"Raptor" comes from a Latin word meaning to seize by force and carry away. Birds that hunt with their talons are called raptors. They are strong and fierce. This week a half dozen of them hunted by our house.
An adult Northern goshawk came first and claimed one of our unsuspecting mallards. Pamelia and I couldn't bear to watch, but all that was left afterwards were a few feathers. We would see this same goshawk (or perhaps another adult) again a few days later playing a different role in a scene we won't soon forget. More on that in a moment.
Two days hence I was startled to see a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk, with yellow eyes, perched on our deck railing in the midday sun. We were awed by the close-up look at this beautiful raptor, which sat there for more than 20 minutes, turning his head left and right to watch birds and squirrels come and go from feeders. Because of sharp-shinneds' predilection for dining on feeder birds (sharp-shinneds are sometimes called sparrow hawks), we were ambivalent about the possible consequences of his visit.
Don't assume from their name that sharp-shinned hawks have razor-like lower legs that they use as weapons. The birds are called sharp-shinned because their lower legs simply are thin and not cloaked by feathers. As we watched the one on the deck, it turned several times to stare at us—talk about a look of intensity—but otherwise seemed preoccupied with its potential prey. It eventually flew off without killing anything, but the next morning, on the other side of the house (near another feeder), we saw a scattering of what appeared to be mourning dove feathers. The sharp-shinned hawk was the leading suspect in the dove's demise.
That same morning two bald eagles flew in. They regularly hunt the various types of ducks on our bay (mostly unsuccessfully, from the attempts I've seen), and in recent days they have perched high in oak trees overlooking the water. The eagles communicate with each other through shrill whistles. One calls, the other comes. If we can't see the eagles, Pamelia and I can still judge their whereabouts through these whistles and through the cries of crows, which announce the approach of any threatening raptor.
We have not seen the eagles catch any prey this week, but they keep returning. One glided in just a few minutes ago with light snow falling and more than 100 ducks huddled near shore on the bay. It has become our routine during daytime hours to go back and forth to windows on opposite sides of the house to check on the raptor activity on the water and in the woods.
It was on the woodsier side that we saw the juvenile goshawk last Saturday, eating an animal it had killed. I wish I had videotaped the scene. The young goshawk was on the ground holding the animal in its talons. It had its wings spread out to create a sort of tent over the carcass. Perhaps the goshawk was shielding its kill from potential thieves, but I think the bird also was using the wings to keep its balance as it tugged at the dead animal with its beak. Tearing apart skin, muscle and bone is a forceful, violent act, and the goshawk's head would fly back sometimes when it ripped a chunk off.
Then an adult goshawk swooped in from a nearby branch. We had not noticed it before. The adult (the same one we'd seen kill the duck?) bumped into the juvenile, as if challenging it for the food, but didn't press the case. We assumed that this was the parent teaching the juvenile the importance of protecting the newly caught prey. Then the adult moved several feet away and stood guard. After a few minutes, the adult flew back up into the nearby branch and watched from there. The youngster finished eating and the adult flew off toward the bay. The young goshawk, perhaps too full to move, stayed on the spot for another half hour. We still didn't know what type of animal it had killed and devoured.
A couple of hours later, when Pamelia and I went out for a walk, we checked the spot where the young goshawk had been dining. We found a bloody patch, some very fine hair (the kind used in artist's brushes for applying thin watercolors and inks) and an inch-long tip of a tail. The victim had been a red squirrel.
It was strange to think how quickly the cheeky, chatty animal we had seen every day had been turned into basic nutrients and future bone-and-fur-filled goshawk pellets. Then again, on a typical day in nature, it wasn't strange at all.
On the Natural Recycling Process By coincidence—and as you already know if you read The New York Times or follow our Facebook page—the Times ran an interview with Naturalist's Notebook friend Bernd Heinrich this week, done by eminent science writer Claudia Dreifus. The focus was Bernd's latest book, Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death. Here is the link if you want to click on it and read the interview:
Pamelia and I got a glimpse of some of Bernd's continuing research during a visit to his western Maine cabin in October. I won't reveal the specific phenomenon he was studying that day (truth is, he is always studying everything), but suffice it to say that it involved animal carcasses that were being rapidly recycled back into nature.
Warning: The photograph below might be disturbing to some of you because it shows a dead raccoon being devoured by maggots. Not a pretty sight. Keep in mind, however, that as with the goshawk's dismantling of the red squirrel, the process is utterly natural. The picture shows a small part of the food chain that keeps the planet's life forms going. The atoms that made up the raccoon will ultimately make their way into the soil, enriching it over a wide area (spread by insects, birds, mammals, water and wind), and some of the atoms will eventually rise up through the roots of plants, to help promote the photosynthesis that creates oxygen. Perhaps the former raccoon atoms in a plant then will be eaten by a grazing deer, or by you, as part of a salad. You are constantly shedding and replacing the atoms in your body—you no longer contain ANY of the atoms that composed your body when you were born, meaning that you've already had a full body replacement!—so there's really no surprise in the news that a few of your atoms might have spent several years residing in a raccoon. Or in a squirrel. Or in a dinosaur.
It's interesting that so many humans find entertainment and escape in carnage-filled movies and video games but turn squeamish when faced with an image of actual death.
Best License Plate of the Week Not to dwell too long on death and violence, but while driving through Ellsworth, Maine, the other night I saw a Chevy Impala with one of the cleverest license plates I've seen in a while. The plate had a frame that said Impala at the bottom, so it read:
VLAD THE IMPALA
Just for the record, Vlad the Impaler was a brutal, enemy-skewering, 15th-century prince from Transylvania (now part of Romania) whose family name was Dracula, which writer Bram Stoker later used for a certain vampire character of whom you may have heard.
P.S. Gifted young naturalist Luka Negoita, who is of Romanian descent, informed us last year that Prince Charles is a descendant of Vlad the Impaler's. The things you learn if you step inside The Naturalist's Notebook...
A Tidal Walk...and the Justin Bieber Rock As you also may know from the photo I posted on The Naturalist's Notebook's Facebook page, Pamelia and I did some far-out exploring of the intertidal zone during an extremely low tide this past week. I mentioned on Facebook that we had seen what I dubbed the Justin Bieber Rock. It is a huge boulder covered with rock weed, and it was exposed when the water level dropped.
See what you think:
Big History of Our Life Timeline: The Big Bang Let's keep this complicated subject simple. As we start going through the 24 color-coded eras that make up the 13.7-billion-year history of the universe in Pamelia's fantastic Big History of Our Life art-and-science installations, let's focus on one fact: The Big Bang created a lot of hydrogen.
If you want to understand the history of the universe, set that as a foundation stone in your mind: In the beginning, there was hydrogen. Or very shortly after the beginning, anyway (more on that in a future post). Hydrogen, that simplest of elements, with just one electron and one proton, made up about 75% of all the mass of atoms created in the Big Bang. Most of the rest was helium, which has two electrons and two protons. Hydrogen and helium are the fuel of stars. We'll leave you with that mental image for now: H and He floating through the cosmos. Keep it simple. More later.
Oh, and by the way, 63% of the atoms in your body are hydrogen.
Top Science Stories of the Last Year (Cont.) On we go in our countdown of the 100 top science stories of 2012, as ranked by Discover magazine. We left off at number 50. Here are the next 10:
49: Evidence from a cave in South Africa that humans were building and using fires at least 1 million years ago. The oldest previous evidence had dated back only 790,000 years. The humans who tended the hearth in that cave were not our species, homo sapiens, but one of the human species that preceded us.
48: Contamination of a number of steroid injections given to patients for joint and back pain, leading to a meningitis outbreak that claimed one life and raised questions about the oversight of the U.S.'s prescription drug supply.
47: The decision to allow the hunting of wolves in Wyoming despite overwhelming evidence that the reintroduction of those animals to Yellowstone National Park has led to what Discover calls a "spectacular" recovery of the park's ecosystem. The federal government's decision in the 1920s to wipe out Yellowstone's wolves had caused an overpopulation of elk, which had, as Discover puts it, "browsed trees and shrubs down to short, stubby forms. Now that wolves are culling elk, many aspens and willows are taller and fuller, and birds are repopulating them. Beavers expanded from one colony in 1996 to 12 in 2009."
46: Physicists' invention of whatDiscovercalls "prototype invisibility cloaks that conceal objects from light, sound and water." Cornell physicist Alexander Gaeta produced the most advanced technique, which (in very oversimplified terms) splits light on one side of an object and reunites the light on the other side.
45: Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner's unprecedented 24-mile skydive, during which he became the first person to break the sound barrier without a plane. His jump also enabled scientists to test technology that could be of value to future astronauts.
44: The disproving of the biggest science story of 2011—an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe in which neutrino particles had apparently traveled faster than the speed of light, defying Einstein's theory of relativity. The experimental results were measured inaccurately because of a faulty cable that was not detected until February 2012.
43: Evidence showing that the virus previously identified as a potential cause of chronic fatigue syndrome and perhaps prostate cancer in fact is unrelated to either. The earlier research, it turns out, had been altered by contaminated lab samples.
42: A challenge to the long-held belief about animal promiscuity—seemingly proven by geneticist A.J. Bateman in fruit-fly research in 1948—that, in Discover's words, "natural selection makes males promiscuous and females choosy." After UCLA geneticist Patricia Gowaty repeated Bateman's experiments (discovering that his methods had skewed the original results) and did additional research, she concluded, "It has become more and more obvious that females in mice, birds and all sorts of insects are mating with more than one male." Discover reports that new studies are underway to follow up on Gowaty's conclusions.
41: Follow-up studies that disproved the startling 2010 hypothesis that a bacterium—perhaps an alien life form—found in California's Mono Lake "survived not on phosphate (essential to all known organisms) but on arsenate, a toxic arsenic compound," according to Discover. Once again, the scientific method of testing and retesting, of scrutiny and skepticism and factual results, led to the debunking of a assertion that belonged in the realm of science fiction.
40: The discovery that the fusing of two genes can cause brain cancer—what Discover calls a first step toward developing a therapy to reverse the disease.
Answer to the Last Puzzler Sharks do not have bones; their skeleton is made of cartilage, which is softer and lighter than bone.
Today's Puzzler I have two for you:
1) What type of fish is shown in the photo below. (I took this shot at the fish tank at L.L. Bean's flagship store in Freeport this fall.) a) Rainbow trout b) Striped bass c) Eastern brook trout
2) Think you know the planet's geography? Here's one for you: Only two countries in the world are so-called "double landlocked" nations. That is, they have no coastline and are surrounded by countries that have no coastline. What are the two countries?