When winter began our chipmunk family went underground. Even in warmer months our 'munks go subterranean; the tunnel system they've built beneath our lawn rivals that of the New York subways (but with seed stockpiles instead of newspaper-and-lottery-ticket kiosks). In very cold weather they really hunker down. Chipmunks curl up in the den, lower their body temperature from about 99 degrees Fahrenheit to about 43 degrees, and fall into a state of torpor.
And then, on a warmer day like yesterday, they make like Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog. Around 8 a.m. our Alvin (the head 'munk) poked his head up through the snow like a periscope—initially just enough for us to see one of his eyeballs. About half an hour later he emerged fully and raced toward a thicket of rugosa roses, a corridor that would eventually lead to our bird feeders.
He did not see his shadow. If he were a groundhog, that would suggest that the end of winter is near. I suspect the appearance of the chipmunk is a more reliable predictor of that.
The chipmunks have at least 40 new rivals for the birdseed supply: a flock of common redpolls that swarmed in about a week ago. Redpolls are tiny, far northern finches that chatter happily, or at least make us happy with their nonstop chatter. They have bright red crowns and the males have red-stained breasts. Though I haven't detected these in my observations, redpolls have throat pouches in which they store seeds to eat later, much the way you might sneak shrimp from a restaurant buffet into your purse, backpack or oversized dinner napkin to gorge on back home. Uh, not that I would do that or anything.
Turning the Calendar Page
March is the only month that is also a command. That's fitting, given that its name comes from Mars, the Roman god of war and the root of the word martial, meaning military or soldierly. Mars— the No. 2-ranked Roman god, behind Jupiter—also oversaw agriculture, and was supposed to ward off weather that would be bad for crops. This time of year was the start of the planting season, which is why Mars was celebrated with festivals about now and why March was named for him.
A Refresher Course: Is this Moon Waxing or Waning?
We went through this several weeks ago, but repetition bolsters learning. Remember, when the moon is growing smaller, the curved side is on the left, as in the letter C. Moon getting smaller? C ya, moon! So the moon in the photo above is waning.
Worth a Read
My bedside companion of late has been a highly entertaining and astute book called A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. It's written by John Allen Paulos, who's a math professor at Temple, an essayist, an ABCnews.com columnist and a smart, funny observer of the world. He's written a number of terrific books, but in this one he dissects news coverage to look at how numbers are used, misused and distressingly omitted. In one section, he points out how often newspapers cite statistics that are almost comically precise even though they're based on uncertain data. He throws in this kicker:
"The joke about the museum guard who told visitors that the dinosaur on exhibit was 90,000,006 years old is a good illustration. Upon questioning, the guard explained that he was told the dinosaur was 90,000,000 million years old when he was hired, six years before."
Great Photography Link
Thanks to Notebook friend Betsy Loredo for pointing out the winners of The Nature Conservancy's latest photography contest. Click on this link to see them all: http://my.nature.org/photography/2010-photo-contest.html?autologin=true
Answers to Last Puzzlers:
1) The bird in the photograph is a secretary bird. There is disagreement over whether that name comes from the quill-pen-like feathers at the back of its head, or an Arabic word for hunter-bird that was translated into French as secretaire. The scientific name for this African bird of prey is Sagittarius serpentarius because it bears a vague resemblance (mostly in stature) to Sagittarius the centaur/archer and because it hunts snakes.
2) Absolute zero is minus-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit.
3) Henry Chadwick chose the K symbol to represent a strikeout in baseball because it's the last letter in the wordstruck.
How many coastal states are there in the U.S.?
A Gymnast and Painter
Frank Bare died a few days ago at age 82. I never met him, but he was a star college gymnast at Illinois and the founding president of what is now the U.S. governing body for his sport, USA Gymnastics. He laid the groundwork that enabled American gymnasts such as Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin to become Olympic champions. He did this despite suffering from Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM), a condition that leads to progressively more debilitating muscle weakness. The disease did not stop him from pursuing his other passion: painting. One of his works is below.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, the South Carolina-born botanist and (holy Mars!) onetime Secretary of War (under Martin van Buren), would have been 232 years old tomorrow. You probably have guessed this already, but he is the man for whom the poinsettia plant is named. An inveterate plant collector, he brought the first specimen of Euphorbia pulcherrima into the U.S. from Mexico. It was initially dubbed the painted leaf or the Mexican fire plant because of its vibrant red leaves—or, more properly, red brachts, a specialized type of leaf, different from a foliage leaf, that in the case of the poinsettia serves to attract pollinators. Poinsett himself was no mere pretty plant. He also co-founded the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, which eventually morphed into the Smithsonian Institution.
Frederic Chopin, the Polish pianist and composer, would have turned 211 today. As a keyboard meddler who is more chopsticks (pronounce that shope-sticks) than Chopin, I'm unqualified to do justice to either his keyboard virtuosity or the magnitude (magn-étude?) of his important contributions to music. But his romance with the Bohemian female writer George Sand suggests a man not satisfied to play it safe, and his early death—at 39, probably of tuberculosis, though possibly from cystic fibrosis, a condition not then known to medicine—reminds us how much someone can accomplish in a short time if he fully engages life.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, the Massachusetts-born writer, illustrator and extraordinary-species creator better known as Dr. Seuss, would have turned 107 today. Or, given that he was born on Feb. 29 and thus had an actual birthday only every four years, perhaps he would have been (aptly enough) much younger than that—by my math, three-quarters of the way between ages 26 and 27. One of my favorite childhood books was Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. It may not have been his greatest work, but it instilled in me a love of turtles and perhaps even a sense of social justice, from seeing the greedy, self-aggrandizing Yertle get his comeuppance—or rather, his go-down-ance, right into the mud.
What's your favorite Dr. Seuss book?