Sunday, February 27, 2011

Red Eyes!

I was walking along the East River in Manhattan yesterday, between the helicopter pier and the Brooklyn Bridge, when I noticed a brightly colored duck bobbing in the wake of pleasure boats and water taxis. As it came closer I recognized a male red-breasted merganser, Mergus serrator.

Closer still, you can see this bird's striking features. It has bright red eyes, an iridescent green head with a shaggy double-pointed crest, and a long thin orange bill.

Its breast is kind of red but most of us would call it brown -- a reddish brown that I think of as ornithological red. So I can't help wondering how this bird came to be called a red-breasted merganser. Picture the moment: Hmmm, should we call it red-eyed? Shaggy-haired? Orange-billed? Wait, I've got it! Let's name it for its least distinguishing and most easily confused feature!

The Merganser part makes sense, though. It is from Latin words mergas, meaning diver, and anser, meaning goose (close relative). They are divers, as the name says. It is easy to lose track of one as it dives and resurfaces far away.

And what is it doing in the East River looking incongruous? Red-breasted mergansers mainly eat fish, so it could have been looking for lunch. (The orange beak is serrated and helps to catch and hold prey.) They spend their winters in coastal waters, like the East River. They can be found on both coasts of the United States in winter and almost anywhere inland while migrating in spring and fall. They breed during summer in very far northern Canada and at high northern latitudes around the world.

This bird will spend the summer in the tundra or in a wild northern forest lake far from human civilization. What a contrast to spending a winter Saturday in New York City. How strange it must seem to sit amid the helicopter, boat, and car traffic while sirens wail and a photographer snaps shots from the shore.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Presidents and Pigeons

I had two days off from work in February: Abraham Lincoln's birthday on the 11th and George Washington's birthday on the 22nd. I was thinking about presidents when an urban wildlife picture popped into my mind -- the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the Central Park West entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan with a pigeon on his head. I see the statue on most week days and there is usually at least one pigeon on it, sometime on Ted's head, sometimes on the horse's head.

When the pleasant weather lured me outside this weekend I decided to look for presidents in Manhattan. I predicted that I would  probably find a pigeon near, if not on, every president I found. I have nothing profound to say in my blog today except that I was right. Here is the photographic evidence...

This is the statue of George Washington at Federal Hall across from the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Washington was inaugurated here in 1789.

This pigeon works near Federal Hall. Tourists drop food there year round. 

There is another Washington statue at Union Square on 14th Street. 
Union Square pigeons pile on fallen food in Washington's shadow.

Abraham Lincoln's statue stands at the north end of Union Square Park.

This pigeon will pose for breadcrumbs near Lincoln's statue in Union Square.

Theodore Roosevelt was born in this brownstone house at 25 East 20th Street on October 27, 1858 and lived there until he was 15 years old.

This pigeon crossed 20th Street in front of Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace on February 20th, 2011. 

This statue of our twenty-first president, Chester A. Arthur, stands at the north end of Madison Square Park, near 26th Street.

This sassy bird was last seen in Madison Square Park near Chester Arthur's statue. 

Chester Arthur's statue also stands among some of the world's tamest professional peanut-begging squirrels.
Wall Street is perfect for pigeons. 

The ancestors of urban pigeons were cliff dwellers, and one of the things the birds like about us is our buildings. The roofs and ledges of Manhattan skyscrapers provide perfect pigeon nesting sites. The narrow claustrophobic tower-shaded streets around the Wall Street Stock Exchange make pigeons feel at home.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The American Robin returns -- or does it?

The American robin, Turdus migratorius
Do you picture a robin when you think of spring? Red-breasted and alert, stalking worms in the grass, or singing from an exposed perch -- slurred up, slurred down, cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheery-o.

We think of robins as long-distance migrants that return in spring from warm southern wintering grounds. But many robins never leave.

Those that migrate probably move south to find food rather than to escape the cold. The ones that spend the winter in the north easily survive the weather, but their summer foods dwindle; insects become less available and worms move down deep in the soil to avoid the cold. No problem -- the robins switch to eating dried fruits and berries. As robins abandon lawns and fields it seems like they have all gone south. But a flock of robins may suddenly appear on a tree where there is dried fruit throughout the winter, even as snow is falling.

Robins that do migrate return to their breeding grounds in early spring. The males sing a loud attention getting song when they arrive and we notice them. In winter the birds are more likely to go quietly about their business and escape our notice.

I will be glad when the robins begin to sing this year; it is not too far away (despite those persistent piles of snow on the street corners.) During the warm days of spring I often hear them singing in Brooklyn's trees from early morning until after dark. They also make a little whinnying sound when they are alarmed and a few other alarm calls like peep and tut that are the bird equivalents of eek and ulp.

Robins make nests in my condo garden every year, despite endless loud car traffic on the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The birds are famous for their bright blue eggs (for which Crayola has named a crayon robin's egg blue). The robin is among the most recognizable of American birds and it is one of the most handsome. It is the official state bird of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We love robins.

But I have some bad news. Do you remember Mother Goose nursery rhymes about them?

     The north wind doth blow, and we shall have snow,
     And what will poor robin do then, Poor thing?
     He'll sit in a barn, and keep himself warm, 
     And hide his head under his wing.

Or Who Killed Cock Robin?

     All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
     When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

Or endless variations about the romance of Robin Redbreast and Jenny Wren?

     Little Jenny Wren fell sick upon a time;
     In came Robin Redbreast and brought her cake and wine. 
     Robin Redbreast rose betimes all at the break of day
     He flew to Jenny Wren's house and sang a roundelay
    He sang of Robin Redbreast and little Jenny Wren
    And when he came unto the end, he then began again. 

None of these were written about the American robin! The rhymes originated in England where an entirely different bird goes by the name of robin; it has a red breast but it is a tiny and delicate bird that is not closely related to ours. (There are "robins" in other parts of the world too -- little yellow "forest robins" and a blue-and-yellow "starred robin" in Africa, and a variety of yellow, black, blue, and red birds that are called robins in Australia.)

But the nursery rhymes work well enough for American red-breasted robins, even if they were not meant that way; we have adopted them. And American writers have said memorable things enough about Turdus migratorius, especially winter-worn American writers from the northeast, like me. Here is one example from a long list:

                                    The Robin is the one,  Emily Dickinson

                                    The Robin is the one
                                     That interrupts the morn
                                    With hurried, few, express reports
                                    When March is scarcely on.
                                    The robin is the one
                                    That overflows the noon
                                    With her cherubic quantity,
                                    An april but begun.

                                    The robin is the one
                                    That speechless from her nest
                                    Submits that home and certainty
                                    And sanctity are best.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cockroach Ghost

An American cockroach nymph, Periplanta americana
Do you remember hearing about metamorphosis in biology class?

There are two kinds: complete metamorphosis during which dramatic change happens like when caterpillars become butterflies, and incomplete metamorphosis where growth occurs in successively larger but not-too-different stages called nymphs.

Roaches undergo incomplete metamorphosis. The picture shows one of the large later stage nymphs of an American cockroach (misleadingly named since they originated in Africa and were introduced here).

I found this one on the floor of a Manhattan office. After I photographed it, I touched it and found that it was an empty shell. Did it die and sit there unnoticed until it dried out? It is over an inch long from toe to antenna tip; could the custodial service have missed it for that long? Or did it somehow manage to shed this skin in one piece just the night before?

American cockroaches are common in warm moist places where they can find food, like restaurant kitchens, grocery stores and bakeries, sewers, and cellars. The adults are reddish brown and they average about one and a half inches long. They are disturbingly fast; a university study clocked them at about 50 body lengths per second, which would translate to a human running speed of about 200 miles per hour. In any stage of growth they seem to have what it takes to give us the creeps.

Do you remember hearing about metamorphosis in literature class?

“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.” Franz Kafka -- Metamorphosis 

P.S. I am getting emails from many people who have just received my book through online orders from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Stackpole Books. Thanks to all of you who have sent me nice comments! JF