Posts Tagged ‘E.B. White’

The Pencil

October 23, 2010

Harold Ross, the legendary founder and editor of the world’s best magazine, The New Yorker, was renown for his tightness when it came to office supplies and equipment. When E.B. White, probably the best writer at the world’s best magazine, was late with a piece, Ross sent him a note that said:

Mr. White:

If you get that story done, I’ll take steps to get you a new cushion for your chair.

H.W. Ross

Harold Ross in the Copyright-Expired Olden Times

On another occasion Ross bumped into Dorothy Parker, also a staff writer, at a restaurant and asked her why she wasn’t back in the office working. She responded, “Because someone was using the pencil.”

That’s been the problem here at The Fat Finch lately. Every time I sit down to write a post somebody else has the pencil.

Heedless, the wild world marched on without taking the slightness notice of the paucity of Fat Finch posts. Billions of birds migrated and are already on their winter feeding grounds. The southern hemisphere, now grabbing most of the sunlight falling on the planet, also has most of the birds. The Rocky Mountains are hunkered down, awaiting the first blast of winter, which is late this year. Most of the Aspens north of New Mexico have shed their leaves and stand naked now, awaiting cold north winds and the storms that the jet stream will soon blow their way. Rocky Mountain Aspen have had a good year. SAD, “Sudden Aspen Decline” seems to have slowed and fewer trees died this year. And we humans seem to have isolated the cause of SAD: drought and heat. And that’s not good news in the long run, the world keeps getting warmer and the southwestern United States keeps getting drier. Someone has even noted that the value of municipal bonds in the southwest may decline as worries about water supplies increase. Phoenix may have all the water rights it needs, but you can’t drink water rights.

It’s been raining in San Diego and that means the jet stream has finally begun its autumn meanderings above the earth and the Bermuda High is horsing around south of the Azores. Up in the Yukon the mainly birdless trees are thinking of Robert Service who wrote in his poem, “The Pines”:

We sleep in the sleep of ages, the bleak barbarian pines;

We pillar the halls of perfumed gloom;

We plume where the eagles soar;

The North-wind swoops from the brooding Pole, and our ancients crash and roar; . . .

Gain to the verge of the hog-back ridge where the vision ranges free;

Pines and pines and the shadow of pines as far as the eye can see;

A steadfast legion of stalwart knights in dominant empery.

Sun moon and stars give answer: shall we not staunchly stand,

Even as now, forever, wards of the wilder strand,

Sentinels of the stillness, lords of the last, lone land?

It is so cold and dark in the wintertime Yukon that even the air tries to escape, blowing southward in the autumn; helping the Yukon’s Peregrine Falcons on their way to Chile, 8,000 miles away. They make the trip in about sixty days, averaging between forty and sixty miles an hour. Bereft of falcons, the Yukon River will freeze now and not care at all what I have to say about it.

Our physical store is likewise migrating south this winter, relocating about a mile south of its current location. We’ll update you on that in a future post. But our virtual store will stay where it is. Seasons mean nothing in the world-wide-web. Weather is of no consequence there; only ones and zeroes matter.

And you’ve kept reading. Thank you. We’re hunkering down for winter too, so there will more time to write. Besides, I’ve got the pencil now.

I could use a new chair cushion though.


The stories about H.W. Ross come from the October 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, in a brief piece announcing that the magazine will now be available as an application on the iPad.

Belted Kingfishers

January 28, 2010

Male Belted Kingfisher - Cole

The most popular blog entry on this blog is “Halloween and Barn Owls.” In that post we quote from E.H. Forbush’s book, Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. The book is out-of-print and we don’t have a copy, but we do know that at the end of each section about a bird Forbush included a paragraph or two called “Economic Status.” Forbush was a great lover of birds and it was in that section that he attempted to describe for his reader how good each bird was for the economy of New England.

E.B. White also loved birds and kept a copy of Forbush in his Maine farmhouse. White noted that the “economic status” paragraphs usually consisted of a detailed account of what was in the bird’s stomach, proving that it ate mainly pests. White continues,

Forbush struggles to be strictly impartial . . . but his passion for birds is so great that it is always a losing battle. When he got around to defending the Belted Kingfisher, he just had to put his head down and throw punches in all directions. But his conscience got the best of him finally and he ended up: “The mice and grass-eating insects on which it feeds surely count in its favor and the bird probably deserves protection by law, except about fish hatcheries.” (Italics White’s)

Belted Kingfishers do enjoy fish now and again.

Female Belted Kingfisher - Baird

You can buy the Forbush book, all three volumes of it, for $222.00 here. The quote from E.B. White comes from The Letters of E.B. White, p -312. (Guth, editor)

The photo of the male Belted Kingfisher is by Kevin Cole. The female is by Mike Baird.

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.

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds

December 30, 2007

If you are a Lister, you know that you can count a bird you haven’t actually seen, so long as you can confidently identify it by its song or its call. We’ll have more to say about this in the new year but here, for your New Year’s Eve, is a primer. We tried to hyper-link to the Cornell site for sounds but it kept taking us to the search page. If you want to hear any of these calls, go to the page here and type the species’ name then listen for as long as you have time.

A Listener’s Guide to the Birds


Wouldst thou know the lark?
Then Hark!
Each natural bird
Must be seen and heard.
The lark’s “Tee-ee” is a tinkling entreaty,
But it’s not always “Tee-ee” —
Sometimes it’s “Tee-titi.”
So watch yourself.

Birds have their love-and-mating song,
Their warning cry, their hating song;
A lilt, a tilt, a come-what-may song;
Birds have their careless bough and teeter song
And, of course, their Roger Tory Peter song.


The studious ovenbird (pale pinkish legs)
Calls, “Teacher, teacher, teacher!”
The chestnut-sided warbler begs
To see Miss Beecher.
“I wish to see Miss Beecher.”
(Sometimes interpreted as “Please, please please ta meetcha.)


The redwing (frequents swamps and marshes)
Gurgles, “Konk-la-reeee,”
Eliciting from the wood duck
The exclamation “Jeeee!”
But that’s the male wood duck, remember.
If its his wife you seek,
Wait till you hear a distressed “Who-eek!”


Nothing is simpler than telling a barn owl rom a veery:
One says, “Kschh!” in a voice that is eerie,
The other says, “Vee-ur,” in a manner that is breezy.
(I told you it was easy.)
On the other hand, distinguishing between the veery
And the olive-backed thrush
Is another matter. It couldn’t be worse.
The Thrush’s song is similar to the veery’s,
Only it’s in reverse.


Let us suppose you hear a bird say, “Fitz-bew,”
The things you can be sure of are two:
First, the bird is an alder flycatcher (Empidonax traillii traillii)
Second, you are standing in Ohio — or, as some people call it,
O-hee-O —
Because, although it may come as a surprise to you,
The alder flycatcher, in New York or New England,
does not say, “Fitz-bew,”
It says, “Wee-be-o.”


“Chu-chu-chu” is the note of the harrier,
Copied, of course, from our common carrier.

The osprey, thanks to a lucky fluke,
Avoids “Chu-chu” and cries, “Chewk, chewk!”
So there’s no difficulty there.


The chickadee likes to pronounce his name;
It’s extremely helpful and adds to his fame.
But in spring you can get the heebie-jeebies
Untangling chickadees from phoebes.
The chickadee, when he’s all afire,
Whistles, “Fee-bee,” to express desire.
He should be arrested and thrown into jail
For impersonating another male.
(There’s a way you can tell which bird is which,

But just the same, it’s a nasty switch.)
Our gay deceiver may fancy-free be
But he never does fool a female phoebe.

Oh, sweet the random sounds of birds!
The old-squaw, practicing his thirds;
The distant bittern, driving stakes,
The lonely loon on haunted lakes;
The white-throat’s pure and tenuous thread —
They go to my heart, they go to my head.
How hard it is to find the words
With which to sing the praise of birds!
Yet birds, when they get singing praises,
Don’t lack for words — they know some daisies:
“Onk-a-lik, ow-owdle-ow,”
“Cheedle cheedle chew,”
And dozens of other inspired phrases.

By E. B. White

Happy New Year from the Fat Finch!

The Color of Eggs, Part III

October 7, 2007

As you can see from the photo, our Araucanas have begun laying their blue eggs. You may remember from our earlier post that most of our chickens did not begin laying until I explained fried chicken to them. araucana-egg-1-of-1.jpgThat did not work on the Araucanas and it wasn’t until this week that I figured out why: Araucanas are from Peru and don’t speak English. I don’t speak Quecha but fortunately both the chickens and I could communicate in Spanish. Can you say “fried chicken” in Spanish?

Which brings us to Part III of our series on the color of bird eggs. As we mentioned at the end of our last post in the series, scientists are not inclined to give credit to female avian artistry and look for scientific explanations of why birds go to the trouble of coloring their eggs. They don’t accept our “art hypothesis.”

Their answer is adaptation. The theory goes like this: To survive, bird eggs must protect the small birds inside until they can peck their way out. If egg-eating predators have an easy time finding the eggs, it is much less likely that little birds will live to hatch and then reproduce the species. After all, skunks don’t care whether the egg they eat today means no eggs for their grandchildren. (Or we assume they don’t.)

Like lawyers adducing evidence at trial, the scientists bring forth first, Exhibit A: the Killdeer, which lays eggs in the open. 13killdeereggs.jpg Such eggs would be easy sightings for visual predators unless well camouflaged, as Killdeer eggs are. Coupled with the small similarly marked and colored rocks which Killdeer frequently use to line their nests, the entire apparatus is practically invisible which obviously aids in Killdeer survival. (Killdeer are experts at distraction displays which we discussed briefly in our post about Rikki-tikki-tavi. They are ground nesters.)

Exhibit B consists of white eggs laid by birds which nest in dark holes such as Petrels, Woodpeckers, Kingfishers. White eggs are easier to see in the dark. Exhibit C brings more white eggs, this time of species which leave nests frequently but cover the eggs with grasses or other plants in the vicinity before leaving which hides the eggs from flying eyes.

But there is a hole in this theory and it is the White Leghorn hen, that prolific egg layer we and E.B. White talked about in the first post on egg color. The one who would stop to lay an egg even if she was on the way to a fire. If the purpose of egg color is camouflage to conceal the eggs from predators, who is in more need of that than a domestic chicken whose every egg is stolen from her by two legged mammals? Why does she lay white eggs visible for miles?  I think the scientists have a little way to go to finish their explanation. Given what we are learning about bird brains and how evolved they really are, perhaps scientists should take another look at our art hypothesis.

But I can hear them now, “It isn’t just chickens and birds that hide their eggs when they leave their nests who lay white eggs. Exhibit D contains the eggs of Hawks and Owls and other birds which begin incubating their eggs as soon as the first one hatches. No need to camouflage those because the parent is sitting on them.”

We’ll let you know the verdict when it comes in.

Egg Color, Part I

September 25, 2007

We restocked ourselves with chicks this Spring. By late August they still had not produced any eggs so we went out and had a chat with them about fried chicken. The very next day we had our first egg and they have been busy ever since. Except for some Araucanas which produce blue eggs, all the eggs we are getting are brown.

That reminded me of an essay E.B. White wrote in response to the English writer and humorist J.B. Priestley. Priestley had published a piece explaining America to his British readers by decrying America’s preference for white chicken eggs over brown ones. Here is Mr. White:

Why is it, do you suppose, that an Englishman is unhappy until he has explained America? Mr. Priestley finds the key to this country in its preference for white eggs — a discovery, he says, that will move him into the “vast invisible realm where our lives are shaped.” It’s a great idea, but one seldom meets an American who is all tensed up because he has yet to explain England.

Mr. Priestley writes that “the weakness of American civilization. . .is that it is so curiously abstract.” In America, he says, “brown eggs are despised, sold off cheaply, perhaps sometimes thrown away.” Well, now. In New England, where I live and which is part of America, the brown egg, far from being despised, is king. . . “The Americans [writes Mr. Priestley] despise brown eggs because they seen closer to nature. White eggs are much better, especially if they are to be given to precious children, because their very whiteness suggests hygiene and purity.” My goodness. Granting that an Englishman is entitled to his reflective moments, . . . I suspect there is a more plausible explanation for the popularity of the white egg in America. I ascribe the whole business to a busy little female — the White Leghorn hen. She is nervous, she is flighty, she is the greatest egg-machine on two legs, and it just happens that she lays a white egg. She’s never too distracted to do her job. A Leghorn hen, if she were on her way to a fire, would pause long enough to lay an egg. This endears her to the poultrymen of America, who are out to produce the greatest number of eggs for the least money paid out for feed. Result: much of America, apart from New England, is flooded with white eggs.

“The English prefer the brown egg,” writes Mr. Priestley, “because it belongs to the enduring dream of the English, who always hope sooner or later to move into the country.” Here I understand what he is talking about: the brown egg is, indeed, because of its pigmentation, more suggestive of country living — a more “natural” egg, if you wish, although there is no such thing as an unnatural egg. . . .

So, you may be wondering, where does that pigmentation come from and how does it get on those eggs? How and why do birds go to the trouble of coloring their eggs? We’ll attempt an answer, but first I’m off to fry myself an egg: a brown one. Although completely irrational, we agree that a brown egg seems closer to nature.

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