Archive for the ‘Friday Fact’ Category

Friday Fact: When the Sky Smiles

December 21, 2007

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(Photo from http://www.atoptics.co.uk/.  Check out this site–lovely pictures and descriptions of wondrous atmospheric phenomena.)

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Once again, Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man and I were talking at supper, when he told me about another wonder one of his co-workers had seen.  (There are many advantages to working outside!)  A few weeks ago, it was a huge cloud of dragonflies.  This time, it was an upside down rainbow.

“An upside down rainbow?”  I said.

“Yeah,” said Tom.  “He got a picture with his cell phone.  I saw it, but it was so blurry, you couldn’t really see much. “

I smirked.  “Oh, sure.  And I suppose he also got a shot of Bigfoot walking underneath? But it’s blurry, right?”

But I decided to check it out anyway.  So I googled  “upside down rainbow.”  And, to my surprise, there is such a thing.  Except that it’s not really a rainbow.  It’s called a circumzenithal arc.  And, though it is rare here, it is supposedly more common than rainbows in the far north.

Longtime readers may remember my post on sundogs.  Well, circumzenithal arcs are the result of the same phenomenon—sunlight refracting off the hexagonal ice crystals in cirrus clouds, usually late in the day when the sun is low, especially when it is cold.  The position of the colors in a circumzenithal arc is opposite that of a rainbow, with the red at the bottom and the blue and violet on top. 

So, my apologies to Tom’s co-worker for my skepticism.  He was fortunate indeed to see such a rare sight.  I have definitely put circumzenithal arcs on my list of sights I want to see before I die.  How lovely to see the sky smiling. 

Friday Fact: The Wondrous Whirring of Many Small Wings

December 7, 2007

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(All pictures from www.princeton.edu)

Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man and I were talking at supper last night when he mentioned something he’d heard on NPR, on Fresh Air (with Terry Gross).  “Did you know that dragonflies migrate like birds?” he said.  “And that they fatten up before migrating, just like birds?”

I stopped in mid-chew.  “No…that’s amazing!”  And just like that, as we ate our flounder, my Friday Fact was born.  When Tom mentioned this, I remembered a conversation we’d had at supper about two months earlier. Then, Tom had told me about a friend of his at work, a very masculine tough guy, who had related his experience to Tom with the awe and wonder of a child .  He told Tom that he was driving down his driveway in Linville Falls when, suddenly, he encountered thousands of dragonflies flying in front of his truck in a cloud so thick he had to stop.

Scientists have only recently developed the technology to study the migration patterns of dragonflies.  (The problem was making a transmitter tiny enough not to weigh down the flying insect).   Only about a dozen of the approximately 400 known dragonfly species in the United States and Canada are known to migrate.  The most prevalent of these is the Green Darner dragonfly (Anax junius), which is the one they have primarily been studying.

Martin Wikelski, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University is leading the study. He follows the dragonfly migration with the help of tiny transmitters, weighing .01 ounces, glued (with eyelash adhesive!) to the dragonfly’s underside.  He carries a receiver that picks up the transmissions, but because they move around so much, he has to follow and track the dragonflies in his airplane.

dragonfly.jpg    (Dragonfly with transmitter)

What they have found so far is that the migration of dragonflies is very similar to that of birds.  Like birds, they migrate in the fall.  “The dragonflies’ routes have showed distinct stopover and migration days, just as the birds’ did,” said Professor Wikelski.  “Additionally, groups of both birds and butterflies did not migrate on very windy days and only moved after two successive nights of falling temperatures.” [This means a cold front is moving in with a tailwind that will aid their flying]  “We saw other similarities as well, which makes us think that dragonflies find their way south using natural landscape features, such as seacoasts and large rivers.”

And, like migrating monarch butterflies, the dragonflies migrating south will not be the ones making the return trip.  It will be their offspring flying back north in the spring.

Another interesting pattern was discovered by a birdwatcher named Frank Nicoletti who was studying hawk migration when he noticed that the migration of the dragonflies coincided with the migration of juvenile American kestrels.  The thick clouds of migrating dragonflies made it easier for the inexperienced young falcons to catch their dragonfly meals, so the insects are an important food source for the migrating kestrels. 

And, of course, I just had to know where the Green Darner dragonfly got its name.  Just as I suspected, the name came from its resemblance to a darning needle (the big one used to mend holes in sweaters and socks).   In fact, one of its nicknames is “darning needle.”  Apparently, some parents used to tell their children to be careful not to let the dragonfly get near their mouth because it might stitch it closed with its darning needle! 

Hmmm.  So that’s what parents mean when they say, “Darn that kid!” :-)

Friday Fact: Imagining a Mistletoe Mission

November 30, 2007

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I thought it an appropriate time of year to talk about mistletoe.  Down in eastern North Carolina, where I grew up, it was a Christmas tradition with a lot of folks to shoot mistletoe down from the tops of big trees (usually oaks), where it was growing.   If I remember correctly, we used shotguns, so it was an art to shoot it down cleanly without busting it up into unusable pieces.   Some people would hunt and shoot down great quantities of mistletoe to sell to florists and at farmer’s markets.

The derivation of the word “mistletoe” belies its romantic reputation.  It comes from two Anglo-Saxon words: “Mistel” from the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” from the word for “twig.”  Translated, mistletoe would be something like “dung on a twig.”  This stems from the fact that much of the mistletoe that grows in trees comes from seeds contained in bird poop that sticks to tree branches. 

Also belying its romantic reputation is the fact that mistletoe is a parasitic plant.  It sends a special root-system called haustoria into the tree branch to suck nutrients from the tree.  Sometimes it even kills the plant on which it’s growing.  But it’s not all bad. The berries  provide food for birds and other animals.  Mistletoe has also been studied in Europe as a possible treatment for cancer.

There are a number of theories about the origin of the custom of “kissing under the mistletoe.”   The Druids believed it to be a sacred plant, a panacea for all ills, including infertility.  Supposedly, the Druids would cut it down from an oak with a golden sickle (rather than a shotgun!), taking care not to let it touch the ground.  They believed that it lost its miraculous properties if it touched the earth.  In ancient Rome, mistletoe was regarded as a symbol of peace.  There are stories of enemies who, when meeting under trees bearing mistletoe, would lay down their arms and embrace. 

I like that idea better than kissing.  If only the Druids and Romans were right in their notion of mistletoe as a miraculous plant of peace!  We could go on a mistletoe mission to hang it everywhere, in all the strife-torn places of the world.  We could all do our part as mistletoe missionaries—to bring about a mistletoe miracle of peace on earth and goodwill among men.

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Friday Fact: The Risky Business of Being a Beaver

November 23, 2007

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While hiking this summer, we came upon this beaver-gnawn tree next to the trail.  The National Park Service had cut down the tree, rightly determining it to be a hazard to passing hikers, but kindly left the beaver-sculpted part.  The lake where we were hiking abounds with busy beavers, so you see these lovely little wooden tables everywhere.

So, it got me to thinking: Do beavers ever get crushed by the trees they fell?  Or are they the Paul Bunyons of the rodent world?  Well, as it turns out, beavers get flattened on a regular basis.  Apparently, it’s not true that beavers know where a tree will fall—they actually have no idea.

The myth of beavers as lumberjacks was perpetuated by the fact that many of the trees they chew down are by the water.  Trees that are beside a body of water tend to lean out towards the light, so they will almost always fall that way.  So beavers stay safe.  But once they are in dense woodlands, beavers are in more danger.  Wildlife researchers find squashed beavers on a regular basis.

They also find thick forests full of trees where the beaver has chewed completely through the base of the trees, but the trees are still standing, held up by the branches of surrounding trees. I am intrigued by the image of a whole forest of suspended trees, held up only by each other. 

But I do feel for the beaver.  All that work—for nothing.  I guess that’s where the term “busy as a beaver” comes from.  :-)

Friday Fact: That Pink Paragon of Plastic Perfection

November 16, 2007

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 (Photos from www.thepinkflamingo.com)

Earlier this year, an important anniversary came and went, largely unheralded.  It was the 50th anniversary of that pink paragon of plastic perfection—the pink flamingo.  I mean, of course, the kind you see in yards across America, in habitats that real flamingos could never survive.

It all began in 1957, when Don Featherstone, fresh out of art school, sculpted the clay molds for the first flamingos, working from pictures he found in a National Geographic.  Sears featured them in their catalog that year for $2.76 a pair.  The ad copy read:  “Place in garden, lawn, to beautify landscape.”   And millions did.  Like the animals on Noah’s Ark, they came in pairs: one bending over as though looking for something in the grass and the other with its graceful neck and head held aloft (rather nobly I always thought).

When I came of age in the seventies, these yard birds were a way to thumb your nose at all those hoity-toity art snobs and those with highfalutin’ tastes.  In fact, I collected them in various forms.  But the truth is, I collected them because I really thought they were pretty.  And still do.  Flamingos are such exquisitely graceful birds, even in plastic form. Besides, they’ve always looked real good in my petunias.

Sadly, last year in November, as they approached their fiftieth anniversary, the factory in Leominster, Massachusetts that made the original pink flamingo closed its doors.  Union Products blamed the rising costs of plastic resins and electricity.  They have also had to contend with other companies (in China, I’m sure) producing cheap knockoffs.   To combat this, in 1987, Don Featherstone (by now the president of Union Products) began to imprint his signature under the tail feathers of the flamingo.

Mr. Featherstone has always ardently defended his product.  “I think it beats the heck out of a silver ‘gazing ball.’” said Mr. Featherstone.  “Although when you combine them it’s kind of nice.”  At his home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, he puts 57 flamingos out on his lawn in the summer to represent the year he crafted it.

The good news is that a company in Westmoreland, New York just bought out Union Products, purchasing the copyright and plastic molds, so plastic pink flamingos will still be proudly made in the USA.  No word on whether Mr. Featherstone will still allow his signature to be imprinted on the bird’s rear end.

When we first moved to the mountains, I put out my flamingos first thing.  But that was before I knew how common 50-70 MPH winds are here.  My birds flew away sometime that first winter.  I never could find them in the forest below my house.  I like to imagine that maybe they flew back to Florida.  On the other hand, it’s kind of fun to think of them being carried on the high winds here, rising up into the clear winter sky, then descending earthward to gently alight on the lawn of one of those multi-million dollar mansions I see everywhere on mountainsides here.  And I like to envision the owner the next morning, looking out the mansion’s window, eyes widening in surprise at the wonder of a yard full of pink plastic perfection.

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Friday Fact: A Tip of the Hat to Mr. James Boyle-Inventor

November 9, 2007

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[Illustration from Strange Stories, Amazing Facts  (A Reader's Digest book we found in the dumpster! Also where I got the idea.)]

It must have sometimes been vexing to be a man in Victorian times.  A proper Victorian fellow would always tip his hat to the ladies, even if it wasn’t convenient to do so at the time—if, say, he was carrying an armload of groceries.  How annoying to have to put your parcels down just to tip your hat!

But in 1896, Mr. James Boyle of Washington State came to the rescue of exhausted Victorian gentlemen everywhere when he invented the “self-tipping hat.”  It worked by way of a lifting mechanism activated by the wearer when they bowed “to the person saluted.”  Here are Mr. Boyle’s own words:

“Much valuable energy is utilized in tipping the hat repeatedly and my device will relieve one of it and at once cause the hat to be lifted from the head in a natural manner. It is a novel device, in other words, for effecting polite salutations by the elevation and rotation of the hat on the head of the saluting party, when said person bows to the person saluted, the actuation of the hat being produced by the mechanism within it and without the use of the hands in any manner.”

Well.  His verbosity notwithstanding, I salute Mr. Boyle for his part in “effecting polite salutations” and for saving “much valuable energy.”  I’m all for that!  In fact, I’d like to tip my hat to him.  :-)

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*****A quick note to all of you kind people who inquired concerning my well-being following my bear-hug rib injury:  I am better, I think, thank God.  It stills hurts a bit when I breathe, and I still can’t do any heavy lifting without pain, but the pain is manageable with my favorite wonder drug Excedrin.  (In fact, though I wrote a poem about gathering firewood in my last post, I actually wasn’t able to carry logs this year.)  I did have a bit of a setback last week after a sudden sneeze, but I’m better now (though praying I won’t catch a cold anytime soon!)

So, hopefully, I shall soon be back to my old log totin’ ways.  Thank you for your concern, your thoughts, and your prayers.  I am grateful for them.******

Friday Fact: The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

November 2, 2007

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A confession:  I really like paintings of anthropomorphized animals, especially dogs.   The one above was painted by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, who is most famous for his widely popular paintings of dogs playing poker.  (And for all you art snobs out there who might be sniffing haughtily:  In 2005, two of his original paintings [yes, dogs playing poker] sold for almost $600,000).

I thought of those paintings recently when I read about one of the most famous English eccentrics, Francis Henry Egerton, the eighth Earl of Bridgewater.  Even though he was a distinguished scholar, a patron of the arts and a member of the Royal Society, who donated his important and extensive manuscripts to the British Museum, many remember him best for his, umm… idiosyncrasies. 

He loved to give dinner parties for dogs, who were expected to dress in the latest fashions, including little fancy shoes on their paws.  And, speaking of shoes, the Earl himself wore a brand new pair every day, which he would then add to the lengthy rows of his previously worn shoes.  It was his way of measuring the passage of time!  When he borrowed a book, he would return it on a pillow in an ornate carriage attended by four liveried footmen. 

He was known to be an animal lover, yet he kept pigeons and partridges with clipped wings on his estate.  He did that to make them easier to hunt and shoot, as his eyesight was failing. 

Not surprisingly, he never married.  No doubt, any women invited to his dinner parties must have been appalled by the manners of the other guests—that is, the canine ones.  Not only, I’m sure, did a great deal of pawing and licking occur, but the table manners of the hounds in attendance must have been quite rude and shocking.  Doggedly so, I’d say.

Uncouth curs they were, no doubt, with no proper breeding.  Beastly party animals!

Friday Fact: The Hapless Flight to Bright Lights at Night

October 26, 2007

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Photo from http://insects.tamu.edu/

I often have the experience, when I learn a new fact that makes my eyes widen with excitement, of eagerly relating the fact to a friend only to have them smile politely and stifle a yawn.  That’s when I realize that they already know what I just learned, and that, in fact, it is probably common knowledge for almost everyone in the free world but me.  But that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm very much at all.  This is probably one of those facts, but I’ll tell it anyway because…well, because it thrilled me. 

One of the best things about living in the mountains for me is being able to leave our windows open in the summer.  It’s particularly wonderful because we get to listen to all the sounds of the forest at night—the haunting calls of owls, the mournful howling of coyotes, and the snorts of deer (while they’re eating our plants, no doubt).  And when we have the lights on in a room, one sound we hear is the thump, thump, thump of moths repeatedly hurling themselves against the screen.  I have often wondered why they are drawn to light and why they are so persistent, though it often leads to their demise.  My daughter Ariel still has lovely luna moth wings that she found, as a child, under a street light, where the poor moths were apparently drawn to the bright light.

Well, the theory held by most entomologists is that the male moths mistake the artificial lights glowing in our streets and homes for the…moon.  They can’t see very well, so they rely on the moon to navigate in a straight line by keeping the moonrays at an angle as they fly out in search of a mate.  And the reason they seem a bit demented in the way they constantly fling themselves against our screen or our porch light is that they become disoriented because it is impossible to use the rays from porch or room lights to navigate, so they lose their bearings. 

Hmm…they are definitely not the only living creatures to lose their bearings in search of love, but it is certainly unfortunate that so many die in the attempt. 

Check out this great story in the Mountain Xpress about an Asheville man and his “night visitors.”

Friday Fact: The Wondrous Way that Waxwings Woo

October 19, 2007

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My Friday Fact this week was inspired by an exquisite bit of grace that my husband Tom experienced about 18 years ago.

 I was changing a diaper, I think, when I heard Tom say, “Oh my God!”  My heart sank.  At the time, we lived in a house built in 1907, and something was always falling apart or failing or malfunctioning.  And “oh my God” was our typical reaction (but it was really more of a prayer than a curse).   So I finished changing the diaper and went out, filled with dread, to the little screen porch where Tom was standing.  

But his face was lit up as he told me what he had just seen   Our cedar tree had been completely filled with cedar waxwings which, as you can see from the picture above, are beautiful birds.  Not only that, but the late afternoon sun had set the tree and the waxwings aglow.  But he only saw them for a moment before the entire flock took off—arising in a golden spiral around the tree.  It lasted all of a minute, but Tom still talks about it to this day.

Cedar waxwings eat flower petals and insects, but they love berries the best, which is almost certainly what they were eating the day Tom saw them in the cedar.  In fact, sometimes when berries ferment, the waxwings eat so many that they become tipsy and actually fall out of trees drunk and must sober up before they can fly! 

They are very social birds and nest in colonies.  Cedar waxwings have been observed lined up on a tree branch, passing berries to each other along the row until every bird has its share of berries.  When males and females court, they like to play a game where they pass flower petals back and forth to each other.

Oh my.  I sure would like to see THAT.

Friday Fact: The Tough, Tough Love of the Mallee Mom

October 12, 2007

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The mallee fowl of southern Australia is one hard working critter.  Both the hen and the cock spend most of their waking hours building and maintaining an enormous, ingenious incubator for their eggs.

Though they are only the size of small chickens, this intrepid couple digs a pit two to three feet deep and over ten feet in diameter! They fill the hole with leaves, twigs, and bark and wait for rain to soak the mulch, then cover it with sand.

This compost soon begins to decompose and heat up.  The cock actually uses his beak to check the temperature (mallee fowl are also called “thermometer birds”).  When it reaches the magic number of 91 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s time for the hen to lay the first egg. mallee-fowl-nest.jpg Her mate digs into the mound, tenderly places the egg into it, and then rebuilds it around the egg.  It’s his job, also, to keep the temperature stable by a continuous process of uncovering, then covering the eggs according to the weather. 

And since the hen lays an egg a week, there is a seemingly never-ending process going on of eggs being laid and eggs hatching out and covering and uncovering and building and rebuilding.  Makes our eight-hour work days seem like a piece of cake, doesn’t it?

But here’s the kicker:  After all the tender loving care Mama and Daddy Mallee Fowl give their eggs, once the chicks hatch out, they are on their own. Completely. 

It’s an understatement to say that Baby Mallee Fowl has a difficult beginning.  First of all, after they hatch out, they must dig their own way to the surface of the incubator mound, usually through as much as three feet of soil, to reach open air.  Sometimes it takes as much as 15 hours!baby-mallee.jpg  Then, and I quote here from the book, “they stagger to the nearest bush to rest and take shelter.”

Poor little guys.  And after all this, you’d think Mama and Daddy would take them under their wings.  Nope.  Mama and Daddy completely ignore them.  I mean, these babies are kicked into the street!  They actually learn to fly in just 24 hours.

Yeah, can’t you just hear the Mama and Daddy saying, “Look, junior, we worked our beaks and claws to the bone making a home for you as a young egg and what thanks do we get? You just want more!  You’re outta here!”

Not surprisingly, only a very small percentage of the chicks survive.  But those that do survive their tough beginning have a long life of endless egg laying and egg tending and hole-digging and incubator building and incubator maintaining to look forward to. 

*Sigh*

It’s a hard-knock life.


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