Like the rest of us, scientists make mistakes. They—or their successors—catch the errors over time, because science is a process of testing and retesting to make sure that propositions are true.
Aristotle wasn't a scientist per se. He lived in the fourth century B.C., more than 2100 years before the word scientist was ever used. (Before then, people who studied the physical world were called natural philosophers.) But besides being Plato's most famous philosophy student, Aristotle was in effect the first great naturalist and scientist. He wrote a multi-volume history of animals and mused about all manner of natural phenomena. However, as I learned last fall while doing an article on North America's Pacific Flyway migration, Aristotle had an unusual theory about small birds. It came to mind the other day as I watched the first spring robins pecking in the grass here in Maine.
Aristotle had noticed that common redstarts, a bird he saw regularly in Greece in the summer and early autumn, disappeared as fall turned to winter. Coincidentally, that is when he would begin to see European robins, a somewhat similar-looking bird that also has a red-orange breast. He didn't realize that small birds migrate—an understandable mistake at a time when people never traveled far and had no way to know where birds went. He therefore came up with the hypothesis that each fall redstarts transformed (or "transmuted") themselves into European robins. To explain why other types of birds disappeared and were not replaced by similar-looking species, he suggested that those birds (including swallows, storks, kites and doves) hibernated for the winter in holes in trees or even under mud.
Those myths persisted for many centuries—well into the 19th century in the case of hibernation. Needless to say, if Aristotle had been able to use radar, bird banding, radio tracking transmitters and field reports from people around the world, as avian researchers can today, he would never have suggested that redstarts turn into robins. But he deserves credit for using his powers of observation. Those are the first tools of any naturalist or scientist. Observed Aristotle, "He who sees things grow from the beginning will have the best view of them."
The European robin, which is quite different from the American variety. The European robin is part of the flycatcher family; our robin is a thrush.
The Joe Torre of Birds
I recently finished reading an extremely entertaining book called A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All, by Luke Dempsey. In recounting the travel and bird-watching adventures he shared with two friends, Dempsey, a New York-based book editor, mentions a sports chat he had with one of the friends while the trio was having lunch and watching the previous night's baseball highlights at a cafe near the Jay Norwood Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida. (More on Ding Darling at a future date.)
The two men started discussing which New York Yankees resembled which types of birds. Keep in mind, this took place several years ago, so the team roster was different. The two men agreed that Yankees manager Joe Torre reminded them of the black-crowned night heron: "deliberate, glum but effective" and slugger Gary Sheffield was "a peregrine falcon, attacking the baseball the way the raptor falls on an oblivious passing duck."
It's a game that sparks the imagination of anyone who watches birds. Dempsey and his friend went on to compare Tom Wolfe, the ever white-suited author, to the snowy egret. I've occasionally compared myself to a dodo or a loon, and remember plenty of athlete-bird comparisons from years past, including former Dodgers relief pitcher Phil Regan (known as the Vulture because he would swoop in and devour the final batters in a game) and NFL linebacker Ted Hendricks (called the Mad Stork because he stood a gawky 6'7").
So put out plenty of seed for those spring migrants and turn on your sense of fun the next time you're bird-watching. Perhaps you'll see someone you recognize. Oh, and if you're about to remark that someone you know "eats like a bird," recall that that in the fuel-up weeks before they fly north or south, some migrants eat so much that they double their body weight.
I'm happy to report that artist and art historian Margaret Krug of Parsons The New School and American Artist magazine will return to The Naturalist's Notebook this July to give another one-day workshop. I'll offer details on that in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I wanted to let you know that the deadline is May 15 to sign up for Margaret's August "Painting on Panels" program at the Spannocchia Foundation estate in Italy. It's a fantastic program that Pamelia has taken many times. For more details, go to http://www.spannocchia.org/education/program.cfm?id=84 or http://www.margaretkrug.com.
Weekly Nature Walks on Mount Desert Island
For those of you in Maine, naturalist Billy Helprin of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust has again begun hosting his weekly walks at the trust's Babson Creek Preserve in Somesville. From now through April 14, the walks will take place every Thursday from 3 to 4 p.m. After a one-week hiatus, they will resume on Thursday, April 28, but at the much earlier hour of 7:30 a.m. The hikes are relaxed and friendly and offer a mix of birding, botany and general exploration of the marvels of spring. We hope to see some of you there.
Answer to the Last Puzzler:
Turn one switch on for a minute or so, then turn it off. Turn a different switch on. Go upstairs. The non-illuminated light bulb that feels warm is linked to the first switch you turned on. The bulb that is still on is linked to the second switch you turned on. And the other bulb is connected to the third switch.
1) This one comes from Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, who was also a mathematician and logician and came up with many puzzles: A rope is hung over a frictionless pulley that is attached to a building. At one end of the rope is a weight. At the other end is a monkey. The weight and the monkey are perfectly in balance. What happens if the monkey starts climbing the rope? Will the weight rise, fall or remain in the same position?
2) This one is based on an ancient Hindu puzzle:
Three travelers stop at a tavern and order a platter of baked potatoes for dinner. When the tavern keeper brings the platter, all three men are asleep. The first man wakes up, eats one third of the potatoes and goes back to sleep. The second man wakes up and eats one third of the remaining potatoes and falls back asleep. The third man then wakes up and eats one third of the remaining potatoes and goes back to sleep. Eight potatoes are left. How many potatoes were originally on the platter?
Vincent van Gogh, the sublime Dutch painter, would have turned 158 on Wednesday. For all the joy he brought future generations with his strong, colorful post-Impressionist works, he was little appreciated in his own lifetime. He suffered from numerous physical and mental ailments (none of which has been definitively diagnosed, but one of which may have poisoning from the lead paint he used) and took his own life at age 37. It is still being debated whether he cut off his left earlobe with a razor in a moment of self-torment after a fight with his friend and fellow painter Paul Gaugin or whether Gaugin lopped it off during the fight. Doesn't much matter. Very few of us have ever even learned to pronounce van Gogh's name correctly. For the record, here is the correct pronunciation:
Jethro Tull, the English agricultural inventor and namesake of the rock group, would have turned 337 on Wednesday. He invented the horse-drawn seed drill, which in the description of Notebook favorite Bill Bryson "allowed seeds to be planted directly into the soil rather than broadcast by hand. Seed was expensive, and Tull's new drill reduced the amount needed from three or four bushels per acre to under one; and because the seeds were planted at even depths in neat rows, more of them sprouted successfully, so yields improved dramatically." The Ian Anderson-led band, by the way, was named in its early days by an agent who happened to be an English history buff.
Brooke Astor, the New Hampshire-born philanthropist, would have been 109 today. She spent much of her time in Maine, not far from The Naturalist's Notebook, and showed extraordinary generosity to all sorts of organizations on Mount Desert Island, including public gardens and arts programs. She developed a love of nature while spending time with Buddhist monks in China as a child (her father was a Marine officer who served around the world) and never lost that appreciation.
Santorio Santorio, or Sanctorius of Padua, the Italian physician who originated the study of human metabolism, would have turned 450 today. He developed history's first medical machine (a pulse-measuring apparatus) and one of its first thermometers. He also is known for his meticulous research. Every day for 30 years he weighed himself, everything he ate and drank, and every bit of his feces and urine. He invented the concept of "insensible perspiration" to explain why the body didn't produce waste products as heavy as its food intake. Alas, that concept has gone the way of Aristotle's bird transmutation.