distance 12 times its body length in just over one second. If my 5'3" self were crawling on the ground, it would be the equivalent of skittering 63 feet in the same amount of time. Why do they have to run so fast? That's a nice transition into #3...

3. What are they even doing in my house?
House centipedes, like their other centipede relatives, are predators. No, don't worry, you or any part of you are not on the menu.
These centipedes eat silverfish, spiders, bed bugs, termites, and cockroaches. These guys are like a live-in Orkin man, an Orkin man that needs a jacket with 30 sleeves. This is why house centipedes have such amazing speed, to catch quick invertebrates they have to be even faster.

4. Get them out! Get them out!
Ok, so maybe even after reading these cool facts about house centipedes you still don't want them in your house. How do you go about getting rid of them?
This might not be a good idea. 

If you remember in factoid #3 up there, the house centipede is in your house because it has found a reliable source of food. Get rid of the food, and the predator will move on. Try to find the places where insects and other invertebrates are getting into your house. Do you have cracks in your foundation or walls? Holes or gaps in your window screens? These home fixes will not only reduce the amount of unwelcome house guests, but are probably good ideas to do for preventative house maintenance anyway.

If nothing else in this blog entry about house centipedes gives you any relief, consider this: at least the house centipedes running around in your house aren't as big as this cave-dwelling relative from China.

You're welcome.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Twitch's Treasures

"What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine."

Yup, that pretty much sums up Twitch the common grackle's motto. In the 4 months that I've been fostering him I have found that if he has something and you try to even touch it, you will suffer the pointy, stabby beak of Twitch. And if you have something and he wants it, kiss it goodbye (and also suffer the pointy, stabby beak)

Twitch resides in my office, and when I'm working on my computer or doing other desk work, I usually let him out to get some exercise. He spends a lot of time on top of my monitor singing at me, watching what I'm doing, and bouncing off of the top of my head. But Twitch and his big brain has learned something: the human has interesting and often tasty things at her desk. It started one day with the little green foamy frog you see in the photo above. For 3 years, that cute little frog has lived on the upper left corner of my monitor. Until one day when Twitch decided to remove it, take it back to his cage, immediately decapitate it, and then play with the carcass.
You see how at the end Twitch puts his beak in the air? That's how male grackles assert their dominance. It's common to see two grackles at a bird feeder, beaks in the air, seeming to see who can put their beak the highest in some sort of snobbery contest. 

Well later I got a bit of revenge, when I put a new frog on my monitor in the same place, knowing it would be irresistible to the feathered fiend. But what Twitch didn't know is since this was a new frog, the adhesive on the back of the sticker would be quite sticky. Yes...quite sticky indeed.
Twitch is twitching in this video because he had just taken a bath and was all wet.

Sadly, that was the last time I got the upper hand. Twitch has learned to raid my lunch breaks, helping himself to whatever he can find.
Why did Twitch have to eat the Wheat Thin on my keyboard? I'm going to be picking out cracker pieces for months. Twitch figured out that if he wants to be able to keep his stolen goods, he'd better get it back to his cage, and fast. Now whenever Twitch finds something he likes, which I call "treasures", he immediately flies off with it, usually back to his cage for further processing. How he selects his treasures is somewhat of a mystery, but I do know he likes novelty.

Another day his treasure was a rubber band:

Earlier this week it was a glass marble. Amazing he could fly around with something that heavy for over 5 minutes!

Twitch has become so grabby with things, that I think I'm going to have to ban him from having lunch with me. This is what transpired today.

The last time I banned Twitch from eating lunch with me, he just sat there in his cage, staring at me upside down like this:
It's like he's trying to trick me into taking him out again by being ridiculously weird and adorable. 

And it works.

Yes, for as much of pain as Twitch can be with all his grabby, stealy, bitey, stabby, antics, it still greatly amuses me. He may be a punk, but I love him to death. 

There is one message that I want you all to take away from this blog full of cute and funny videos. I'm sure many people who read this will think "How fun is it to have him in your office?! I wish I had a smart and sassy bird like that!" Yes, Twitch may have a big brain that gets him into all sorts of trouble, but his big brain should be in the wild. Remember, Twitch is only in my office because he was taken from his family as a baby and kept as a pet in a tiny, cramped cage, suffering from malnutrition for 7 long years. He shouldn't be using his brain to steal fortune cookies, frogs, and marbles, he should be using his brain to find bugs and seeds underneath leaves, teach his chicks how to forage, and figure out how to best torment crows and hawks. The best place to observe wild animals is not on the internet, but in the wild.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Whatcha eating?

Petunia the sulcata tortoise likes to wear bananas,
not just eat them.
Different animals eat a lot of different things, just like different people eat a lot of different things. This week I polled a group of elementary students on their favorite foods, and I got answers ranging from pizza and chicken wings to macaroni and cheese and even broccoli (her mom would be proud!). Me, I'm a popcorn girl. I eat so much of it that Mr. Nature Geek calls me a "cornivore." 

One of my favorite thing about science is that scientists have to give special names to everything. They can't just call it a lot of hornets, they call it a bike. They can't just call it a clump of Spanish moss, they call it a festoon. They can't just say winter dormancy and summer dormancy, they call it hibernation and estivation. The same thing goes for animal diets. For just about any kind of animal diet out there, there is a special scientific term for it. This week, I offer a quick-draw version of science-speak trivia for you to use to wow your friends (or at least make them roll their eyes at you)!

Term: What it eats (example)
Carnivore: Meat (African lion)
Cornivore: Popcorn (Nature Geek)
Herbivore: Plants (leopard tortoise)
Omnivore: Plants and meat (raccoon)
Insectivore: Insects (giant anteater)
Frugivore: Fruit (fruit bat)
Nectivore: Nectar (ruby-throated hummingbird)
Granivore: Seeds (rock pigeon)
Folivore: Leaves specifically (koala)
Piscivore: Fish (bottlenose dolphin)
Planktivore: Plankton (blue whale)
Gumnivore: Tree sap/gum/resin (pygmy marmoset)
Coprophagy: Feces (eastern cottontail rabbit)
Hematophagy: Blood (female tiger mosquito)
Scavenger: Dead animals (turkey vulture)
Detritivore: Dead plants (American cockroach)

Now know that for nearly every single term I have listed, there are exceptions. For example, although tortoises are considered herbivores, they have been known to eat dead tortoises, and although hummingbirds are known for their love of nectar, they also eat insects. These terms are used to describe the main component of an animal's diet. And now they can also be used to earn another point on your geek card! Go out and use your new-found powers, my geeky minions, perhaps at a meal with your favorite omnivores and herbivores. But stay away from those who practice coprophagy, alright? 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ear Ye, Ear Ye!

This morning, I went to refill my sunflower and suet bird feeders, and noticed three insects "hiding" in the plastic hook at holds my suet feeder on my window.
"Shhh Dave, I don't think she sees us."

They were earwigs, a very common insect in my garden. Being nocturnal, I don't see them much during the day, but at night they are all over my plants. Many scientists learn a lot about a species through their own observations and interactions with the organism. Tonight, I present to you my own observations and interactions, coupled with what good ol' science has to say.

I have yet to have my brain destroyed by earwigs

Either that, or earwigs are smart enough to destroy the part of my brain that recognizes brain destruction first. Earwigs, whose name literally means "ear creature," were given their name based on the belief that females will crawl into the ears of humans in order to lay eggs in their brains. The only association with "ears" that earwigs truly are known for, however, is with ears of corn. Earwigs are quite fond of corn silk, something I observed one summer when some feeder corn sprouted in my garden.

Earwigs like to squish into some really tight places

When I first found earwigs on my small, developing corn cobs, I had initially thought the earwigs were eating the corn itself. I would peel back the husk on the cobs to check the progress of the corn, and 2 or 3 earwigs would go scrambling. Rather than eating the corn, the earwigs were only using the husk for a place to hide during the day. Earwigs are nocturnal, and favor dark, tight spaces, with ample moisture, so a corn husk would be a perfect place to hide. 

Apparently the three earwigs resting in my clear window hook missed the whole "dark" memo.

Yes, Mr. Nature Geek, those pincers can pinch

The most distinguishing feature of an earwig are their large pincers, geekily known as cerci, on their abdomens. 
In females, the cerci are straight and scissor-like, 

while in males, the cerci are curved, like calipers. 
Some earwigs are known to use their cerci for capturing prey, and all are able to use them for defense, as I found out one fateful summer night.

One day, back in college, I was sitting on a park bench on a warm summer evening with my current love interest, having a pretty big saying-I-love-you-for-the-first-time moment. As we were sitting there, pouring our hearts out, I felt a pinch on my butt...and it wasn't from the guy sitting next to me. I ignore it, not wanting to ruin the moment. But as time went by, I was pinched a couple more times, and noticed an earwig running away from the scene of the crime. I told my summer fling that I had been pinched by an earwig, and he refused to believe me, saying "earwigs don't bite." He was right, they don't bite, they pinch! Finally, after about the 8th time of being assaulted, I pointed to the earwig latched onto my thigh with its cerci. The guy finally had his proof.

A female earwig in threatening posture, cerci in the air.

Over the years, I have told Mr. Nature Geek this story about earwigs and although he has said he believes me, I have always sensed a patronizing tone to his belief. However he doubts no more! That's right, according to him one night a "stupid earwig crawled right up the couch just to pinch me on the elbow." Being the supportive wife I am, I laughed my earwig-pinched butt off, gave him a hearty helping of I TOLD YOU SO, and offered no sympathy whatsoever for his boo-boo. 

Earwigs are kind of drama queens

I'll admit it, even The Nature Geek enjoys teasing wildlife from time to time for her own amusement, whether it's playing house sparrow calls to the sparrows inside of Home Depot or watching a gull try to eat a gummi bear. Another source of amusement is gently touching earwigs that I find in my garden at night. It causes them to absolutely freak out and fall of of their leafy perch almost immediately. 
Other insects might run or fly away, or not react at all, but not the big "bad" earwig. It loses all grip and falls right off its leaf. To give the earwig some credit (and dignity), this is actually a pretty good defense mechanism. An insect that crawls away, like an ant, can be easily followed and potentially eaten. However an earwig, by falling off of its perch, instantly disappears to the ground, where it can scurry away in the split second it takes a predator to figure out what just happened. Defense or not, it still amuses me greatly.

Earwigs have yet to destroy my garden or home (just a small piece of Mr. Nature Geek's elbow)

One of the things I hate about researching an insect for my blog is just how many top results on a Google search have to do with how to kill said insect. Researching earwigs was no different. Earwigs can become a "pest" in your home simply because of the numbers in which they can occur as they look for a place to rest during the day. One source I read calls earwigs an "accidental invader." A household provides many dark, snug places in which to stay safe from predators. In gardens, I'm sure many people find earwigs during the day, like I did in my corn, and assume they are going to destroy the plant on which they are hiding. While it is true that earwigs do consume some plant material, they typically do not cause extensive damage. Instead, earwigs can be a beneficial insect in your garden, preying on aphids, snails, and other garden pests! In addition, earwigs are a source of food for birds, mammals, spiders, lizards, and other predaceous insects.
"Did you say 'earwig?' I like earwigs."

Speaking of birds, I really would like to see the chickadee that frequents my suet feeder try to get her beak on those three earwigs hiding in their see-through bunker! Now that would be some amusement.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Try It! Firefly Watch Citizen Science

Tomorrow is the 4th of July and all across the United States, the sky will be filled with lights of every color. But long before we were setting the night aflame with fireworks, nature put lights in the skies with fireflies. One of my first blog entries back in 2011 was on fireflies and their unique ability to not only produce light, but control it. 

I may miss a lot of things about Florida since moving to Pennsylvania in 2009, but I never had fireflies in my Florida apartment complex. I love watching them light up my backyard like Christmas lights. But a part of me is sad when watching fireflies, because I know that there used to be a lot more fireflies. Fireflies around the world are in decline due to habitat loss and light pollution. When you rely on lights to communicate to potential mates, you need darkness in order for your voice to be heard, so to speak. 

To try to figure out the factors that are influencing firefly populations, the Museum of Science in Boston has started a Citizen Science campaign called Firefly Watch. By looking for fireflies in your own backyard for ten minutes once a week, you can help scientists learn how to help these magical insects.

Signing up online is easy, as is telling researchers about your study area (ie your backyard). You don't have to know plant species, habitat classification, or annual rainfall, you simply choose from the options provided to describe your yard based on what general type of vegetation you have (e.g. grass, flower beds, shrubs, trees), whether there are bodies of water or golf courses nearby, if there are lights in your yard, and if you use fertilizers or pesticides.
Where's the "barren yard under an evil invasive Norway maple bordered by a native garden" option?

Once you've signed up, you can take advantage of a variety of information to turn you into a Firefly Geek before your first observations. Most of this information is found in the Toolkit bar on the right of the screen, but if you click "How to Participate" there's a neat interactive guide called the Virtual Habitat that shows the variety of light colors and blinking patterns used to differentiate between firefly species. If you have kids (or if you're a kid at heart like myself), this is a fun and eye-catching section to play with.

Then it's time to make your observations and report them! Don't worry if you didn't figure out what species you have in your yard, all you have to note is how many different kinds of flash colors and patterns you observe. I may not know what the name is of the firefly Mr. Nature Geek and I call "triple blinks," but I just learned that our "blink ups" are the common eastern, or big dipper firefly! These guys blink in a J-shape and are of particular interest to the study.

So this Independence Day weekend I call upon you, my geeky legion, to come forth and perform your scientific duty and participate in Firefly Watch! With our help, we can contribute to research that might help light up your backyard beyond the 4th of July.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

American Pokeweed: Deadly and Delicious

"What is that?"
"I just pulled a bunch of that stuff out of my yard, what is it?" 

A friend and fellow bird nerd was over at my house last weekend and asked me about this massive plant growing out of my flower bed. She told me that she had done some gardening to try to make room for plants that would benefit her backyard grey catbird pair. I laughed and gestured toward the plant; "this is what your catbirds eat!" American pokeweed is often vilified for its toxicity and large size, but it is of great value to wildlife, especially birds. 

This is like fugu in a can. Would you trust it
was prepared properly?
Talk to most anyone who was listening to music in the 70s and the first thing they'll talk about when you mention pokeweed is "that poke salad song." The song "Poke Salad Annie" was released in 1969 and was thereafter covered by a host of artists, including Elvis himself. The song talks about a southern dish called "poke salad" in which the leaves of pokeweed is eaten. What the song doesn't mention is that if you don't cook the leaves right, they could kill you. If you eat the stem, it could kill you. If you eat the berries, they could kill you. And if you eat the root, that's right, it'll give your hair vibrant, full, body. Of course it doesn't give your hair vibrant, full, body! It can kill you even more! Pokeweed is full of a host of different toxins that most often cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, but can cause death due to paralysis of the respiratory organs. These toxins are present throughout the plant, but are most concentrated in the root and seeds.  

If you are unfamiliar with pokeweed, at this point you may be thinking, "ok, so don't eat it, what's the big deal?" Well, the problem comes when pokeweed matures in late summer and goes from being a nondescript, albeit large (up to 10' tall!), plant to this stunning beauty:
Those magenta stems and dark purple berries draw a lot of attention, especially from children. When children eat the berries, they ingest those toxic seeds, and there are cases in just a few berries were enough to cause the death of infants. Also, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the toxins in pokeweed are capable of being absorbed through the skin, so even contact with the plant may pose some risk, something I never knew about until doing research for this blog.
 Making natural dyes from pokeweed may give you very colorful results, but the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center advises that you wear gloves just to be safe. 

So although I am not a fan of removing native plants, if you live in a household with small children, you may want to cut this plant back before it produces its summer berries. 

Why not get rid of pokeweed altogether? It dominates the area where it grows with its large leaves and tall, branching stems, and has the ability to sicken if not kill both humans and livestock. 

I love pokeweed because birds love pokeweed! Bluebirds, American robins, grey catbirds, northern mockingbirds, bobwhite quail, northern cardinals, and cedar waxings all love poke berries. I always know when my neigborhood birds have been eating my poke berries because I find purple bird poop in my backyard. Other animals like pokeweed too, including foxes, opossums, raccoons, white-footed mice, and the giant leopard moth. In my own backyard, I find a tiny cricket on my pokeweed at night that I don't see anywhere else in my yard. And remember, insects are bird food too!

If keeping pokeweed around as a species for birds isn't a good enough reason for you, consider this: research using a protein found in pokeweed has been found to reduce HIV in mice, and is being studied as a treatment for T-cell leukemia, lymphoma, hepatitis-C, and the common cold, and Hodgkin disease. This pesky poisonous plant just may help to save lives someday.

My friend may have taken out the pokeweed in her backyard this year, but she doesn't have to worry. If she wants it back for her catbirds next year, the plant will regenerate next spring from its large (and very toxic) root. Not to mention pokeweed seeds can remain viable in the ground for over 40 years! Pokeweed may be toxic if eaten, but its value to wildlife and human medicine makes it worth keeping around for far more than 40 years. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Try It! Micro Hike

In just over a week, I will be leading a week long camp for 10-12 year olds at Briar Bush called "Micro Camp." During the camp, the kids will be examining the life of various ecosystems underneath a microscope, learning that there are far more habitats than the large forests, oceans, and deserts that we usually think of first. One activity we educators and interpreters love to share with kids and adults alike is called a Micro Hike. Instead of going on a long hike through the woods, this hike can be done right in your front yard, just as I did!

First, pick a small area on the ground to study. You can either just arbitrarily pick a rough area, or if you want to turn it into a more scientific experience and do a comparison between 2 or more different areas, you can use a set size for replication. One of my favorite ways to do this is to get a cereal box or paper plate out of the recycling bin, and turn it into a frame by cutting out the middle. Then place your frame on the ground and examine the area in the middle. For my front yard study, I studied this patch of grass:

Study what you can first see. How many different plants do you see? You don't have to be a plant expert, all you have to do is look for different leaf shapes and colors. I saw 3 species of plants here, if you don't count the oak represented by the dead leaf. This is what we see every day when we see our "boring" lawns. But here's where it gets really fun and interesting! Start gently parting the vegetation and looking down low for different plants and all the animals that dwell on this miniature forest floor. When I peeled back the blades, this was my first discovery:
A click beetle! When these guys are on their backs, they can snap their thorax with that pinch you see in their bodies and send themselves flying into the air with an audible *click!*, hence their name. If you ever come across a click beetle, gently flip them over onto their back on your palm and watch them flip back over.

I parted the grass a little bit more and found a woodlouse, aka roly-poly or pill bug. Then I found its home! Watch the video I took of the woodlouse burrow below. In just 30 seconds, how many different kinds of animals do you see in an area only 2 inches wide? (You may want to make the video full screen...some of the critters are very small!)
I count at least 6 different animals crawling in and out of the blades of grass in this video! By this point I've been on my micro hike for less than 5 minutes. 

Just to the left of this area, I come across this rain-speckled spiderweb and its creator, out for an evening meal.

And then I find another gem, a snail!
You can see from my finger in the frame just how tiny this little gastropod was.

All in all, in less than 10 minutes, my micro hike yielded at least 3 species of plants, several species of insects, at least three different arachnids, a gastropod, and even a crustacean (yup, roly-polys are related to crabs and shrimp!). 

Going on a micro hike teaches us all to slow down and to think in a different way. We so often think of the big world around us, dominated by trees, birds, shrubs, squirrels, and humans. But there are tiny worlds of startling diversity right under our feet! I think what I love the most about this activity is just how much you can find in such a small area. Even I was amazed at how much I found when I set out to snap a couple of quick shots for this blog. I think I just may have to go out and go on another hike tomorrow!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Day in the Life: Bathing Beauty

At Briar Bush Nature Center, I care for a 2 year old male turkey vulture named Ralph. If you're a regular blog reader, (first of all, thank you) you may remember Ralph from a post I did last March on animal enrichment. Ralph still gets his enrichment in a variety of ways, and on this hot and humid day his enrichment didn't come in the form of food, but water. You think you get hot when it's 93 degrees and humid? Try being a dark brown bird with lots of insulating feathers! 

So today I got out the hose, set it to "gentle shower" (after all, no one likes a vulture with all its feathers blasted off) and sprayed it right on him. Most of the time when I try this, Ralph goes skittering to the nearest form of shelter. But today, I got this:
He was loving it! When he stretches his wings out, he's trying to get as much of his wings wet as possible. And that rowing action  you see him do with his wings is what he would do in a pool of water to throw it all over his body. Essentially you're seeing Ralph say "More! More! More!" with his body language.

Now that I got Ralph soaking wet, he did what vultures enjoy almost as much as roadkill; it was time to bask in the sun. The only problem is that there was no sunlight hitting his cage at the time. That's where I came in! I got him up onto my glove and took him out of his cage into the brightest, sunniest spot I could find.
Those wings immediately spread wide and Ralph got into the sunning zone. You know that look a dog gives you when you scratch their butt? That totally blissed out, half drooling look and they smack their lips just a little? That's the same reaction you get when you put a vulture in the sun. Ralph gets this far off look in his eyes and he smacks his beak just a little, like he's stopping himself from drooling. Vultures live for the sun. It not only feels good, but it kills bacteria on their feathers. Today it felt goooooood.

After a while, I decided to try something new for Ralph, letting him off my glove and onto the railing you see in the background of the above photo. I figured this would be more comfortable than sitting on my small and squishy arm and would give him more freedom to pivot his body for optimal sun absorption. I thought the railing would be a safe place to put him, where he was high enough off the ground that he wouldn't be tempted to try and jump down. I was right! He stepped onto the railing and basked in the sun, all the while taking in the sights of birds flying overhead.
If you have a dog or cat, you likely know its body language fairly well. You know that squinting eyes for a cat or a wagging tail for a dog mean that the animal is content and calm. Birds have body language too that you can read to know they are content and calm. One of those signs is called the rouse, in which a bird vigorously ruffles all their feathers. If a bird has been through something stressful and you see them rouse, you know they have calmed down and are ok. It's always a great sign to see when you work with a bird. After his sunning session, Ralph let out a great big rouse.
That is one giant puffball.

When my cockatiels rouse, often times it's very sudden. But with Ralph, he always works up to it, like a satisfying sneeze: he raises his back feathers ever so slowly...then the rest of his body puffs up...and then like he's rocking out to Taylor Swift, he throws his head back and shakes it off.

Today was a good day to be a vulture.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Try It! Mulberries

Last weekend, Mr. Nature Geek and I decided to take a long walk at one of our favorite birding spots in the Philadelphia area, John Heniz National Wildlife Refuge. This is a great spot for birding all year, as the different seasons bring completely different birds to the refuge. In the summer, nesting warblers, wrens, and orioles abound, along with tree and barn swallows. In the winter, the refuge becomes a hot spot for migrating waterfowl, including northern shovelers, ruddy ducks, scaups, northern pintails, and teals. In late spring, however, there is another thing that draws us to hike the trails at John Heinz: the mulberry trees are in season!

For the most part, you'll find 3 species of mulberries in the United States: red, black, and white. The black mulberry, an import from West Asia, is mostly found in gardens and cultivated areas. In wild places, you'll typically find the native (yeay!) red mulberry and the exotic (boo!) white mulberry. The photo at the left features the native red mulberry, which hails from right here in the eastern United States. And if you ask Mr. Nature Geek and I, this native has fruit far superior than that old Chinese white mulberry anyway! The fruit of the white mulberry is very sweet, but bland, while the red mulberry has a delicious tartness to it, especially if you eat the berries that are a little less ripe (the ones that are more red). 

If there are mulberry trees around and they are ready for the picking, it's easy to know because the ground looks like this:
When mulberries are ripe, all you pretty much have to do is just look at them and they fall off the tree. The slightest touch will send them tumbling to the ground. 

Upon coming across a ripe red mulberry tree, Mr. Nature Geek and I will eat every ripe berry we can get our hands on. (There was plenty left to be shared with the wildlife too if you are worried, as mulberry trees can reach 40' tall and your average Nature Geek is a mere 5'3".)  This weekend as we gorged ourselves, many other visitors passed us by, but not a single one asked what we were doing or asked to sample the delicious fruit! I found this fact quite troubling. Today you hear so much hype about "natural", "preservative free", and "no GMO" when it comes to our foods and here was the most natural food you could get, lining the miles of trails! In my opinion there is not much of a better way to reconnect with our roots of living off the land than eating the sun-ripened fruits of a wild tree. Mr. Nature Geek and I love our tradition of visiting our favorite mulberry spots at this time of year and filling up on delicious wild fruit. 

This weekend as you are hopefully hiking the trails of your favorite park, be on the lookout for a red mulberry tree. If you find one, chow down! And if you do a good job, by the end of the day, you'll literally be caught red-handed after having a great and delicious experience. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Revealing the Mystery of Bones

In January, I wrote "Revealing the Mystery of Skulls," in which I shared how a closer look at an animal's skull can reveal mysteries about its former life. Many of you commented on how much you enjoyed that post, and so today I thought I would bring to you a second helping of calcified goodness. This time, we'll be taking a look not at skulls, but other animal bones. Although other bones may not seem as exciting as skulls, they too can tell stories about an animal's life and death.

Dive! Dive!
These are what human rib bones look like. No real surprises here, a series of thin, curved bones, designed to protect your most important organs, like your heart and lungs. What is surprising and kinda creepy is that I got this image from Pintrest, where these real bones are for sale. Just smile and walk away, Katie, pretend you didn't see anything and avoid eye contact. Now take a look at this rib bone:
Look at how thick it is! The thickness is disproportionate to the size; this is not some dinosaur or elephant bone. So whose is it and why is it so thick? This is the rib bone of the Florida manatee, aka "sea cow."
Manatees are slow moving marine mammals that spend their days at the bottom of waterways, grazing on sea grasses. If a human wanted to lay on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, they would need to wear scuba dive weights to help them descend. Manatees have their dive weights built right in! Their super heavy and dense skeletons make it much easier to bob along on the bottom of the beautiful briny sea (extra points if you got the reference!). And if you're wondering how a manatee's body counteracts the weight of its skeleton in order to surface to breathe, manatees have extra long lungs along their back to aid in buoyancy.

Two Clues in One
Here we have another mystery bone, this one with two stories to tell. First, let's take a closer look at that hole on top. 
Unlike the manatee's solid rib, this bone is hollow, meaning it can only belong to one kind of animal: a bird! Almost every single aspect of a bird's anatomy comes back to weight reduction in order to achieve flight. Bird's skeletons are hollow, but still have criss-cross struts for reinforcement, just like an airplane's wings. This particular bone came from the wing of a brown pelican. Now let's look at another clue by zooming in on the left side of the bone.
See all those scrape marks? Those aren't a normal feature of this bone, they came after the pelican died and its tissues decomposed. These are chew marks from a rodent! In the wild, animals don't have Flintstones vitamins in order to get the calcium they need, they get it from eating bones. This not only gives the chewer calcium, but also helps break down and dispose of animal carcasses. Rats, mice, squirrels, even deer and pigs will all chew on bones and leave their telltale clues behind.

Super Sensors
Another bird bone, this one is the beak of a roseate spoonbill, a gorgeous resident of Florida that is often mistaken for a flamingo due to its bright pink feathers.
Spoonbills wave their beak back and forth in the water while holding it slightly open in order to find their food. Instead of relying on their sense of sight to tell them when to snap their bill shut, they instead use a keen sense of touch. When we look closer at the underside of this spoony's beak, we can see hundreds of small holes where nerves permeate it, especially at the tip.
 Fish don't stand a chance.

A Successful Defense (but he still died anyway)
Strong and sturdy, a turtle's shell is its ultimate defense from predators. The shell is a part of its skeleton, and is the result of widened and fused ribs, which are attached to the central backbone. When a turtle is withdrawn into its shell, it is protected from the bite of most predators, including raccoons, bobcats, and even...alligators. 
Check this out:
On the back of this shell, you'll see three holes, the middle of which even has a scrape mark. And when we look on the bottom of the shell...
Three more tooth marks, complete with scrapes too! This turtle was one baaaad shut your mouth! It survived an attack from an alligator! How do we know it survived? Well unlike raccoons and bobcats, who can still use their paws to claw at a retracted turtle, alligators eat turtles by crushing their shells in their jaws. Because the shell is intact, we know this didn't happen. We also know that the turtle wasn't just swallowed whole because an alligator's stomach is capable of dissolving bone, so this isn't a shell that was pooped out. Just as well too, because this is a big shell and that sucker would hurt on the way out. We may not know what killed this turtle in the end, but we know it wasn't an alligator!

We may think of skulls as the most interesting part of an animal's skeleton, but all bones, no matter how small or mundane-looking, can tell stories of life and death. The next time you find an animal bone, go all CSI on it and see what you can figure out. Just don't sell any human bones you find on Pintrest, ok? That's still creeping me out.