Rube Goldberg meets Rocket J. Squirrel in today's amusing welcome-to-the-blog video, passed along by Notebook correspondent Andy Anderson of North Carolina.
Turkeys in Love We're staring at each other, a few feet apart. Snow is falling. My cheeks are pink. His face is blue. I'm on my way up our dirt road to the mailbox. He's blocking the way. I'm trying to be inconspicuous. He's puffed up, his tail feathers fanned out like a gigantic rummy hand.
He's looking for love. I'm looking for a Netflix DVD about Thomas Jefferson. He has a harem. I have cold feet. He recognizes me. I recognize him. We've met often this winter. He knew me before I had this limp from slipping on driveway ice. I knew him before his face turned blue. We go way back.
I lower my head and try to look non-threatening. I walk wide of him, off the road, a bit too far, and start sinking. Mistake. I feel the slushy water pouring in over the top of my extremely manly gardening galoshes. Now my feet are cold and wet. But I pass Tom Turkey without further disturbing him. He returns his attention to his harem.
Wild turkey mating season has begun. It's a showy spectacle. To woo the hens, each male not only flashes his iridescent topcoat and magnificent tail but also puffs up to reveal what seem to be multiple layers of underlying haberdashery. Who knew gobblers had such style? The technicolor transformation of the male's head is equally startling. The face goes sky blue, the forehead blanches white and the wattle deepens in tone from light radish to ripe tomato.
All of which set me to wondering as I snuck back down the driveway with my Jefferson DVD. How did that other colonial genius, Ben Franklin, overlook the striking color combination when making his pitch to have the turkey (rather than the bald eagle) declared America's national bird? Every year male turkeys turn red, white and blue! Talk about brand identity!
Had Franklin succeeded, I'm sure that by now the marketing engineers at TurkeyCo would have figured out a way to genetically delay the start of mating season until the Fourth of July.
Given that 116 years ago this week the first motion picture was projected onto a screen, by French film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumiere, let me note that a release date finally has been announced for the much-anticipated movie version of Mark Obmascik's comical birding best-seller, The Big Year. The movie, starring Owen Wilson and Jack Black, will reach theaters on October 14th.
I'm not sure what flick the Lumieres showed on that historic day in 1895 (it was a private screening), but their first public screening, in December 1895, was of 10 films, none longer than 49 seconds. The lineup included a 46-second movie of workers leaving a factory and a 42-second work called Fishing for Goldfish.
Naturalist's Guide to The Sweet 16
Those of you who have visited The Naturalist's Notebook know that our annual Sweet 16 Honey-Tasting Tournament is a summer highlight. We set it up like the NCAA college basketball tournament, complete with seedings, brackets and a carefully selected field of competitors. Each day for several weeks pairs of honeys face off, with Notebook visitors tasting and then choosing (by paper ballot) which one advances to the next round. The 2009 champion was Washington State Fireweed, which edged New York Basswood in a memorable final. Last summer Maine Wild Raspberry ended the Cinderella run of modest Pennsylvania Alfalfa with a title-game trouncing.
I mention this because the real Sweet 16 is here. After two rounds, the NCAA tournament has narrowed its field to 16—the Sweet 16. Here's how a natural historian, analyzing only team nicknames, might handicap the next round:
Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Kentucky Wildcats: Any cat might climb and scratch a buckeye tree, but the Felis silvestris, the true wildcat, is small—usually no more than 13 pounds. He's said to be the ancestor of all of the world's house cats. We know what that means: After a long game, only the trees will be left standing. The cats will be curled up, napping. (Revised assessment after Kentucky's victory: Many of Ohio's buckeye trees have been felled over the years. What's one more?)
Marquette Golden Eagles vs. North Carolina Tar Heels: Tar Heels are homo sapiens who were nicknamed in the Civil War for refusing to turn and run. Golden eagles have been symbols of the Roman legion and the Holy Roman Empire. Good matchup. The natural historian, however, says that the sticky distillation of Carolina pine trees will leave the eagles both feathered and tarred. (Post-game update: The Tar Heels won.)
Duke Blue Devils vs. Arizona Wildcats: Blue Devils was the nickname of the blue-clad French mountain infantrymen who fought in World War I; they were dashing enough that Duke borrowed the moniker for its sports teams. Though wildcats might sneak up on a single soldier and devour his pet mouse, they can't take out a whole platoon of armed primates wearing berets. (Revised assesssment in the aftermath of Arizona's victory: World War I soldiers are pretty old and feeble by now.)
Connecticut Huskies vs San Diego State Aztecs: Archaeologists have confirmed that the homo sapiens known as Aztecs sacrificed humans by cutting their hearts out, decapitating them, shooting them full of arrows, slicing them, stoning them, crushing them, skinning them, burying them alive and/or throwing them off temples. Though Huskies evolved from wolves, nowadays they're mostly good sled-pullers and family pets. (Revised assessment in the aftermath of Connecticut win: Forgot to mention that Aztec civilization went extinct.)
Kansas Jayhawks vs. Richmond Spiders: Jayhawks aren't real birds. They're an imaginary cross-breed of jays and hawks. Doesn't matter. Birds eat spiders. (Post-game update: That's exactly what happened.)
Virginia Commonwealth Rams vs. Florida State Seminoles: Rams win points for being more politically correct, but all that butting will constantly send their human opponents to the foul line.
Butler Bulldogs vs. Wisconsin Badgers: Germans once bred a superdog to hunt badgers: the mighty dachshund (literally, badger hound). That said, bulldogs aren't good at going down into holes to catch fierce, short-legged weasels. (Trivia note: Wisconsin is known as the Badger State because of its impoverished 19th century lead miners, who spent winters "living like badgers" by burrowing tunnels into hillsides). Revised assessment in aftermath of Butler triumph: Why would I ever pick a weasel?
Brigham Young Cougars vs. Florida Gators: Crocodiles and alligators can snatch and eat fairly large mammals. Cougars tend to stay far away from them, hunting equally large mammals in the mountains. This unnatural matchup has the naturalist scratching his primate head. But he's going to go with the cat, based on this astonishing video evidence of feline dominance: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sAF8gMN9c0] Revised assessment in aftermath of Florida win: I still like the kitty video.
Answer to the Last Puzzler: To recap: An explorer is captured by natives, who tell him this: “Make a statement. If what you say is true you will be hanged. If it is false you will be shot.” What can the explorer say to save his life?
The answer: He says, "I will be shot." If the statement is true, he has to be hanged, which would automatically make the statement false. If he is shot, then his statement is obviously true, so he should be hanged.
Another of our North Carolina correspondents offered an astute alternative answer. She suggested that the explorer say, "I am a liar." If the natives interpreted that to mean, "I always lie," they would be caught in a similar loop of contradictions.
How about a few more word jumbles. All of these unscramble into common words from the natural world:
John Bartram, the largely self-taught Pennsylvanian who has been called the Father of American botany, would have turned 312 years old today. He explored from Lake Ontario to Florida, collecting samples, identifying (and sending to Europe) a vast number of specimens, including rhododendrons and magnolias. He was the first person to cultivate that mini-Little Shop of Horrors plant, the Venus flytrap (which is native only to a 60-mile radius around Wilmington, N.C.), and the first American to perform hybridizing experiments. I'm not sure where Bartram stood on the turkey-versus-eagle question, but he and Ben Franklin were friends and co-founders of the American Philosophical Society.
William Smith, the English geologist who discovered links between the age of rock layers and of fossils found in those strata, would have been 242 today. Known as Strata Smith, he published the first full geological map of Britain—a document so detailed and revelatory that it was called The Map that Changed the World. Unfortunately for Smith, his work was plagiarized, he went bankrupt and he was sent to debtors' prison before being recognized for his accomplishments.
Wernher von Braun, the German-born Nazi-turned-American who was the foremost rocket engineer of the 20th century, would have been 99 today. A gifted cellist and pianist who grew up wanting to be a symphony conductor, he instead became a rocket scientist who dreamed of space travel. Steered into military work, he designing the deadly V2s in World War II before coming under suspicion by the Nazis for his qualms about the war effort. Von Braun willingly surrendered to U.S. forces in 1945 and went on to draw up the Saturn booster rocket that launched NASA rockets to the moon.
Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician and astronomer who in his day was compared to Isaac Newton for his brilliance and contributions to math and science, would have been 261 today. Laplace, a pioneer in statistics and probability, built upon Newton's discoveries and formulated a scientific explanation for the stability of the universe. In a famous scene, he presented a copy of one of his major works to the emperor Napoleon, who said, "Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." To which Laplace replied, "I had no need of that hypothesis."