Archive for the ‘humor’ Category

Teaching Ravens to Fly

April 11, 2010

From time to time, a little nonsense is needed in our lives. Here is an interview with a man who spent his career trying to teach ravens to fly underwater. (The piece is about six minutes long and has sound.)

The Hummingbirds Return

April 7, 2010


It is spring and we await our first hummingbird here at the Fat Finch. Hummingbirds, according to the Aztecs, were the reincarnated souls of dead Aztec warriors. There was a time, about a century ago, when many humans believed in  transmigration of souls into animals. The American writer Don Marquis used his fictional cockroach Archy to poke a little fun at the belief. Archy was a cockroach that lived in the newsroom at the New York Sun newspaper where Marquis worked. Archy had been a human who wrote free verse and, when he died, transmigrated into the body of cockroach as punishment. He communicates by throwing himself bodily on the keys of Mr. Marquis’s typewriter. He can’t capitalize anything because of the necessity of holding down the shift key on the typewriter at the same time striking the key of the letter to be capitalized. Nor did he waste energy or time attempting punctuation.

Aztec Jaguar Warrior on his way to Hummingbird Status

Marquis wrote during Prohibition, that time long ago when alcoholic beverages were banned in the United States. It was also a time of wide-spread belief  in ghosts and spiritualism.

But some things haven’t changed in the intervening century: We still love hummingbirds, even if fewer of us believe in ghosts. Here from his poem entitled “ghosts”

you want to know
whether i believe in ghosts
of course i do not believe in them
if you had known as many of them as i have
you would not
believe in them either
perhaps i have been
unfortunate in my acquaintance
but the ones i have known
have been a bad lot
no one could believe in them
after being acquainted with them
a short time . . . .

i remember talking to one of them
who had just worked his way
upward again he had been in the
body of a flea and he was going
into a cat fish
you would think he might be
grateful for the promotion
but not he
i do not call this much of an advance
he said why could i not
be a humming bird or something
kid i told him it will
take you a million years to work your
way up to a humming bird . . . .

Archy was not so ambitious as to try for a hummingbird. He was content with something less exalted:

personally my ambition is to get
my time as a cockroach shortened for
good behavior and be promoted
to a revenue officer
it is not much of a step up but
i am humble . . . .

The revenue officer Archy refers to is not the tax man but the revenue officer who spent his days and nights trying to eradicate boot-legged liquor in those far off days when the government tried to protect us from our vices.

Working our way up to hummingbirds, we’ve put out our feeders. Some Broad-tails have been seen on the outskirts of our city and we’re ready for our first visitors. They’ll arrive any day now. The seasons here march along; the Sandhill Cranes replaced by hummingbirds until autumn, when the cranes fill the void left by departing hummingbirds, the skies bringing year-round joy.

Hardy Crows

March 24, 2010

We’re sorry that today’s post is short: We’re hard at work finishing our new novel, Far from the Madding Crow. We know you can hardly wait. It’s the sequel to our best-selling – and boring – novel, Thrush of the d’Urbervilles.


The photo of the crow, corvus corone, was taken by Jans Canon at Southend-on-Sea, England.

White meat or Dark? (Part II)

February 10, 2010

I hope no one told our chickens that I am blogging about white meat and dark meat this week. They seemed a little slow out of the gate when I opened the chicken coop this morning; leery and suspicious, I thought.

Each morning I talk to the chickens as though we were all in the Royal Navy. “Good morning and I hope I find you well. Some eggs, if you please.” Then, in the evening when putting them to bed, I give them some Shakespeare, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and out little life is rounded with a sleep.” Although, come to think of it, last night I gave them something different. “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Perhaps that disturbed them and made them wonder.

Or maybe it was the Border Collie puppy, who seems to me to take an unhealthy interest in the chickens. As I said last time, the chickens are in no danger from the humans around here, but they worry some about the dogs. Dogs don’t discriminate between dark and white meat.

No dark meat here

Unlike chickens and turkeys, most birds can’t afford the luxury of white meat.

What we call “meat” is, in fact, muscle tissue. To be precise, skeletal muscle tissue. Composed of cells that contract when they receive an electrical impulse, these are “voluntary” muscles and are the prime movers of birds and mammals. Attached to bones, they literally move the animal world by contracting and relaxing.

Two types of voluntary muscle tissue do all this work, “slow-twitch” and “fast-twitch.” Dark meat, actually red meat, is slow-twitch muscle tissue, full of red blood cells and mitochondria which ensure a rich supply of blood and oxygen. These are the muscles that contract more slowly and less often, but are responsible for all sustained muscular effort, such as flying.

Birds that fly a lot haven’t got room for much fast-twitch (white) muscle tissue. Hummingbirds, for instance, have no white meat at all. Only ground dwelling birds (Mostly ratites) and birds like chickens, turkeys, and grouse which fly rarely and only for short distances have the luxury of a lot of white meat, because fast-twitch muscle tissue has many fewer red blood cells and cannot provide the oxygen necessary for sustained effort.

That is why ducks and geese have little white meat; even their breast meat (the pectoralis muscle) is dark. Ducks and geese have to fly for long distances and need slow-twitch, endurance muscles. Besides, it kept them safe from my parents who, like I said last time, didn’t care for dark meat and lied to me about it.

Wild Turkey

One thing that fast twitch (white) muscles are good at is sudden movement. Gallinaceous birds (turkeys, grouse) are capable of sudden bursts of flight. (What birder hasn’t been startled by a grouse exploding into flight in front of her?) Birds that don’t do sustained flying don’t need as much of the heavier, redder muscle tissue which is why the pectoralis muscle tissue(breast meat)of chickens and turkeys is white.

In wild turkeys, about one-fifth of the muscle tissue is white. And we humans fool with the genes of domesticated birds just to increase the amount of white meat. But even domesticated chickens and turkeys use their legs and thighs for sustained muscular effort and that is the reason their legs and thighs contain dark muscle tissue.


For more, see Evans and Heiser “What’s Inside:Anatomy and Physiology,” Chapter 4 of The Home Study Course of Bird Biology, 2nd ed., Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

For more on my childhood, see my autobiography, Bleak House, which I self-published under a pseudonym.

Dark Meat or White?

February 8, 2010

Psst! Don’t tell our chickens about this post. We don’t want them to know that the people who bring them food and water are chicken cannibals. We are, but not of our own chickens. We find them much too humorous and endearing to actually kill and eat one. Besides, we want the eggs.

The Araucana Chicken

And speaking of the chickens’ eggs, a week ago the Araucanas began laying again which is a sure sign that spring is on its way again. The Araucanas quit laying entirely, usually in late October and don’t start again until the end of January or early February. That wouldn’t be true if we artificially controlled the length of the photoperiod in which they live, as do commercial egg operations. Even the chickens which continue to lay in the winter do so at a slower rate than the rest of the year, because of the extended hours of darkness.

But our purpose today is to discuss the age-old question among humans who eat chickens and turkeys, “White meat or dark meat?”

Your author grew up believing that he preferred dark meat, the result of lies told him by his parents. When I was a young boy they told me that the dark meat was the best and, because they loved me so much, they would let me eat the legs and thighs. It wasn’t until adulthood that I discovered that they told me about the dark meat so they could have the white meat to themselves. And the gizzards. I never got a gizzard. Not until I was a grown man did I get a gizzard.

The Araucana Egg

Back to red meat versus white meat. You didn’t come to hear about my parents or my childhood. Which wasn’t bad, you understand; just full of parental lies about white meat. Oh, and that time my mother promised to buy be a new package of M&Ms after she spilled a bag on the kitchen floor, but never did. And one of my parents threw away my Mickey Mantle rookie baseball trading card which, if I still had, could sell for enough money to retire on.

I’ve forgiven them for all that though, so let’s get back to white meat and dark meat. I do wonder though,from time to time, what happened to my first model train . . . And my favorite childhood pillow. . . .

As you know, when someone serves you turkey or chicken at a dinner party, they will politely ask you whether you prefer dark meat or white meat. Or at least they will if they are not my parents who will lie to you about the whole thing but, like I said, I’ve forgiven them for that and so won’t say anything more about it. Whether you choose white meat or dark meat is largely a matter of personal taste, at least assuming you were raised by honest people, who didn’t warp your childish perceptions by deliberately misleading you and depriving you of the joy of white meat smothered in gravy on your plate.

Most birds don’t have any white meat so it wouldn’t have been an issue if my parents served duck, for instance. Ducks don’t have white meat. But I never got duck growing up. No. All I got was the thighs and legs of chickens and turkeys. But let that go.

Geese too. They don’t have any white meat either, but do you think my parents ever served geese? Not when I was around, they didn’t. They didn’t like dark meat.

Wild Turkey in Golden Gate Park - NPS Photo

One time, I remember, my father went turkey hunting with some friends and he came back with a wild turkey. That turkey had fed on Prickly Pear cactus and it had lovely streaks of light purple running through the breast meat. Or at least that is how that turkey remains in memory. I wonder how it tasted. All I got was a leg. Not that it matters now. I don’t hold a grudge.

So, besides taste, what is the difference between white meat and dark meat? All of it is muscle tissue, after all. The answer lies in what the bird uses the muscles for and how often it uses them.

By the way, I only learned this as an adult, after getting interested in birds. My parents certainly didn’t tell me. And I am going to tell you all about it, but it is going to take longer than I have room in this post to tell you. Somebody, probably one of my parents, told me that blog posts shouldn’t be longer than about 800 words or people won’t finish reading them and I just exceeded that limit for today, so you’ll have to wait for the next post to find out why some meat is white, some dark.

I know you are disappointed, but it’s not my fault. Blame my parents.


For more, see Evans and Heiser “What’s Inside:Anatomy and Physiology,” Chapter 4 of The Home Study Course of Bird Biology, 2nd ed., Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

For more on my childhood, see my autobiography, Bleak House, which I self-published under a pseudonym.

Pardon out fonts today. We’re not sure what happened, but we don’t know how to fix it. Probably my parents’ fault.

Silly Geese

January 20, 2010

Snow Geese

Huh? What? What did he say? Coyotes? Did he say coyotes? Who? No, I think he said we should buy oats.  No, he said, “Hi Goats.” But we’re not goats, were geese. Coats? We don’t need no stinkin’ coats, we’re Snow Geese! Silly goose! Who you callin’ a silly goose? Huh? Who’s that guy with the camera? Somebody ask him if he’s seen any coyotes. Coyotes! Where? Who said? Geese can’t talk English. What’s going on here? Don’t look behind us, they may be gaining. Who? The coyotes. What coyotes? Huh?


Click on the geese for a larger view.

Happy New Year from the Fat Finch

January 1, 2010

Happy New Year to our readers wherever you may be. As we complained about last time, the pundits are down on the last year and, in fact, the last decade.  Last time we published a snippet of poetry as an antidote.

For today, we had a couple of posts to choose from, one quasi-scientific about memory in plants and birds and another — entirely scientific — about duck copulation.

But, they can wait.

Better to start a new year with a chuckle and this video supplies it. WARNING: It has a silly soundtrack and a voice-over that is entirely in Japanese, so, unless you speak Japanese, we recommend muting it.  You’ll miss nothing. And, you have to wait for the bird, which appears about a minute and a half into the video.

Wasn’t that a good way to start a new year?

The 2009 National Wildlife Photo Contest

December 3, 2009

We’re back to share with you some of the winners from this year’s National Wildlife Federation photography contest winners. Not only are the photos great, each has something to teach us about the natural world.

As we noted last time, Rob Palmer of Colorado won the Grand Prize in this contest as well as the London Museum of Natural History’s prize.  In that photo, a Bald Eagle was about to dine on a Red-winged Blackbird.  In this one, a Bald Eagle is about to eat a Starling.

Rob Palmer

The lesson about nature from this photo is easily summarized: Starlings lack rear-view mirrors.

Next we have this photo, of another Starling, made by Karen Bloodworth. From it we learn that Starlings not only lack rear view mirrors: When young, they are easily confused about who is supposed to feed them.

Karen Bloodworth

Next is a photo made by Patricia Kline.  The Halloween message is clear:  Protect your pumpkins from Barn Owls wearing masks. That is a Barn Owl, right?

Patricia Kline

We leave you with this one, shot by Marcia Olinger.

Marcia Olinger

Two possibilites exist about nature’s lesson in this photo.  One hypothesis is that squirrels can’t read.  Or perhaps they can read, but are scofflaws.  Either way, signs warning them to keep away from the bird food won’t work.

You can see all the winners here and we recommend spending a few minutes with them. All of them remind us that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it.  Here is an article about the contest with larger photos but be patient, sometimes it takes a long time to load.

If the squirrels are eating the bird food you put out, here is a squirrel-proof feeder that doesn’t care if they can read.

Prize Winning Bird Photos

November 30, 2009

Last week, ravaged by pink eye, I lay in bed, scarce caring whether I lived or died.  Only Hilda, my toothless old Mother, bothered to bring me food and quinine.  When, at last, my strength began to return, Hilda brought me my computer.  With her old, red gums clashing she told me she had found me wildlife pictures to aid in my recovery, just like she used to do when I was a child and came down with the scurvy.  Mine was a poor childhood, without even Vitamin C to fortify me for the twenty-mile uphill trudge — both ways — to school through the driving blizzards.  Often I was lost for weeks at a time.

In the days of renewed vigor following my illness, I learned from the computer of the results of two wildlife photography contests which, with my increasing energy I am now able to tell you about by weakly click-clicking away on this keyboard.

In the first contest, run by the Museum of Natural History in far off London, a place I could only dream about during my poverty-encrusted childhood out on the endless prairies, Rob Palmer of Colorado, USA, won for this photo of a Bald Eagle snatching a Red-winged Blackbird out of the air. We’ve told you before about Palmer who is one of our favorite photographers of birds.

Rob Palmer

Palmer’s photo wasn’t the only bird photo that won a prize.  Several others were also winners. Here is one from Finland, a place almost as cold and dark in the winter as my childhood home.  That is a wolf approaching some carrion, driving Ravens and Magpies from his path. I remember the wolves howling as they tried to run me down when I plodded home from school during dark evenings.

Seppo Pollanen

I often shared my childhood home in the cliffs above the Yukon River with Peregrine Falcons.  Shivering there in the cold, I wished they would share their kills with me, but they never did, so I existed on rutabagas. Over in England a single Peregrine can cause panic among thousands of starlings, as in this photo.  The falcon is out of the photo on the left but you can see the wave of starlings departing.

Danny Green

Another prize winner, this one from France, reminds me of my childhood home deep in the Everglades.  Every so often I could take my eyes off the water-moccasin infested swamp long enough to glance into the trees where I would be rewarded with a glimpse of a woodpecker.  Like this photograph, that was long ago, when the world itself was still only in black and white, not like now with all the pretty colors.

David Hackel and Michel Poinsignon

Finally, my strength begins to wane — I’m not the man I once was you know — I leave you with another of the London prize winners.  This one doesn’t have a bird in it at all, but I include it because it reminds me of the jackals on the African savannah that used to hunt me as I slogged across the endless Serengeti on my way to school each day.

Lorenz Andreas Fischer

If I live long enough, we’ll be back next time with the winners of the other photo contest.

Congratulations to Rob Palmer. And, here is a hint about the next contest we’re going to cover; Palmer won that one too.


Sharp-eyed readers will notice the shameless plagiarism of E.B. White in the first three and a half sentences.  Most of that was lifted from his essay, “Fierce Pajamas” which you can find in The New Yorker book of the same name at page 7.  I stole the idea of simply lifting somebody else’s sentences — just to get started, you understand — from Steve Martin’s “Writing is Easy!” in the same book.

Beverly Hills Declares War on Birds

November 25, 2009

Beverly Hills, home to generations of movie stars and other rich people, has declared war on songbirds. It may be part of a broader conspiracy. San Francisco, Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Los Angeles have piled on.

Woe betide anyone Beverly Hills or those other California towns who dares declaw a cat!  All those places have just passed city ordinances outlawing the declawing of cats.

From what I’ve read about the fearsome debate in California, which apparently revolves around a political dispute between local communities and the state veterinarian association, not one word has been raised in defense of song birds, the leading victims of those claws.

That’s not fair. If you are at risk of death from a cat’s claws, shouldn’t you at least get your own spokesman? I realize it’s Hollywood, so maybe the birds aren’t entitled to a lawyer, but surely a publicist at least? Or somebody from PETA?  (Well, maybe not PETA. I see that the president of PETA now demands that we call fish “sea kitties,” so I suspect that PETA may have a bias in favor of cats and a prejudice against birds, the largest population of wild animals on earth.)

We’ve written before about the songbird death rate caused by both pet and feral cats.  Let us hasten to add that, of all the options available to ease that slaughter, declawing your pet cats should be a last resort.  Far better to keep your cat indoors — with a scratching post — where coyotes, owls, cars, dogs, and other cat predators can’t get at them. Indoor cats live longer, healthier, warmer, and happier lives. Here are some other ideas.

And why doesn’t someone invent a way to simply cover cat claws with some kind of padding? Ballet dancers have them for their toes.

Birds used to have claws themselves, like this. No cat would mess with a bird like that.

The downside of criminalizing cat declawing is that people who want to keep their cats indoors may decide that protecting their nice furniture — and we assume the denizens of Beverly Hills have very nice furniture — from the claws of their pets is more important than keeping the cat indoors. Being law abiding citizens they will then condemn their pets to an outdoor life and their pets will set about killing wild birds.

Of course, this may be nothing more than a ploy by those California communities to pander to the cat tourism industry.  Big business, cat tourism.  People are always driving half-way across the continent or flying half-way round the world just to get a fleeting glimpse of a stranger’s pet cat.  Not at all like birders, who hardly ever go anywhere in search of birds. Cat tourists leave no stone unturned in the quest to see just one more pet cat.

But at least now we know the reason why, when you look at lists of the best places to go birding in the world, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood are not on the list.

NBC and the Los Angeles Times reported the news about the ordinances, as did the Huffington Post. The quote from the PETA president came from this.

Don’t forget to be a great citizen and shop at The Fat Finch this weekend.

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