Homegrown Squash

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These heirloom varieties of squash are the literal fruits of my springtime obsession with Cucurbits (the gourd family – almost 1000 species of zucchini, pumpkin, watermelon, cucumber, etc).

This obsession grew thanks to Dr. Lori Shapiro who knows the coolest facts about squash! For instance, before domestication, wild gourds contained bitter toxins. Only megafauna like mammoths could ingest and disperse the seeds of these protected fruits (1). In the Americas, early hunter-gatherers used dried gourds as floats for fishing nets and to hold food and water. They also used fresh wild gourds for the medicinal properties of the bitter compounds (2). The wild gourd (Cucurbita pepo) was the first plant domesticated in the Americas, and the first agriculturalists likely grew them for their nutritious seeds rather than the bitter flesh. Thanks, Lori!

  1. Kistler, L., L.A. Newson, T.M. Ryan, A.C. Clarke, B.D. Smith, G.H. Perry. 2015. Adaptive domestication in squashes and gourds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (49) 15107-15112.
  2. Hart, J.P., R.A. Daniels, C.J. Sheviak. 2004. Do Cucurbita pepo gourds float fishnets? American Antiquity. 69(1) 141-148.

 

Nuthatch & Friends

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The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) has a lot of friends. It often teams up with chickadees and titmice. While larger flocks give greater protection from predators, more species diversity within the flock improves problem solving (1). Birds in diverse groups were able to get food from a new feeder faster.

  1. Freeberg, T.M., S.K. Eppert, K.E. Sieving, and J.R. Lucas. 2017. Diversity in mixed species groups improves success in a novel feeder test in a wild songbird community. Scientific Reports. Volume 7, Article number: 43014.

Real Monsters – The Cockatrice

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In medieval bestiaries, entries portrayed the cockatrice as a rooster with the tail of a snake. It’s said to hatch from the egg of a cockerel that’s been brooded by a snake or toad. Often interchanged with the basilisk, only a weasel (or Harry Potter) can kill it.

cockatrice_manuscript

Wow. Crazy, right?  Maybe not so much.

Could poultry grow a snake-ish tail? Considering the evolutionary history of birds and embryonic development, yes. Birds are the last surviving descendants of dinosaurs, and early birds (evolutionarily speaking, not the worm-getting kind) had long tails. Over time, shorter-tailed members of the group prevailed as they flew unimpeded, and with better control, among brush and between branches. Vertebrae that once grew, fused as random genetic mutations delivered more successful flight. Genetically, just a few genes (possibly just one), activated early in development, control vertebral growth and tail elongation (1). So if you can stop that gene from turning on, you might just get a tail.

The second aspect of the cockatrice/basilisk story involved being born from a rooster’s egg. Now, that can’t be true – only hens lay eggs. Well, just like in humans, sex can be confusing. Primary sexual characteristics include sexual organs. In order to lay an egg, the bird would need an ovary. But most people identify hens and roosters by secondary sexual characteristics like coloration, size, and the presence of a comb and wattle. These traits develop because of hormones. If a female bird receives a dose of male hormone, she can produce rooster-like traits. This situation is actually not so rare. Because birds only use one gonad, a disease on the ovary would cause the other to develop. Since testes and ovaries develop from the same structure, the hen could get a dose of male hormone, producing rooster-like traits, and still lay an egg (2).

Brooding by a snake or toad wouldn’t help a chicken egg hatch. However, it’s not unusual to find a snake in a nest. Snakes of course eat eggs, and some birds even use snakes as partners to protect their nests from parasites or rodents.

As for death-by-weasel, the cockatrice/basilisk story is probably getting mixed with a cobra (3). The mongoose, which looks similar to a weasel, has an amazing cellular adaptation that makes them resistant to cobra venom. Many Greek and Egyptian stories (as well as the modern tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi) glorify the snake-killing abilities of the mongoose.

So next time you hear of a mystical beast that couldn’t possibly be real, give it a chance. And if you’d like to read more about the cockatrice and its devilish ties, visit awingandaway.

 

  1. Rashid DJ, Chapman SC, Larsson HCE, Organ CL, Bebin A-G, Merzdorf CS, Bradley R, and Horner JR 2014. From dinosaurs to birds: a tail of evolution. EvoDevo 2(25)
  2. Jacob J and Mather FB. 2000. Sex reversal in chickens. UFL-IFAS. FactSheet PS-53. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003037/00001
  3. Alexander, RM 1963. The evolution of the basilisk. Greece & Rome. 10(2) 170-181.

Sometimes you DO choose your family (of geese)

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What would happen if an adorable 3-day old gosling was placed between two wire enclosures, one containing a sibling, and one containing a same-age gosling from another clutch? Would the baby bird recognize its brother or sister and patter over to its relative?

The answer: yes… at least as often as dentists recommend sugarless gum*. In four out of five trials, the little puffball sidled up to its sibling rather than a stranger’s young’un.

There’s one catch. The youngest goslings (ages 3–9 days) prefer groups. Even if it’s a group of unfamiliar goslings, the little bird almost always waddled over to an unknown group rather than a single relative. By 15 days old though, the youngsters reliably reunite with their kin, no matter how small their family.

p.s. I created this image at an awesome carbon dust workshop, coordinated by GNSI-Carolinas, this weekend. Marlene Hill Donnelly from the Chicago Field Museum was our fearless instructor – she’s wonderful!

*Radesäter, T. 1976. Individual sibling recognition in juvenile Canada geese (Branta canadensis). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 54(7): 1069–1072

Signs of Spring: Robins and Lawn Mowers

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Two robins (Turdus migratorius) hopped through the yard this week – spring is on its way. The sound of lawn mowers now drift through the air, confirming the avian prediction. Shockingly, these two very distinct signs of warming weather are actually related, according to a backyard research study conducted in 1979.

L.A. Eiserer conducted a series of scientific (well, somewhat) studies examining the impacts of lawn mowing on robin-hunting behaviors. Robins spend more time foraging when grass is short, especially just after it has been mowed.

So is it the mowing or the height of the grass that impacts robin behavior? Eiserer mowed his lawn to two different heights, 2.5 and 4.5 inches. (I wonder if his neighbors complained.) The robins spent 10x as much time in the shorter patch. Apparently, the birds eat different foods when exposed to different heights of grasses. In short grass, robins go for worms; in longer grass, they pluck small insects off the blades. The short-grassed hunting grounds may just be more efficient for finding a heartier meal.

But that doesn’t discount the act of mowing. Observations over the same time of day show the birds prefer hunting in a freshly mowed yard rather than the day after. No difference in grass height, but perhaps the act of mowing disturbs invertebrates, allowing for a more successful hunt.

Overall, I miss the days when a researcher could sit on a suburban porch and time how long a couple of robins spend looking for food. As I struggle to teach my students how to think like scientists, reading a study like this makes me long for the good old days.

 

Eiserer, L.A. 1980. Effects of Grass Length and Mowing on Foraging Behavior of the American Robin. The Auk. 97(3) 576-580.

Snowbird Shape-shifters

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Those small slate-and-white sparrows hopping across the frozen ground are true snowbirds. They spend summer in Canada and move south to the U.S. during the winter. Some, like their human counterparts, even migrate to Florida.

In the late 1800s, R.W. Shufeldt wrote of two birds called “snowbirds.” One medium-sized bird, the Snow Bunting, became known as the “snowflake.” The smaller bird, the Dark-eyed Junco, was unequivocally called the “snowbird.” Shufeldt expressed his displeasure at the bird’s new moniker “junco” – he tried to determine, unsuccessfully, the etymology of the word (it means “reeds or rushes”) since the Dark-eyed Junco does not live among reeds or rushes.

Shufeldt’s article also referenced Alexander Wilson’s description of Junco folklore. New Englanders told Wilson that Dark-eyed Juncos change their plumage to become the Chipping Sparrows of summer. Before you laugh (or after you’re through), many birds significantly alter their plumage during the breeding season… although the Dark-eyed Junco does not. These two birds are both sparrows, trill similar songs, and feed on the ground.

While Dark-eyed Juncos do not morph into Chipping Sparrows, they have their own form of transmutation. Those round balls of bird aren’t fat, they’re fluffy. Feathers trap air, an excellent insulator. The birds puff up their feathers, a downy winter coat, keeping them toasty warm.

p.s. Red and the Peanut wrote a great post about the name “snowbird.” I recommend it!