April 29, 2007

Clever Ravens--But You Knew That

Nature Blog readers know that ravens are smart, but in case you needed more evidence, this article from Der Spiegel suggests that they are even smart enough to play dead.

Their skills when it comes to tricking and cheating, for example, have not been thoroughly explored. Ravens are cunning enough to set up mock hiding places in order to distract their thievish fellows from their real food stores. They're generally very inventive when it comes to tricking those who would snatch away their food. But how much truth is there to reports according to which ravens play dead next to carcasses in order to simulate a case of food poisoning?

[Biologist Mareike] Stöwe's colleague Thomas Bugnyar hesitates to believe such reports: "Many animals play dead in stressful stituations," he says. "But when it comes to ravens, everyone always suspects some hidden intention." Bugnyar has been examining numerous winged wise guys, partly in collaboration with US ravenologist Bernd Heinrich. They found that corvus corax has plenty of surprises in store even under strictly controlled laboratory conditions.

Spring Runoff

Spring runoff fills Hardscrabble Creek,
Wild plum blossoms scent the air—
not quite sweet.

28 April 2007

April 26, 2007

Antlers, Fashion, and Trendy Decor

In my part of the Rockies, it common to see deer or elk antlers hung from the gables of houses, garages, or barns.

When I see this practice, I think of King Hrothgar's hall, Heorot, and smile at the persistence of cultural memory.

But there is more, says today's New York Times article on trendy nature motifs, "If There's A Buck In It Somewhere".

“Antlers have a kind of maximalism that satisfies our urge for things to be overdesigned,” said David Wolfe, the creative director of the Doneger Group, which forecasts fashion and retail trends. “And because they are natural, we don’t have to take the blame for their being overdesigned. They are busy, convoluted objects, but they are natural.”

It is notable as well that many of the shops that are rife with antlers are targeting a new breed of male consumer who is dabbling in a stereotypically feminine embrace of fashion. At Hollander & Lexer, a new men’s store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn with the feel of shopping in a slightly demented explorer’s club, a mounted African kudu head watches over Rogues Gallery T-shirts and Paul Smith jeans, as if to remind shoppers that fussing over their wardrobes need not be an effete pursuit.

The stag as an archetypal symbol was not lost on Lisa Kinoshita, who designs a jewelry collection called Mineral in Tacoma, Wash., which includes a sterling silver antler pendant. But she doubts that the current popularity is based on more than aesthetics.

“Where once the stag was a symbol of religious regeneration,” she said, “it could be said that today it appeals to those who worship modern design.”

There is more, as fertile minds in the fashion industry talk about their favorite subject, the fashion industry

April 25, 2007

John Muir and the Happiness of Alligators

John Muir
How John Muir, often called "father of American environmentalism," rejected the human-centered view back in the 1860s:

The botanizer's answer, so foreign to his time, was this: "Nature's object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?" Without using the words inherent worth or intrinsic value, Muir writes in the journal at his side, "Though alligators, snakes, etc. naturally repel us, they are not mysterious evils. They dwell happily in these flowery wilds, are part of God's family, unfallen, undepraved, and cared for with the same species of tenderness and love as is bestowed on angels in heaven or saints on earth."

"The world, we are told, was made especially for man," Muir once wrote, "a presumption not supported by all the facts."

And now my nature-writing class is almost over, and we never got to Arne Naess and deep ecology. Every time I teach it, it goes a different direction.

Ragged hat-tip: Killing the Buddha.

April 24, 2007

Sand Creek Massacre historic site

The Sand Creek Massacre site in eastern Colorado will officially open to the public on June 1.

The dedication will be this coming Saturday.

Those "Eskimo words for snow" debunked

You have probably always heard that the Inuit have 45 or a 100 words for snow. Not true. This particular urban legend is dealt with at the Savage Minds anthropology blog.

The Savages also recommend an online anthropology tutorial.

The dog's tail is wagging, right? Or left?

A wagging tail means that a dog is emotionally aroused, sometimes by happiness and sometimes by aggression.

Researchers say that you can tell the difference by which side the tail favors.

But there is another, newly discovered, feature of dog body language that may surprise attentive pet owners and experts in canine behavior. When dogs feel fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rumps. When they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left.

At a fundamental level, the right brain specializes in behaviors involving withdrawal and energy expenditure. In humans, these behaviors, like fleeing, are associated with feelings like fear and depression. Physiological signals include a rapid heart rate and the shutdown of the digestive system.

Because the left brain controls the right side of the body and the right brain controls the left side of the body, such asymmetries are usually manifest in opposite sides of the body. Thus many birds seek food with their right eye (left brain/nourishment) and watch for predators with their left eye (right brain/danger).

Further research will begin tonight with the two usual suspects.

April 18, 2007

What Makes a Good Cave--or Ranch-Style House?

Cave-dwellers had five criteria for choosing caves. (Discovery Channel via Mirabilis.) They includes entrances facing east or west and a "porch" for outdoor activities.

When it comes to purpose-built houses, Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski has a three-part series. Here are links to the first two parts:

1. "Why Do We Live in Houses Anyway?" (as opposed to multi-family buildings).

It's one thing to say that people prefer to live in a house, but what kind of house? Basically, there are three choices: a free-standing house, a house sharing common walls with its neighbors, and a house that is oriented to an inner court. The last is an ancient model. The Roman dwelling was the classic courtyard house. Generally one story high, it covered the entire lot. Depending on its size, it had one or several open-air courtyards. The courtyard house, small or large, was the dwelling of choice; only the poorest Romans lived in insulae, or multistory tenements.

2. "The Ranch House Anomaly".

Buoyed by the post–World War II boom, optimistic about the future, and gripped by the idea of Progress, Americans embraced innovation as never before, in the way they traveled, the way they brought up their children, in their manners—and in their homes. The hallmark of that period was the ranch house. It is said to have been invented in 1932 by Cliff May, a self-taught San Diego architect, but it also owed a debt to Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses, and to Alfred Levitt's popular "Levittowner." Today the suburban ranch house is considered the epitome of conservative taste, but at the time it represented a radical departure from tradition.

(via Cliopatria.)

Swallows, Aristotle, the Clothesline, and Piñon Canyon

Barn swallows
¶ I said in nature-writing class yesterday that they would return around the 22nd, but today, April 18th, the barn swallows were zipping around the CSU-Library building, their favorite nesting site.

Maybe some of the students who pass through its doors, oppressed by oncoming deadlines, will look up and notice them. Followers of Aristotle may note that there was more than one.

¶ Fighting global warming, one piece of rope at a time. Further comments at Tim Blair's blog where he draws a line.

¶ More on hummingbirds: after the last snow melted and the air temperature went above 60 F., a pair of broad-tailed hummers were at our feeder on the 15th No way of knowing if that was the same male that M. heard on the 5th.

¶ The Colorado legislature is now on the record in opposition to the Army's desired expansion of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS)--if it involves using eminent domain to get the land.

I mentioned some of the ironic aspects before.

Another might be that PCMS' public access--plus the Army's giving the Forest Service management of the "Picketwire Canyonlands" and the famous dinosaur trackway--have helped drive tourism in SE Colorado, where there never was much before.

So now when the Army wants to expand, there are more Coloradans who know the area and its natural attractions and who thus are more likely to opppose the expansion.

By contrast, back in the late 1970s when PCMS was envisioned, most people on the Front Range thought -- wrongly -- that "it's all flat out there." Now at least some know different.

April 09, 2007

Over-protective parents and urban foraging

I am becoming a fan of Los Angeles writer Linda J. Williamson, whose piece on Internet-hyper over-protective parents was picked up by the Denver Post:

At a PTA meeting, during a discussion of traffic problems around the school campus, I asked what we could do to encourage families to walk or bike to school. Other parents looked at me as if I’d suggested we stuff the children into barrels and roll them into the nearest active volcano. One teacher looked at me in shock. “I wouldn’t let my children walk to school alone … would you?”

“Haven’t you heard about all of the predators in this area?” asked a father.

“No, I haven’t,” I said. “I think this is a pretty safe neighborhood.”

“You’d be surprised,” he replied, lowering his eyebrows. “You should read the Megan’s Law website.” He continued: “You know how to solve the traffic problem around this school? Get rid of all the predators. Then you won’t have any more traffic.”

And here she is on urban foraging.

The harvest [scarfing free samples at Whole Foods] I reaped was bountiful, but it wasn’t the communing-with-nature, off-the-grid eating experience I was looking for. So I made for a more fertile hunting ground: the Internet. There, on the message board of FallenFruit.org—a web site devoted to mapping L.A.’s many neighborhood fruit trees—I found this shocking entry:

“Soon I will have more avocados than I know what to do with… you can use avocado for facials and hair conditioner. Just mash and apply.”

April 07, 2007

Project Budburst Tracks the Spring

American pasqueflower
Just as Project Feederwatch uses "citizen scientists" to produce lots of data on bird movements, so Project Budburst is doing the same thing for flowering plants.

It is in public beta testing this year, so you can log on and offer some observations.

So far, pasqueflower (pictured) is the only one of the listed Colorado species that I have seen blooming, but M. and I did see some sand lilies blooming on a south-facing slope in the freezing drizzle yesterday.

Hat tip: Mary Scriver.

The Buzz about Spring

I came into my office on Thursday the 5th, and the red message light on my telephone was blinking.

It was a message from M.: "They're here. I was walking the dogs, and I heard one."

I knew what she meant: she had heard the aerial buzz of a male broad-tailed hummingbird.

Friday was full of freezing drizzle, and today so far features freezing fog with a threat of snow. I put up a sugar-water feeder on Friday, and by later afternoon it was freezing up, so I took it down.

I know that hummingbirds can slow their metabolism to survive bouts of cold weather. But sometimes I wonder if, even as "the second mouse gets the cheese," the second hummer gets the territory.