By all accounts, Charley had a great sense of humor which complemented his artistic creativity.
Many of his works incorporated visual puns. And many works on paper were accompanied by word puns, too. Often the puns were commentary on the peculiar habits of a species or the struggles in nature. But they often had a socially conscious message (e.g., Scary Scenario). Others were just fun repartee about the natural subject at hand be it fish, or fowl.
Here is a compilation of the Print Captions for Charley’s Work; You can browse the Gallery for more puns!
A Better Mousetrap
The barn owl wears a valentine for a face, but he never sends it – he brings it. And like all the small creatures of the night, the harvest mouse knows well its message: BE MINE. The owl-mouse affair has been going on for so long that it is a classic example of the enforcement of nature’s unrepealable law that some must die in order that others may live. Is there a villain in the piece? Sure. The barn owl is a killer, say we who constantly strive to build a better mousetrap.
This bird has been spear-gunning his grub for eighty million years, so – don’t worry – he knows what to do next with his fish kebab. Silent and alert, he patrols southern swamp waters with hull submeerged and periscope up. Time to eat: he decreases bouancy and takes ‘er down. Bluegill to starb’d – fire ONE! While his dinner settles, he’ll hang his dripping wings out to dry. Indians of the Amazon named him nhinga. Why? Why not?
Rat-a tat-tat, gulp-what was that? Lunch time for a pileated woodpecker on a cold winter’s day. This flying jackhammer will thump a stump to pieces just to snack on dormant ants, lapping them up with his long, flypaper tongue. Or he’ll settle for a grubstake of grubs. All in less time than it takes most of us to stumble through his first name. Just remember that it rhymes with how you felt when you added him to your lifetime list-highleated!
It’s the Survival Bowl – the Arctic Musk-Oxen vs. the Arctic Wolves – and both teams are ready to go out there and do what they have to do. The Oxen dudes take the field in their muus and anklets, circle ‘round their rookies, and woe to the foe that tries to crack their defensive line. C’mon, wolf pack! Make yer play! Youse bums rush like glaciers! We’ll ox-idize youse guys! We’ll bury yez in th’ permafrost! We’ll stomp ya undra th’ tundra! How’d it end up? Sudden Death in overtime.
Seems like everybody’s moved to the Sun Belt, including fire ants and armadillos. Folks are fond of armadillos, but everybody is anti-ant. Except armadillos. They enjoy a fiery antypasto before such armadeli entrees as tarantulas, roaches and worms. Armadillos can cross a river by holding their breath and walking on the bottom, but few ever make it across an expressway. Armadillo offspring are always quadrulplets, always all boys or all girls. You could call them armadittos.
Backscratching in the Baboondocks
Maybe you thought it was started by politicians: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours – my pork barrel, your boondoggle. Not so. Our ancestors did it before they came down out of the trees – your ticks, my fleas. For man and mandrill, mutual grooming is the glue that holds societies together…and lets you know who’s boss. He’s that big baboon up front, the one who gets his back scratched without ever scratching anybody’s back back.
Ever see the red-bellied woodpecker perch on a birch, potato beetle in beak? Neither did the artist, so he painted this picture to find out how it would look. This is the bird with the belly that baffles beginning birders, so its zebra back is turned toward you to avoid a creditbility crisis: could you ever again trust the names of the golden-cheeked warbler, the rufous-sided towhee, the rose-breasted grosbeak – even the blue-footed booby – after seeing the red-belly’s belly? It’s almost all white!
Of all bird architects, the Baltimore Oriole seems most aware that form follows function and that bird nests are for birds. Her classic pendulus nest is formed with sensitive engineering and flawless weaving. It’s the Nest of the Year, year after year. On a warp of flexible bark fibers attached to the tips of high branches, she looms a bag of grass, horsehair and string. And when the wind blows, the cradle does rock.
Dig this crazy architecture! Bank Swallows nest in cooperative apartments with sieve-like facades, excavated with beak and claw in the clay or sand of river banks, gravel pits, highway cuts and sawdust heaps. At the end of a 2- to 4-foot hallway, they place the family room, wall-to-walled with feathers and grass. Utilities?They eat, drink and bathe on the wing. But how do they know which hole to come home to?
The night has a thousand eyes – and you can count them all in an aspen grove. In fact, it’s hard to avoid eye contact in this scene. Some glow in the dark, other grow in the bark Many don’t even show in the dark, but a pro in the dark – like an owl on the prowl with his stomach bigger than his eyes – can pinpoint the goodies below in the dark. How many eyes can you find in this picture? 93? Did you say 93? Wait – the artist says he put in 83. One of you is barking up the wrong three.
No barn is complete without Barn Swallows. Commuting jet-like from hayloft “subirdia” to work in the meadow, they distribute good cheer in the barnyard and bad news to flying insects. Expert masons, they mix mud and straw for their pendant, cup-shaped nests stuck to upright timbers and lined with feathers from local leghorns. Long ago they deserted the caves; now no Barn Swallow is complete without a barn.
Bear in the Birches
Alone in a birch grove in an early, unexpected snow-a serendipitous moment you’ll always treasure. But for the black bear, it’s just another venue for bedtime snacks; check that rotting log for one more succulent grub. No canoeist could paddle past this picture postcard from the North Woods, his metal vessel heavy-laden with wilderness survival gear, without longing for Hiawatha’s legendary, lightweight, birch bark craft, floating like “a yellow leaf in Autumn.”
It’s two falls out of three for the guy in the mahogany trunks. Stag beetles have the rich finish of fine, old woodwork and the nightmarish mandibles of man-eating monsters. They also have all the athletic grace of bulldozers, which is why they spend a lot of time flat on their backs, treading air, totally helpless. Is this wrestling match a fake? Not on your scissors hold! It’s for the loving cup. And where is she? Bet she got tired of waiting around and went stag.
Dig the fancy dude in the far-out sport coat: wood duck, adult, male. Spanning the color spectrum with sartorial splendor , he upstages the autumn leaf, rafts a rainbow down the riffle and, with his mirror image, floats a fantasy butterfly on the quiet pool. And sends a surge of inspiration through the wildlife artist. He’s the Best Dressed Bird of the Year, year after year. In fact, that’s how some of his fans like him best: dressed. Come over to my house for a duck dinner – you be the duck.
Birds of a Feather
Flocking together as summer wanes, a brigade of bachelor red-winged blackbirds swings into the southbound lane, where traffic is backed up to the Arctic Circle. But where are the brownish females? Flocking apart. Red-winged congregations are strictly his or hers, except in spring when they sing, “I’m ok-a-lee, you’re-ok-a- lee,” and consort among the cattails long enough to make sure there will always be red-winged blackbirds. Then it’s back to separate dorms — flocking together apart.
Big Rac Attack
Better be on the lookout when you cook out. Let that burger aroma roam around the neighborhood and you’re inviting a Big Rac Attack. And can you blame them? Raccoons eat out all the time and – well, wouldn’t you welcome a nice home-cooked meal now and then? But did you buy enough burger to feed this raccpack? What happens when you’re down to the last patty? Serve the dog food. The cat food. Table scraps. Then let nature take it’s course – survival of the fattest.
Birds of a Feather
Flocking together as summer wanes, a brigade of bachelor red-winged blackbirds swings into the southbound lane, where traffic is backed up to the Artic Circle. But where are the brownish females? Flocking apart. Red-winged congregations are strictly his or hers, except in spring when they sing, “I’m ok-a-lee, you’re ok-a-lee, and consort among the cattails long enough to make sure there will always be re-winged blackbirds. Then, it’s back to separate dorms- flocking together apart.
There are cat people and there are bird people. Then there are cat-bird people, who know that their favorite feline is the ultimate birdwatcher. Who needs binoculars? This bird lover gets close enough to count the feathers without snapping a dry twig, and she knows the best place to fatten her life list – under the bird feeder! Here eye is on the sparrow, which is, for her, just as fulfilling as having it on the condor. But the sparrow will be saved by the bell – this cat is a cat-bird people’s cat.
It’s not the Waldorf, but it’s home and even with six quibbling siblings in the bed (and five in the middle) there’s love along with the lumps. Life for an itty bitty bittern is sweeter than bitter, but mealtimes are messy: breakfast in bed…and lunch…and dinner too. And no maid service. Is that why they hold their noses in the air? Or are they hoity- toity? neither. They’re melting into the marshscape by mimicking the tall grass swaying in the breeze. Nobody can hide bettern’n a bittern.
Gay, braggartly, pilfering, the Magpie is the Capone of the Plains. He puts up a half-bushel, two door, reinforced-mud ranchhouse and has the shortest of widowhoods – up to twenty-four hours. He goes formal to every meal but never bothers to read the menu, being no food snob. From him come the tenderest of filial utterances, but his loud-mouthed yackety-yack in a crowd of male companions is unprintable. He imitates humans – at least, he learns to talk like one.
Bears and berries, bears and berries – go together like a horse and carriage, invite word play and lure the addicted punster down the primrose path. It gets very beary in the blackberry patch when black bears browse the briary branches bare of – HOLD IT! I’m trying to stop. I’m out of denial into recovery. I like bears as much as anybody – Teddy, Smoky, Pooh, all that crew, but…let’s try it again, with class. This time, all bare bones, bear essentials only, and PLEASE – forbearance.
If Blackbirds were made into pies, the Red-wing would fill every pastry shop from coast to coast, for he is probably our most numerous bird species. This is less surprising when you consider that he practices polygamy. A 1959 Christmas Count group in Norfolk County, Virginia, recorded eight million Red-wings, the greatest number of individuals of any species found in any fifteenmile-wide pie in America.
The Blackburnian shouts, “Here am I – count me.” He is one of Nature’s specific statements, never to be dismissed as “some kind of a warbler.” Fifty-three other species of warblers swell the migrant waves that engulf the eastern flyways. Traveling under cover of darkness, they are seen through telescopes as silhouettes passing the full moon or on radar screens as blips that pass in the night.
Bluebirds in the Bluegrass
“The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home… While the birds make music all the day.” And a box of nesting bluebirds banishes the blues and hoists happiness high, even if it’s in somebody else’s backyard. Cheuery, cheuery, cheuery: don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t give out. Life can still be beautiful if you look for the silver lining somewhere over the rainbow, the six o’clock news notwhithstanding. Three cheuerys for the bluebirds of happiness.
Here’s your friendly neighborhood loudmouth, big on law and order, publishing WANTED posters in stereo. The Blue Jay is always where the action is because he starts it. A roving tomcat snaps a twig, a drowsy owl shifts his weight, a black snake changes his calligraphy – off goes the blue-tailed burglar alarm, rounding up a posse for the big chase. But sometimes silence is golden. Like when you’re bathing in the brook, naked as a jaybird.
The life of a luna moth is one of nature’s short stories. Even barring mishap, its span is so brief that it doesn’t have time to eat. And its biography may be shortened even further by a bat, an owl or a boy making an insect collection. This male, hastening to reply to an invitation –sent by scent- from a female, encounters a largemouth bass. But the fish has problems, too. The river it calls home is badly polluted and the boy, tiring of trapping insects, is going fishing.
It’s no Jacuzzi, but a dirty bird’s never choosey. And, if you provide warm water in your birdbath on cold mornings, you’ll turn it into the neighborhood hot tub. Who, you may ask, except for The Polar Bear Club, would go skinny-dipping on a snowy day? Well, how would you like to go all winter without a bath? Like all aviators, the cardinal must regularly clean and preen his flying machine. But how can he dry himself without a towel? Maybe freeze-dry?
Is penguin parenthood planned? Let’s scan their plan. It’s 60 below in the rookery 60 miles inland where a pair of passionate penguins yield to the impulse to populate Antarctica. He incubates while she peregrinates, waddling back to the ocean (they are flightless) to feast on seafood (their only fare). Two months later, she’s back to feed their newborn by regurgitation, but no doggy bag for daddy. He waddles weakly away from fast to feast, 60 miles to go at 60 below. Cool plan – for subzero population growth.
Bug That Bugs Nobody
All the world loves a ladybug. Since time began they have been pals to people, and over the centuries ladybugs have built the kind of image that can only be earned: Insect Friend Number 1. They portend good luck and dine only on other insects whose very existence plagues people. Nobody swats, stomps or sprays a ladybug. It’s the only bug that doesn’t bug anybody! Folks are even flattered when they find a ladybug CRAWLING ON THEM! Can any other insect make that statement?
One of nature’s drollest creatures, the Burrowing Owl spends each day in pantomiming, “How do you do?” to family, friends, and passers-by, and in eating his weight in things you wouldn’t eat your weight in, nor even his. More at home under the range than on it, he knows it’s cheaper to board than to build (even if people suspect that you have rattlesnakes) so he redecorates an old gopher hole. He will probably twist his head off if you walk around him enough times.
Buzz Off, You Turkey
Nobody loves you when you’re down an’ out, least of all your peers. A turkey buzzard’s best buddies are other buzzards, and when they give him the short end of the stick, he’s left with nothing but his legacy – living off life’s leftovers. Granted that he pioneeered recycling and daily returns protein to the food chain, would you invite him to dinner? If you did, he wouldn’t eat what you’d serve and you wouldn’t serve what he’d eat. Besides, his table manners are offal.
When a six-year-old tourist asks, “What for is a cactus?” this wren is your answer. He lives in it. He also lives in the zizyphus bush. A homebody with a passion for real estate, he builds several nests, repairs them constantly, installs wall-to-wall featherbeds and burglar-proofs them with stilettos, ice picks and bayonets. His chut, chut, chut is a splash of color on a Dali landscape. Having lived here all his life, he knows a secret way through the pass.
Like the Burying Beetle and the Vulture, the California Condor works at preserving our country’s fragrance, while utilizing the dead in the cycle of life. But when the news got out, around 1900, that our largest bird was scarce, collectors made him scarcer. Others killed him merely for pastime. Aerodynamic poet laureate and one-time coast-to-coast traveler, he is now confined to Sespe Wildlife Reserve near Los Angeles, where about sixty Condors are carefully protected from civilization.
Cardinal (American Bird Census, November, 1960)
A Cardinal adds his blazing exclamation point at the end of a fresh snowfall. The Christmas Count reveals that this scene is becoming increasingly common because the Cardinal is expanding his range northward, apparently to relieve Red-bird population pressure in the South. Sunflower seed will keep him coming to your feeding station. Excuse the napkin under the chin – no lap.
And now for the good news: the cardinal is not endangered. It is, in fact, steadily expanding its range, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bird. Robed and capped like a prince of the church, whence cometh his name, the male is a prince of the perch. A faithful and attentive husband, he is protector, provider and pal to his brood — is this bird for real? Wait, there’s more! All year, he sings on cue, cue, cue, calling his bride purty, purty, purty, spreading cheer, cheer, cheer.
Once abundant in the southeastern coastal states, the Carolina Paroquet occasionally flashed his tropical colors in the winter-worn North. He was fond of fruits and seeds, a safe diet until the white man planted orchards and grainfields. After that the Paroquet spent his days, which ended in 1904, as a highly visible target. Even when he escaped the farmer’s bullets, he fell prey to the cage-bird dealer or the milliner, who catered to the Victorian passion for personal adornment.
The mockingbird patrols his perimeter with the eye of the eagle, the ferocity of the falcon, and the suddenness of the supersonic jet. Cata-tat-tat! From twelve o’clock high, he screams out of the sky to strafe his catnapping enemy with bad bird words, pulling up just in time to escape catastrophe while tantalizing the tormented tabby. Will air power win the Cat-Bird War? Don’t bet on it, unless you find your feline digging a foxhole.
Mumps? Nope, just a jaw full of sunflower seeds. The chipmunk is like anybody with a garden-you eat what you can and what you can’t eat, you can. From summer’s cornucopia he collects compulsively, storing goodies wall-to-wall in his bedroom just below the frost line. Then he sacks out in the snacks, eating his bed for breakfast. Going out for a mid-winter breath of fresh air, he checks under the bird feeder to con what he can con.
Clair de Loon
All aboard for the moonlight cruise and concert under the stars, where this pair of piggybacking loonlings, only hours old, will bond to the ancestral songs of their kind. Hoots and wails, tremolos and yodels—-it’s hard to get a Handel on their Water Music, but it will make your spine tingle with its evocation of the awesome mystery of the universe. It’s lyrical and hysterical: Mozart and madness, Beethoven and bebop. It’s the Rite of Spring—-with a dab of Debussy.
Suddenly, from out of the shadowy depths of prehistory, terror strikes the beach and it’s claws vs. paws and jaws. In the struggle to survive, all armaments are employed, so what is the ultimate weapon? Size? Maybe, but it’s mini, not maxi, that matters. Who has bugged you more lately: mastodons or mosquitoes? Ask the vanishing whale if bigger is better. In a predatory world, it’s survival of the fittest, not the fattest. And in a pinch, claws give pause to jaws.
It happens every spring. A pair of robins makes the front page by nesting somewhere you’d never believe. OK, so we live in a mobile society, say the sociologists, but a mobile home for birds? You’d expect a barnswallow to populate your barn, and jenny to wrenovate your clothespin bag, but who’d be bird-brained enough to confiscate a skate? But wait. Consider this: put your home on wheels and if you can’t get along with the neighbors – migrate.
Stalk and crouch. Lay a patch and pounce. Ouch! Chasing mama’s tail is fun and games. Educational, too. These cheetah cubs are in basic training for The Big One, when they’ll be on their own, winning is the only thing that counts and losers go hungry. Now take a lesson from mama, the fastest mammal on earth, as she stalks and crouches, lays a patch and pounces. She impacts the impala at 70 mph, then serves up a banquet. Nothing trivial about this pursuit.
Zero, with a hundred percent probability of precipitation, is cool man, cool, even when you’re wearing your red flannels. Air traffic’s grounded, feeding station’s socked in. You can’t stuff your gizzard in a blizzard, so how do you survive? Hunker up and sit it out, rationing your reserves, moderating your metabolism. To put it another way, when there’s snow on the roof, how do you keep a fire in the furnace? Cool it, man, cool it.
A cat in the water? The Bengal tiger likes it and you would too if you had to wear a fur coat in the steamy jungle. But when your coat is a status symbol, many would help you off with it. One maharajah helped 1150 tigers off with their coats. Others to remain competitive, included cubs and fetuses in their tallies. In this century, hunting and habitat destruction have dramatically decreased the Bengal count. Keep cool, big Bengal – and beware of man, the ominous omnivore.
A raccoon can eat his weight in roastin’ ears and the more he eats the more he weight, and the more he weighs…well you see what I mean. Watch for him on those warm summer nights when the kernel swells the husk and the gardener dreams of feasts forthcoming by moon-light, raccoon on the cob. Come morning, hear the gardener mutter, “Nothin’ left but th’fodder.” But, aw shucks, ain’t he a cute little fritter?
Cottontail in a Cottonfield
Hiding is hard to do if you have a cotton boll for a tail. Pity poor Peter Rabbit, pursued as food by every fang and claw from Canada to the Land of Cotton. Providing protein for predatory species while perpetuating one’s own presupposes a prodigality of procreation that has procured for the cottontail a reputation for a perpetually proliferating population. So without predators, we’d be up to our ears in rabbits. Without rabbits, we’d-be living in a jungle of lettuce. Let us, therefore, give thanks for the balance of nature.
No matter where you live, the grass usually looks greener elsewhere. Even crabgrass. Consider the hermit crab, who must dwell in a shell and is forever on the lookout for a better one. Every time he finds the ideal, empty seashell to protect his soft, unarmored abdomen, he grows some more and starts house hunting again. He tries on new homes like we try on new clothes and, like us, discards them when he puts on a little weight. But crab rehab is easy – all he needs is a sunken living room.
Creeping crawlies of the world, arise! Up with the downtrodden, out with the intimidators. Don’t be pushed around by the biggies, the bullies, the braggarts. Muster some bluster, toot your own trumpet, put some steam in your self-esteem. Assert yourself – don’t desert yourself. Learn a lesson from the larva of the royal walnut moth: look mean, hang tough and crawl tall. Wouldn’t you like to be called a hickory horned devil?
Crow in the Snow
Crows are black birds and blackbirds are also, but a crow in the snow is so much the more so. If you’re pro-crow you proclaim his intellect, his resourcefulness, and the visual poetry of his somber silhouette on the calligraphy of the cornfield. But if it’s your cornfield, you have good caws to compose creative crowfanities when he arrives. Think of it as sharecropping: he gets the grasshoppers, you get the corn, and the few ears missed in the harvest are held in, well–escrow.
The beaver’s work ethic is a part of our national heritage. He’s that character we all have a gnawing feeling we ought to keep as busy as. And indeed some of us have kept so busy that we’ve taken away his job of impeding and impounding the free-flowing waters of America. But when it comes to cost-benefit ratios and environmental impact statements, he’s better than the Corps of Engineers by a damsite. So how can you best preserve a pristine stream? Leave it to beavers.
Devotion in the Ocean
The Sea Otter makes everybody’s list of The World’s Great Mothers while pursuing a full-time career as the West Coast’s most ottertaining pop-up comic. Her act: a belly buffet with rock and roll (a rock to open shellfish, a roll to clean the crumbs off her fabulous fur tablecloth). She joins a raft of other otters’ daughter to whelp in the kelp, then devotes a year to her pup, doing by motternal instinct what all great mothers do – or if they don’t they otter.
If anthropomorphism didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it for the dolphin, the fun-loving marine mammal with the Mona Lisa smile, the biggest tease in the Seven Seas. For it’s downright unscientific to say the dolphin is playful, inventive, humorous, loyal, friendly, intelligent, altruistic and plain cute – just like us. It’s also heresy to translate dolphin whistles and clicks into English, but it’s perfectly obvious that they’re trying to tell us something: Have a nice day!
Down Under, Down Under
The koala cub spends his first six months in mama’s marsupial pouch, which opens down under. And in Australia – that’s really down under! Then he moves from the lower berth to the upper, but it’s a downer for mama as he hangs around for another year, seldom off her back and always underfoot. Finally, she’s had it up to here; she lays down the law, ends the koalition and gets out from under, down under.
It’s no cinch to quench your thirst when you’re the world’s tallest animal. Sure, the view is great from up there. Eating is easy, too, in case ya crave acacia leaves, which giraffes do daily. And nobody ever calls you “Shorty.” But when you go for a tall, cool one, it’s a long way down to water level, and it’s all uphill from there as you sip the precious liquid, forcing it up-up-up-up-up the hatch into your stomach. You could call it giraffrican highdraulics.
What happened to the butterfly? Moments ago a tiger swallowtail was seen flitting through the sampler of spring wildflowers, like a blossom on the wing. But never mind, many earth-bound beauties remain to be admired: trillium, trout-lily, pink lady’s-slipper, jack-in-the-pulpit, shooting star, Dutchman’s-breeches, bloodroot, yellow violet and spring beauty. Oh, yes – and Fowler’s toad. Fowler’s toad? That’s no wildflower! Hey, that must be what happened to the butterfly.
The Kingbird is one of the Tyrant Flycatchers, TyrannidaeAmerica’s largest bird family – 365 different species. But this feathered gadfly is less a tyrant than a foe of tyranny, for he strikes like a guided missile at any larger winged creature that violates his airspace. Hawks, crows, owls, vultures, even eagles – all have played Goliath to his David, and he protects many a chicken-yard from surprise attack.
A bird’s-eye-view of the Meadowlark’s nest reveals nothing. In the dark green world at the bottom of the meadow, she fashions an arched-over cup of dead grass which she enters like an oven. Carrying the camouflage further, she establishes landing strips away from the nest and approaches it on foot. It’s a desirable location: quiet country living with city convenience – just a step from Mother Nature’s Supermarket.
In autumn the Eskimo Curlew fueled up on berries and snails and flew the Atlantic non-stop, from the New England Coast to South America; in spring the breeding instinct drew him back to the Barren Grounds of Canada via the Mississippi Flyway, where he refueled on insect pests. Both ways he ran the gauntlet of a hunter army, which stalked him from state to state to provision meat counters by the wagon load. One hunter downed 28 Curlews with a single blast to become the 20th Century’s Man of Extinction.
The Everglade Kite ranges from South America to Florida, but he may soon be lost to us. On whispering wings he rides the marsh thermal at grasstop level, searching for his only source of nourishment, the fresh-water snail Ampullaria. The snail has problems, too: as men drain the marshes his habitat vanishes, and so does he. This fact now confines our Everglade Kites to Lake Okeechobee where if starvation doesn’t get them, poachers probably will.
Stagbeetleburgers, anybody? It’s every chick for himself when the bobwhites eat out. And you never know what’s on the menu till it crawls in front of you; then the whole covey covets it. People like bobwhites because bobwhites are like people: kind, thoughtful, cheerful, good-natured, affectionate, friendly, loyal, gregarious, loving, dutiful, faithful, diligent, devoted, helpful and considerate. And covetous. Don’t forget covetous. Bobwhiteburgers, anybody?
Who woos with hoos? Barred owls, that’s hoo- make that who. Hoo, hoo, hoohoo, hoo, he proposes owloquently. Hoo, hoo, hoowah, she accepts, owllegro, and the whole thing turns into a hootenanny. They owlope and set up mousekeeping in a hollow tree. Nothing owlegant, but with all that togetherness, it’s Owl Dorado. Time owlapses, and suddenly it’s twins. How come pop’s not in the picture? He’s out hunting midnight snacks, owl la carte.
Feather for feather, the hummingbird is the fiercest, fastest, feistiest flyer in the firmanment. Forget the hawk, the owl, the eagle — this flyweight will zing anything on wing that violates his airspace. Straight up or down, sideways and backward he zips, hovering for frequent refueling of high-octane nectar. Courting, he throws caution to the wind and barnstorms up a circus to seduce his significant other. With all that macho, his natural enemies are few — except for picture windows.
Lo, the English Sparrow, weed on the wing, detested as the dandelion, stigmatized like the starling, carried captive to these shores only to be persecuted for prospering and proliferating. Consider his cheery chatter upon the winter wind, his undaunted demeanor in the presence of prejudice, his self-sufficient search for sustenance among his critics’ crumbs. Behold an enterprising and successful English sparrow about to feather his nest with the pride of the peacock.
Wow! Over there! Perched on the palmetto! Ever see such complimentary complementary colors? The painted bunting, adult, male, is a bird you must see to believe, but that’s not easy. With all that direct male advertising in living color, you might expect him to come on like a billboard, but he shyly shuns the boulevard for the underbrush. Next to him, his mate is a regular plain Jane. Why? So she won’t turn a nest bulging with baby buntings into a dead giveaway.
Of the millions of Flamingos in America today, only a handful are alive. The rest are front-lawn effigies, proclaiming to all passers-by our national love for beauty. Countless businesses commemorate the name, too – sixty-one in Miami alone, including the Flamingo Canine Beauty Shop. Never a native of our shores, he visits them only rarely today, a prudent precaution since his forefathers were massacred here by beauty lovers of an earlier generation.
Flamingo A Go Go
A flock of flirting famingos is pure, passionate, pink pandemonium – a frenetic flamingle-mangle – a discordant discotheque of delirious dancing, flamboyant feathers, and flamingo lingo. If you wake up some morning and find a plastic flamingo on your lawn, you’ve been “flamingoed”. If they wake up and find plastic on their property, they’ve been “peopled”. It is far better to be “flamingoed” than “peopled”, a lesson history taught us many and many a flamingo ago.
When you’ve got ten kits, it’s hard to get the gang together for a picture. Ten in a den? Untenable! Ten tenderfoots underfoot. A den of ten, all spittin’ images, chips off the ol’ fox. Hear the din in the den at dindin, the sibling quibbling of the disputatious duplicates, the irascible replicas. OK, now – ‘TENSHUN! Everybody ready? Wait. Now who’s missing? Who can tell? See one, you’ve seen ‘em all. Mother can tell. Which is she? The one with the tenderness.
Frog Eat Frog
It’s a real jungle out there – frog eat frog. Happens all the time. If you’re frognizant, you know that a bullfrog gobbles down anything smaller than himself that moves, including fellow frogs. No matter if it’s a neighbor, niece or nephew – even his own kid. Gulp! Gone. So with every predatory palate in the pond and out of it eating high on the frog (everything from eggs to legs), what’s the poor polliwog’s prospect for survival? It froggles the mind.
Ask a bird lover how he keeps the squirrels off his feeder and you get a lot of expletives deleted. It’s instant apoplexy, and understandably so. Americans buy half a million tons of sunflower seeds annually to fill their feeders, and spend the winter trying not to fill the birds with the bushy tails. Every time you outwit them, they retaliate with another creative compromise of the laws of physics. But in our hearts, we all agree: who would want to live in an unsquirreled world?
Young black-capped chickadees grow so fast that the generation gap is only a gasp. In this family portrait, it’s anybody’s guess which ones are the kids. Maybe all of them are. Feeding so many beaks is such a big job that both parents have to work. Right now they’re probably out hustling caterpillars while the kids hand around home, bibs in place, waiting for the groceries to arrive. Can you tell the boys from the girls? It’s hard, unless, of course, you’re a black-capped chickadee.
‘Tis the night before the Big Opening, and you hear such a clatter, you run to the window to see what’s the matter. It’s paws, not Claus, and they didn’t come to admire your gift wrapping — they’re all wrapped up in their anticipation of your gifts. This night you’ll be more generous than generic (no discounted dogfood): a few fancy cookies, the fruit cake you didn’t like anyway, the stale nuts and those fabulous chocolate cookies that would make you sick if you ate all of them. Happy Holidays to the Raccoon Family!
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch
When the Rosy Finch remarks, “Zee-o”, as he often does, he has just looked at his thermometer. Admiral Byrd of the birds, he long ago investigated above-timberline opportunities for enterprising finches, found the fierce white world of the eternal snows irresistible. Leucosticte tephrocotis. Some call him Loco, but consider for a moment his assets – independence, living room with a view, Mother Nature’s Food Plan to keep his deep freeze bulging.
The Great Auk swam like a fish, walked like a penguin, and flew like a stone. But he adapted happily to ocean life, prospering from Iceland to Florida, while heading the menus of North Atlantic islanders for three hundred years. Then the professional hunters invaded his nurseries, butchering relentlessly for oil and feathers, encrusting Funk Island with discarded carcasses. The last of the Great Auks was clubbed to death in 1844, heading the obituary column of American birds.
A trip to the salad bar is the first course on the menu of Mother Nature’s Fast Food Chain, and the harmless herbivores must make it, grazing to fulfill their destiny-protein for the predators. Then it’s Mean Cuisine as the carnivores take over and the name of the game is Eat Without Being Eaten. Enter man, the ultimate consumer, the predator with a conscience, who pauses while pigging out to ponder his perplexity: Can a nature lover ever find true happiness at the top of the food chain?
When a stranger comes to town, the Green Jay quickly rounds up a posse to investigate him. Impudent but intelligent, lovely but larcenous, he is loved and loathed, welcomed and rejected. Who’s he with – the good guys or the bad guys? It depends on your point of view. If you are a law-abiding citizen whose nest has been looted, you’ll arouse the vigilantes and run him out of town. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, his wife is destroying insect pests.
The cottontail has just had a close encounter –of the bird kind- with an Unfriendly Flying Object. He had just eluded a fox that had trailed him through the meadow when he spotted it, hovering over the old maple at the edge of the clearing. It was roundish and squarish and oblongish and reddish and brownish and grayish and, WOW, it moved with incredible speed as he raced the shadow of the red-tailed hawk to the nearest groundhog hole, winning by a hair.
He wore the uniform of the Prairie Chicken, but this was a different drummer. The east coast was his booming ground, and he was so common around Boston in the 1830’s that appetites jaded on Heath Hen drumsticks. A century later, cornered on Martha’s Vineyard by proliferating people pressure, his band vanished. The last Heath Hen was the first last of a species to be studied in his natural environment, one of our most famous last birds.
Every sighting of a great blue heron is serendipitous. They’re always just around the bend, solitary and alert, regal and majestic, waiting to be discovered by accident and good luck. You’re canoeing in Wisconsin, exploring an Everglades slough, rafting in Jackson Hole, hiking a Hatteras beach, when WOW – suddenly and fortuitously, there he is! Or is it she? They look so much alike that it’s easy to be herroneous. Only they know the difference between his’n an’ heron.
A hex is on the mice in the meadow as the perfect mousetrap exits his home in the haymow to haunt the deepening dusk. Like all of his ghostly clan, the barn owl prowls the darkness, tending to the balance of nature as his hoots and screams conjure up witches and demons. Is the hex sign protection from them? Probably not. The Pennsylvania Dutch will tell you it’s only a decoration, “chust for nice.” The owl is “chust for mice.”
When the meek inherit the earth, the box turtle will surely be king. Introvert of the underbrush, Mr. Milquetoast of the Meadow, his carapace is his castle. If he doesn’t stick his neck out past the drawbridge, he won’t get involved. Like a man with a mortgage, though, he can’t get his house off his back. A roof overhead is handy when the towhees next door dump their leaves. When crossing a four-lane highway, though, wouldn’t you like to have left your house at home?
The Horned Grebe summers on the lake, where she builds a floating platform of mud and porous, air-filled vegetation, docks it like a shanty-boat among the reeds, and deposits 3 to 7 eggs. They are never dry, but their chalky shells exclude moisture and the decaying nest probably generates heat to help them hatch. The chicks are natural-born swimmers, but they shouldn’t go near the shore until they learn to walk.
If House Wrens were people, they would probably remodel old farm-houses. But they’re not, so they remodel other things, like old shoes, tin cans, cows’ skulls and clothespin bags, using twigs, grass, feathers, bark and spider webs. He stakes off the lot and fills some holes with sticks. She decides which one they’ll call home, throws out all his furniture, and starts from scratch. Maybe House Wrens are people.
House Wrens (Wrented)
People, except little boys at Halloween, view the grinning skull as an unpleasant reminder of their mortality. But to House Wrens, an empty cranium is just another homesite with a dome ceiling. A Louisville doctor reported in 1888 that wrens had remodeled a second-hand skull hanging on his back porch. It was still occupied in 1945, when his son moved it to his garage in Indiana, where it was promptly re-wrented. Home is where the heart is, even if it’s a transplant.
You’ll find the burrowing owl in any edition of Who’s Who in America, but he is not your typical wise, old, who-who owl. He’s the droll one who lives in a hole in the ground and spends most of the day standing on his stoop, bowing ceremoniously to passers-by. Is the Io (pronounced eye-o) moth a trick or a treat? Who knows? Don’t panic if this clown shows up on your stoop on Halloween when you’re fresh out of goodies – just give him an IoU.
The family that preys together stays together-but only for a year and a half. That’s how long it takes mama lion to teach her cubs to scout up a meal. Lesson One: approach downwind of the goodies. Lesson Two: sneeze, and you get a swat from the den mother. Steady! The impala is skittish-snap a dry twig now and you blow the banquet. By the way, what’s the den dad doing tonight? What all papa lions with any pride are doing-waiting for the pride to serve the antelope steaks.
The Indigo Bunting is a proud papa. As soon as the nest is built – a compact cup of grass and leaves, attached and standing in the upright crotch of a shrub – he starts proclaiming the blessed event from the treetops. He has even been known to take a turn on the eggs. His mate – what did he ever see in her? Dull and anonymous, she’d never be noticed in a crowd of sparrows. But he is faithful to the end – of the summer.
A hermit by temperament and largest of our Woodpeckers, the Ivory-billed dines on woodborers beneath the bark of deceased and dying trees in southern cypress swamps. Indians treasured his bills as amulets and sought to attain his courage vicariously by collecting them in quantity. White men furthered his demise by shooting him for food. But the lumbermen made the Ivory-Bill’s extinction highly probable by felling the ancient forests, thus destroying his privacy and his pantry.
Can you think of a better name for insects that walk on water? Our ancestor’s couldn’t either, but your field guide calls them water striders. They hike around on the pond all their lives without even getting wet feet, and in shallow water on a sunny day their shadows sink like stones and tag along on the bottom. But, who minds a wet shadow? If you had wide-spread waxy feet that didn’t break the surface film, you, too, could walk on water. And be famous for fifteen minutes.
When your mom is an elephant, you try to keep out from under foot. But when it’s raining cats and dogs you duck under the nearest shelter, which might be mom. Or, in your matriarchal society, it might be any of a herd of sisters, aunts, or grandmothers, all reliable baby-standers. But before we go any further with this idea, the question must be asked: why should elephants want to come in out of the rain? After all, they never wear anything but their trunks.
Until it’s about a year old, the young koala sticks to its mom like glue. You would, too-especially when she backpacked you up into the tall timber, where the eucalyptus leaves hang tenderest and most tantalizing. Home for koalas is Down Under, but they spend their lives up over. Every day they go out on a limb, but so calm and gentle are they, and so well-ordered and sensible are their lives, that a koala hardly ever goes out of its tree.
The fate of the Labrador Duck is obscure, but it was undoubtably hastened by egg collectors and by wholesale slaughter for the retail market. During the breeding and moulting season, when he lost the power of flight, his flocks were helpless – sitting ducks for the hunting ships sent north by the feather merchants. The last survivor was shot on Long Island eighty-two years ago, but he is memorialized by forty-four stuffed specimens in museums and by countless antique featherbeds.
Are all ladybugs ladies? Apparently not, for a single ladybug-I mean she can’t be, you know, single, but well, you know what I mean – becomes a great-great-grandmother an astronomical number of times in one summer. I don’t mean to imply that this makes her any less ladylike. What I mean is that all ladybugs can’t, you know, be ladies if-I mean there must be some, you know, gentlemen around if-you know, I’m beginning to be sorry I brought it up.
Because he walks with a slight limp, the Limpkin is called the Limpkin. This does not mean that he is crippled, however, as all Limpkins limp. But for some reason he is not satisfied with his lot in life, so he broadcasts his banshee wail of woe to the marshworld in the still of the night. This has earned him a reputation as “the crying bird.” He is also a noted gourmet; a pile of empty apple snail shells identifies his favorite dining-out spot.
It’s the loonliest sound on earth. It’s one of nature’s musical treasures. Once you hear it, the uncommon cry of the Common Loon will become your wilderness theme song, engaging all your senses in evocation of moonrise in the vast solitude of the great north country. But can you describe it? Loonquists have called in unearthly, primeval, maniacal — the melody of madness, the lyrics of loonacy. Yet it is haunting, tremulous, sorrowful: The Loonlight Sonata.
Love from Above
Motherly, brotherly and otherly, love is always in the air. And for a giraffe calf still wet behind the ears, lave’s a warm, wet tongue that comes down from the treetops. Like moms everywhere, this one’s up to her instincts in the project, with her head in the clouds and her feet on the ground. Awake, her towering toddler is a pain in the neck, but when he’s sleeping, doesn’t that angelic look bring a lummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmp to your throat?
Love on a Limb
Whether man or monkey, we have a hard time living with each other and a harder time living without each other. Hopeful of acceptance, dreading rejection, we offer our love on a leash, loathe to go out on a limb and say, “Be my valentine.”’ But when the chemistry clicks and a couple of swingers like these titi monkeys share the fruit of the passionflower, two hearts merge, touching turns to tail-twining, love comes out of limbo-it’s titi tete-a-tete time in the tropical rainforest.
Long distance is the next best thing to being there, but a dove in love would rather reach out and touch someone. Spring is in the air and all lines are busy with local calls as the wooing and cooing commence. HELLO, LOVEY, THIS IS DOVEY. Fly away, buster, you’ve got a wrong number. Dauntless Dovey dials some different digits. HELLO, LOVEY, THIS IS DOV – Dovey! I thought you’d never call! Come on over and let’s get acquainted – person to person.
Manatee in the Mangrove
Once upon a pristine time (before 1492) existed the magical, natural kingdom of Foreverglades. In this tropical Eden we now call Everglades lived a droll and lovable marine mammal-the ten-foot, halfton manatee. Manatees to the max. Enter man. Man and manatee: a monstrous mismatch. Any manatees left in Florida? A few hundred, seriously endangered by their principal predator, the motorboat. Motorboats to the max. Welcome to the tragical, man-made kingdom of Nevermoreglades.
Some birds have all the talent. Take the Mockingbird, for example. Mimic, composer, arranger, vocalist, clown, he still finds time to devote to his family. Like many another life-of-the-party, he gets his kicks by recording everything that happens and playing it back for all to hear, hi-fi and unedited. Thus his moonlight sonata is likely to be punctuated by variations on a theme from a power mower and Mrs. Catbird’s conversation with Mr. Wren.
Turquoise, azure, cerulean – what word does justice to his blue? An ounce of western sky fallen to earth? Like all conscientious bluebirds, he dispels gloom, heralds the good life, and promises the brave new world. Door-to-door salesman of do-it-yourself contentment, and tourist at heart, he peddles his happiness from the Cascades to the Sierra Nevadas, cottonwood grove to timberline, Moosejaw to Eagle Pass – all over his own backyard
Time bomb of the timeless sierra, the Mountain Quail has a proximity fuse set for three feet. He explodes like a cubist painting of a Mountain Quail exploding, quickening the pulse, rocketing stroboscopically into the chaparral. For him a cliché was coined: “He went thataway.” Plumed like a drum major, he avoids parades but dry cleans his uniform and freshens up by taking a dust bath. A family man, he believes in large ones – fifteen, more or less.
It’s Standing Room Only at Three Arch Rocks, America’s most densely settled bird colony, off the Oregon coast. Here 750,000 Murres practice togetherness on seventeen acres, roughly a square foot for every citizen, except the ones on the outside edge. Murres incubate in a standing position and their eggs are top-shaped which prevents them from rolling, which is lucky because – oops, look out below!
Mystery of the Missing Migrants
For centuries, the neo-tropical migrants in this picture have shuttled between winter homes in the tropical rainforest and nesting sites our woodlands. Now their populations are plummeting. Why? Habitat destruction Down There? Up Here? Is your favorite songster in this flock? Each April, I listen anxiously to the dawn chorus for the return of my favorite, that world-class flutist, the wood thrush. Are silent springs forthcoming? Remember the canary in the coal mine?
Owl on the Prowl
You could hang this picture on your ceiling and call it off-the-wall art! Let’s pretend you’re a caterpillar crawling along the ground in the dead of night. Glancing upward, you catch a split-second glimpse of one frame from this fast-action sequence: the great horned owl’s radar has locked onto a running rodent that’s about to become another link in the food chain. You must have seen hundreds of pictures of this event, but did you ever see it from the worm’s-eye-view?
When the great horned owl eats crow, it’s not because he’s humbled – he’s hungry. And they’re easy pickin’ in the dark when he can see and they can’t. But sunrise turns the tables, and any sighting of the flying tiger sets off the owlarm that summons a crowliferating posse to pester him. The air is clogged with crowfanities as the raucous ruckus moves from oak to maple to beech. Finally, tired and feathered, he is escorted out of town by the most direct route-as the crow flies.
Wolves touch noses, lick faces and wag tails to reaffirm traditional family values, to keep the pack pact — all for one and one for all — and to maintain the pack pecking order, headed by the alpha male and/or alpha female. Betas are next in status as it trickles down alphabetically in this extended family circle, through the pampered pups, with their own alpha and beta, to the lowly omega. If you can’t make heads or tails of this social dynamic, just think of it as alphabet soup.
Pack Rat Palace
We all know one, many of us have one at home, some of us married one-you might even be one. We’re talking pack rat, the ubiquitous, compulsive and obsessive hunter/gatherer/saver of everything useless and space-consuming. Most collect eclectically, but the real-life pack rat (proper name: wood rat) specializes in shiny objects, with which he decorates his digs in what might be called Pack Rat Tacky. Anthropomorphism is alive and well and will flourish as long as we have pack rats.
The Painted Bunting is in advertising – direct male advertising, that is. While his conservative wife remains in the background, he is busy in garden, hedgerow and thicket, proclaiming himself in glorious Technicolor and singing commercial, pew-eta, pew-eta, I eaty you too. Quick to anger and mighty in combat, he will fight to the finish for home, mate and the joy of conquest. Once a victim of cage-bird dealers, he was known in the marketplace as “Nonpareil” – without an equal.
Plural beyond comprehension, the Passenger Pigeon once swept our skies like feathered flash-floods, eclipsing the sun, staggering the mind, devouring the field, glutting the Eastern woodland with his chaotic tree-tenements. But by 1914 he had vanished. Gentle and trusting, he found no safety in numbers; where he paused to feed, the countryside feasted and pigeoners prospered. The left-over corpses, streamlined and iridescent, were used to fatten hogs and fill mudholes, or left to rot.
Pelican in a Downpour
If your food is all finned and your chin’s double-chinned, you’re a Brown Pelican. The seine with a brain. It takes IQ to outwit a mess of menhaden, because they’re always in school. By the way, haven’t you noticed something fishy about your food lately? Been upset by incomplete incubation? Bad news – you’re a vanishing species. DDT. Sorry about that. Nothing personal, though – we meant it for bugs but we didn’t stop to … Next time we’ll plan ahead.
The gall of some gulls. Catch this scenario: the brown pelican dives into a school of fish and comes up with a pouch full of protein; the laughing gull, hanging around for a heist, swipes some mullet for his gullet. “Ha, ha, ha,” laughs the laughing gull, who always leaves them laughing. Wouldn’t you think the plundered pelican would get wise to this pickpocketry? He’s not the biggest brain in the brine, but he has been through a lot of schools.
The ring-necked pheasant – clotheshorse of the cornfields or haberdasher’s nightmare? What’s he wearing? White tie and tails, or short-sleeved, long-tailed, loud-mouthed sport shirt with open collar? Is it a smart art deco design, or too many colors and patterns lumped together? Is it the grandeur of silk or the gaucherie of sequins? Does it matter? A rainbow in the snow is better bromide for the mid-winter blahs than buying a new spring outfit around the phirst of Phebruary.
How do you like your skunk steak? Rare? Rarely? Not this great horned owl – he’s taking his on the hoof, for a midnight snack. It’s plenty smelly, but it fills his belly. Sure, it’s stink, stank, stunk when he confiscates a skunk – he’ll even end up with a skunky bunk. But when it comes down to stink or starve, it’s better to be fed than dead. The skunk was planning to eat in when the owl dropped by – it’s once in a lifetime he gets taken out for dinner.
Even on the pier, peer pressure appears, Pelican or person, we all experience persistent and perpetual persuasion to perform like the pack-even if we have to stand on one foot to do it. “I guess you’d go jump in the ocean if your pals did,” is a perennial people-parent complaint, when commendation of contemporaries precludes progenitorial approval. And that’s just what a pubescent pelican does with his peers on the pier: jumps in the ocean.
If you can’t brush after every meal, better queue up regularly at the local cleaning clinic. Tiny neon gobies make a good living as dental and dermatological technicians for residents of the reef, venturing fearlessly into fang-filled caverns to dine on ectoparasites that thrive on their clients’ teeth, gills and scales. Look! In the barracuda’s mouth! Is that goby psychotic? No, just symbiotic. While the clients don’t tip, they never gobble the gobies. They all mind their p’s ‘n’ q’s.
Every meal is a potluck for an animal in the wild. So when the coatimundi eats out (as he always does) he’ll try anything on the menu. If it creeps, crawls, hops, slithers, squirms, swims, flies, walks, runs or takes root, he’ll sample it. Poke around the pueblo with your pliant proboscis, roll some rocks over with your powerful paws, and you’ll uncover some esoteric edibles, and some mighty fast food. You know the kind – grab a bite before it grabs you.
Ever feel like telling the world, “Don’t call me. I’ll call you?” Take a tip from this prickly pair and cloak yourself in spears and spines, burrs and barbs, hatpins and narpoons. A quiver of quills quickly quells invasion of privacy and insures tranquility. But when misanthropy gives way to philanthropy, when your gregarious impulse quashes your territorial imperative, call a friend. Even the porcupine and the prickly pear get together occasionally – for lunch.
Puzzle for bird counters, and everybody else-find the Ptarmigan. White-on-white in winter, brown-on-brown in summer, he spends his life above timberline in the Cascades and Rockies. But near perfect concealment does not save him from a rhythmic rise and fall in numbers revealed by counts of non-migrating populations. The cause of the several-year cycle is still black-on-black.
If you’re like me, you never forget a face but can’t recall the name, so you invent elaborate reminders. Take this funny looking bird with the false nose, the pasted-on eyebrows and the bright cheek smears – Emmett Kelly with feathers. I have to say to myself: proceeding precipitously, approaching the populous puffinry with ponderous proboscis packed with piscatorial pabulum for the plumping, precocious pufflings, he rhymes with muffin. I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.
The Purple Gallinule is the poor man’s peacock, the Pavlova of the pond. One of our most exquisite water birds, in costume and choreography he animates marshes and roadside ditches all over Dixie. “Hiddy-hiddy-hiddy, hit-up, hit-up, hit-up,” he comments as he closes in on his dinner, using the lilypads as stepping stones. When he’s in a hurry, though, he flies. But he apparently places little faith in air travel as he never retracts his landing gear.
Quails have their own home security system. It works on a proximity fuse with a mighty short countdown as they sack out in a covey-dovey of sentries -tails together, heads out, all systems GO. One step too close it’s cardiac arrest as the bob-white bomb explodes in a nerve shattering, whirring-blurring of wings, rocketing into orbits around all the points of the compass. Many a menace is outfoxed by the blitz of their blastoff. It’s enough to make the stoutest heart quail.
Racc n’ Ruin
A pet raccoon is a bundle of fun. Ransacked drawers, unstuffed sofas, shredded curtains, emptied purses, unplugged appliances, peeled wallpaper, dumped sugar bowls, spilled honey – fun like that. Raccoons can turn door knobs, undo latches, pry open windows, uncap bottles, pull corks, turn on water faucets- and forget to turn them off. They are notorious for breaking and entering-your home and your heart.
Skunks have The Bomb. Long ago they won the animal arms race, glands down. Now they walk among us in peace, using their terrible weapon only as a deterrent. Raccoons have the brain. High in IQ, cutes, cunning and caution, they move into the suburbs with their upwardly mobile lifestyle. Raccoons will scatter your garbage, trash your property, and charm you right out of your tree. Their mechanical aptitude is legendary. Heaven help us if raccoons ever get The Bomb!
Trick ‘r treat! Better have some table scraps and a few marked-down loaves of bread on hand when this lovable gang of raccoteers appears on your patio-or you’ll end up serving tomorrow morning’s coffee cake. The masked ball in the backyard is a nightly event in suburbs across the land, and if you’re having friends over for the evening, it’s good for an hour of prime time with no commercials. You are emcee, the resident authority on animal behavior and ranking raccoonteur.
If you’re born in a tree, learning to walk can be hazardous to your health, but once you get the hang of it, it’s as easy as falling off a limb. A few lessons from the den mothe and it’s, “Look, ma-no hands;’ as you test your balance on some drastic gymnastic high in the limbe timber. Nothing’s better than a butterfly chase in the treetops to relieve raccrophobia, refine reflexes and sow self-confidence. Whooooeeee. Fallout of a tree? Who? Me? A racc-OOPS …
You’ve got to get up mighty early in the morning to outwit a raccoon. And if this is your birdfeeder, you’d better get up early anyway-to refill it! Now you know what’s been happening to your sunflower seed between sunset and sunrise. It’s the masked moonlighter. Maybe you thought the neighborhood owl had turned vegetarian? Or that your squirrels had insomnia? Or that the local starlings had started a night shift? Not so. It’s just another example of good ol’ “Arneraccoonqenuity.”
Red and Fed (Cardinal on Corn)
Corn-on-the-cob at ten below and no mittens? No problem. Just tuck your napkin under your chin and have at it. Your first encounter with a Cardinal, adult male, in the snow will rock you with wonder. Startling as a shooting star, unbelievable as thunder on a winter’s day, this feathered hyperbole is what you can always say something else is as red as. But nothing else is as.
Redbirds and Redbuds
They see each other around the bird feeder all winter long, but one red-letter day in late January they SEE each other. He offers her a sunflower seed (while she’s standing in them) and she accepts. As February Marches into April, the courtship quickens, and by the time the redbud’s in bloom, love is too. She weaves some leaves and twigs together, and just in time. As summer falls into winter, make sure you lay in enough sunflower seeds-an extra bag this year.
Like many a do-it-yourself homebuilder before them, these Redeyed Vireos had to move in before it was finished. Common delays: too much rain and hard-to-get materials, which they often airlift from long distances. Their semi-pensile nest, a cup of expertly woven plant fibers hung from a fork in a branch, is decorated with cocoons, bark, newspaper and hornet nest scraps – all find-it-yourself materials.
Romance on the Richter Scale
Talk about a heavy date! It’s their big love scene-a gigantic, frantic, romantic antic in the Atlantic. It’s a titanic, oceanic courtship on the order of an earthquake. Look out for the bridal tidal wave as they sink to entwine in the brine. Humpback whales are colossal, but they’re docile, which is lucky for us but it’s mighty unlucky for them. While they practiced non-violence, we preached the golden rule and perfected the harpoon.
Don’t be offended if this bird looks down his nose at you – he was born with his mouth in a silver spoon. The Roseate Spoonbill’s beak is a special attachment with which he dredges aquatic goodies out of the mud. For after-dinner relaxation he stands on one foot for an hour or more. The Spoonbill was once numerous on the Florida and Texas coasts, but by 1920 was more frequently seen on ladies’ bonnets and souvenir fans. His future is still uncertain.
For all his rakish good looks, the daddy Rose-breasted is the very model of the family man. He helps assemble the platform-standing nest of twigs, stems, grass and rootlets, then cheerfully relieves his drab little mate on the nest, humming a housewifely tune as he incubates. To the kids, he is hero and pal. And he seldom returns from a trip without some thoughtful little remembrance, such as a potato bug.
On the leading edge of spring, the cock robin stakes out his territory and sings up NO TRESPASSING signs. Cherrily, cheerily, cheerily, he sings cheerily. Translation: “Don’t land here if you look like me, buster–this backyard’s not big enough for both of us.” Then the ladies arrive and singles give way to doubles in the annual round robin. With all the fuss and feathers, he wins his match and they settle down to perpetuate the species. And that’s the name of the game.
Hummers can fly backward, vertically and pause in midair. This is handy when you do your housebuilding in a tree. Mr. Ruby-throat checks out after the honeymoon and something tells Mrs. to start building the tiny attached-saddled nest, glued by salivary secretion to a down-sloping branch. It’s made of plant down, lichens, and silk borrowed from a neighboring spider, whom she later has over for dinner – hers.
The sycamore tree cloaks itself in combat fatigues, but the camouflage doesn’t fool the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Yes, that’s his name – the yellow-belllied sapsucker. But what else could you call a bird with a yellow belly that drills a pegboard girdle around a tree trunk to sip the sap that wells therein and, incidentally, to ingest the insects that are attracted to the feast and stick around to be feasted upon. Sycamore is but one of 277 flavors he favors.
From a polar bear’s perspective, icebergs are supposed to float always upon the ocean, stable islands of reprieve since the rise of the mammal’s collective hard-wired memory. But, with the intensification of the Industrial Revolution, global warming promises to compress ecozones and pair some previously unlikely partners. The Northern Cardinal was never intended to become this northern – however, on a planet beset by our role in accelerating climate change, strange new norms appear – a Scary Scenario indeed.
Vanity, thy name might well be Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! His flight a poem, his train a June bride’s dream, his choreography the envy of ballerinas, he is the Texas Bird of Paradise – high praise indeed for any bird this side of it. But he is more interested in law enforcement than looks and elects himself the sheriff of the county. He catches more grasshoppers than flies, but who wants to be called a Scissor-tailed Grasshoppercatcher?
It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Who’s that red-headed, red-billed, red-bellied, red-throated, red-tailed, red-winged, red-backed, red-breasted, red-crested, red-capped, red-crowned, red-chinned, red-collared, red-cheeked, red-necked, red-shouldered, red-sided, red-rumped rascal that’s trespassing on his turf, mauling his machismo? So begins the war at the window. He has met the enemy and it is he, himself- the red-faced redbird.
If you experience technical difficulties when you look at this herd of zebras on Africa’s Serengeti Plain, please bear with us – the trouble is not in your set. It’s a tropical optical illusion, an equatorial pictorial puzzle of equivocal equinal elements, a stripey smorgasbord of scrambled silhouettes, an amorphous ambulatory aggregation of undulating ungulates: op art on the hoof. How many hooves in the herd? You really want to know? Well, first you have to count the zebras……
Shadow Dancers – Water Striders
Can you think of a better name for insects that walk on water? Our ancestors couldn’t either, but your field guide calls them water striders. They hike around on the pond all their lives without even getting wet feet, and in shallow water on a sunny day their shadows sink like stones and tag along on the bottom. But who minds a wet shadow? If you had wide-spread, waxy feet that didn’t break the surface film, you, too, could walk on water. And be famous for fifteen minutes.
Behold how black skimmers fish for their finny food. As the tide falls and the moon rises, a squadron of skimmers shimmers over the glassy cove, shallow-plowing the shallows with their razor-thin lower mandibles, scooping up minnow by the many by the mini furrows. It’s a little like seining with a string, and you have to wonder if they don’t come up with a lot of flotsam and jetsam. Isn’t there an easier way to make a living? Not if you’re a black skimmer.
A school of minnows clears the classroom as a menacing monster swirls up from the depths. It’s the largemouth bass, out to grab a bite. The subject for today and everyday: Pond Life and How to Prolong It When It’s Yours. They learn fast, but many a minnow flunks the final. Multiple choice question: Who will live the longest? (a) Little fish in a big pond; (b) Little fish in a little pond; (c) Big fish in a big pond; (d) Big fish in a little pond? Answer: snapping turtle.
The Snowy Egret wears a silky white wedding gown with a long lace train and pledges his troth with a twig. She does, too – and it’s a double twig ceremony. But who can tell the bride from the groom? They can, and a few weeks later they’re taking turns at babysitting, keeping their love alive by swapping twigs at nestrelief. The Snowy’s recovery from near-annihilation by plume hunters is one of our country’s happiest examples of conservation in action.
One Snowy Owl is enough to make any Christmas Count memorable because he is only a tourist in these parts, visiting us as a winter erratic. But his visits are more like invasions about every four years, the Count shows, when his dispersal cycle peaks as the Arctic lemming population ebbs and hunger drives him southward. Warning to American mice: stay indoors in 1960, the golden-eyed ghost is coming.
Hail to the clotheshorse of the Underbrush Haberdashery! The Spotted Towhee dresses for a ball, but loses his nerve and stays home. Anyway, he’d rather scrounge under sticks and stones for slugs and bugs. He’s the bird with the worm’s-eye view. Shy, self-conscious, stealthy, this undercover agent always has the drop on you. Ecstacy seizes him occasionally, driving him to drop a syllable from an aspen limb. His answer to all questions is “Yup.”
Squirrel in a Squall
Fall is the busy season for a squirrel as the nut glut hits: he eats enough to put on his thermal underwear of fat and buries the rest: pig out now, dig out later. When October turns suddenly soggy, no problem. He never leaves home without his umbrella, which is also his sunshade, his banner, his parachute, his rudder and his stabilizer for death-defying aerial acts. If he forgets where he puts the nuts when snow falls, don’t worry — he never forgets where you put your bird feeder.
Talk about a population explosion! The Starling’s count has mushroomed yearly since he was brought from Europe in 1890. This bird is giving people their comeuppance – each winter his squadrons invade more of their habitat. They retaliate with such ultimate weapons as stuffed owls, Roman candles, supersonic whistles, and cat-faced balloons, but he’s winning the Starling War.
Well … it’s not exactly sugar-free, but it’s free for the taking. Early spring is the time to tap the sugar maple, collect the clear, sweet sap, and boil it down to the maple sugar so dear to every sweet tooth. You may ask: “Don’t the collecting buckets have lids?” Sure, but so does your garbage can, and how long did it take these bandits to gain raccess to it? A sweet tooth in the wild finds precious little satisfaction. Sometimes it must be sought syruptitiously.
Countdown starts at dawn for the Swallow-tailed Kite, America’s most graceful flier. Orbiting over the marshland, he keeps close tabs on the comings and goings of snakes, lizards and frogs, which constitute his breakfast. Occasionally, too, he plucks a newly-hatched alligator from this planet. He is wise to spend most of his life in space because Earthmen usually greet him as they might a visitor from Mars – shoot first, ask questions later.
You’re cruising down 1-75 in your new compact, Florida-bound, when you glance at the rearview mirror-GULP! You’re being tailgated! We’re talking “expressway ecology” and that big tractor-trailer is at the top of the food chain. The wood duck is cruising through a slough in Florida when he glances aft-GULP! He’s being tailgatored! Now we’re talking “Everglades ecology” and that big lizard is at the top of the food chain. Will you arrive alive on I-75? Is it safer to fly?
Why take off when you can taxi like the roadrunner? He’s the fastest run in the West, but the collared lizard’s got the drop on him-dropped his tail to save his neck. More comical than a caricature of himself, the lizard lovin’ roadrunner is a regular cactus-country cutup, a zany zygodactyl, and a desert dragster, a kooky cuckoo clocked at 15 mph. The lizard? His throwaway tail will soon grow back, different maybe, but better’n no tail ‘t all.
Tern, Stones, and Turnstones
If you’re terned off–I mean, “turned” off–by puns, don’t go away. The ol’ punster has terned (make that “turned”) over a new leaf. I promise not to punctuate this paragraph with such punishments as no stone unterned, no U-terns–no more awful puns. Just the facts: a Roseate Tern and some Ruddy Turnstones share a pebbly beach along the … WAIT! I CAN’T STAND IT ANY LONGER! Ternabout’s fair play. No terning back now. The ol’ punster has passed the point of no retern.
The Bottom Line
Will the human race self-destruct? Life on Earth has endured five major extinction spasms, all triggered by catastrophic natural disasters. Are we the next disaster, happening even as we speak? Are we both perpetrator and victim of the Sixth Extinction, which our proliferating population is unlikely to survive because it is squeezing the trigger? Are we, like an eagle downed by an arrow guided by its own tail feather, sowing the seeds of our own destruction? Stay tuned.
The Bug That Bugs Nobody
All the world loves a ladybug. Since time began they have been pals to people, and over the centuries ladybugs have built the kind of image that can only be earned: Insect Friend Number 1. They portend good luck and dine only on other insects whose very existence plagues people. Nobody swats, stomps or sprays a ladybug. It’s the only bug that doesn’t bug anybody! Folks are even flattered when they find a ladybug CRAWLING ON THEM! Can any other insect make that statement?
The Catbird Seat
Cats and dogs, oil and water, pickles and preserves-they just don’t seem to go together. For starters, cats are loners, sufficient unto themselves; dogs are party animals. Cats couldn’t care less when you come home; dogs throw a celebration when you step in the door. But occasionally, when the same hand feeds them, they patch up their differences and hang out together. And as long as the kitten has the upper paw, they don’t appear after all to be, well-intomcatible.
The Last Aphid
Of all the insets that make house calls, the ladybug has the best bedside manner. Flower bed, that is. If your roses are wasting away with acute aphiditis and you’ve despaired of home remedies, tired of the transplants, and turned agnostic about technological faith healing (let us spray – the medicine works but the world ends up with the DDTs), here’s a sure cure that’s environmentally friendly. Rx – ladybugs: one teaspoonful, just before mealtime. Their mealtime, that is.
The Last Sunflower Seed
Good cheer is a cardinal virtue. And what is more cheerful than waking up on a snowy morning to find your backyard full of cardinals? With all that red and white, who could be blue? Ever wonder why birds of a feather flock together? Maybe because it’s easier than flocking apart. Or because that’s where the vittles are. Is your bird feeder down to the last sunflower seed? Fill it fast – an empty bird feeder is a cardinal sin.
The Name is Puffin
If you’re like me, you never forget a face, but can’t recall the name, so you invent elaborate reminders. Take this funny-looking bird with the false nose, the pasted-on eyebrows, the bright cheek smears – Emmett Kelly with feathers. I have to say to myself: proceeding precipitously, approaching the populous puffinry with ponderous proboscis packed with piscatorial pabulum for the plumping, precocious puffling, he rhymes with muffin. I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.
The Wedding Feast
A rose is a rose is a rose, but Ms. Praying Mantis is the ultimate feminist. Don’t romanticize her mating. This predatory female is a potential connubial cannibal. Many a mate has learned too late that her intent is not wholly matrimony, and that the way to her heart is through her stomach. Their affair is brief –infatuation, consummation, mastication- and the ceremony is simple, but tasteful – to have and to hold ‘till death do us part. A burp is a burp is a burp.
In the twenties, the Trumpeter’s swan song was heard across the land; civilization had driven him to the verge of extinction. But he made a comeback by going into isolation in the wilderness fastnesses of the Northwest. Now he nests safely on a remodeled beaver lodge in Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Montana. But his great size and beauty are still a temptation to marksmen eager to prove their skill on anything that moves, the bigger the better.
Twice a year, the growing crayfish finds himself splitting his seams. When he can no longer contain himself, Mother Nature unzips his hard exoskeleton and he slips out, soft and vulnerable, like a gelatin dessert from a crayfish mold. Indeed, dessert is what many of his neighbors-finned, furred, feathered, fanged and fingered-would make of him. He may elude the bass, the raccoon, the heron and the snake, only to have the fisherman put a hook through his tail and offer him to the bass.
How’d you like to beat your head against the bark of a tree every day for three square meals? Upside-down, sideways, topsy-turvy, ever nervy, the downy woodpecker’s always up an’ at ‘em, down to business. Vertigo? There he is, listening intently at the bottom of that branch, targeting a tidbit deep inside. Can he get it? No problem. With a bill like a drill and a tongue like a spear, never fear. Piece of cake. Make that upside-downy cake.
Put a fancy lace border around these barn owls and you could send them to your sweetie on February 14. “Be mine!” you could say, “I love you with all my hearts!” Or when you’re ready to pop the question: “Let’s owlope.” And on your anniversary: “You’re still as owlluring as ever.” For Flag Day: “I pledge owlleqiance. ” Then there’s Cowlumbus Day and Owlection Day. And Christmas! “Owlleluia.” Oops,almost forgot Howlloween. Maybe we’d better start Iisting them owlphabetically.
You’d be moonlighting, too, if you had three hungry kids with a delinquent father. So how about a handout? Raccoons will eat just about anything you put out for them, and a lot of things you don’t! Keep a tight lid on when they raccoonoiter your premises unless you want your garbage recycled. And be careful – these backyard burglars will steal your heart. Why do raccoons like to wash their food? Wouldn’t you if you had to eat in the dark?
Ever wish you could walk on water? You know who can? A Water Strider, that’s who. A Water Strider can walk around on the creek all day without getting its feet wet. It’s shadow sinks like a stone and tags along on the bottom , but who minds a wet shadow? If you had widespread, waxy feet that didn’t break the surface tension, you could walk on water, too. And you know what you’d be called if you did? A Water Strider, that’s what.
The Water Turkey lunches and launders at the same time, then returns to his favorite perch and hangs his wings out to dry. Somber and silent, resembling a cormorant and looking not a bit like a turkey, he haunts the cypress lagoon like a ghost in a gloomy castle. Is he bird or reptile? He flies like a bird, but swims like a snake, with only his head above water. It is easy to imagine that he consorts with the dinosaurs in some yet-to-be-discovered expanse of steaming prehistoric jungle.
Bright as a circus poster on a weatherbeaten barn, the Western Tanager looks like a highly embarrassed goldfinch. No tree-top Caruso, he sings for his own enjoyment, telling of far-flung solitudes and the carefree existence, while his wife does the chores. When he visits your fruit orchard, remember that he eats mostly insects, ornaments Christmas trees in July, commemorates in color the autumn leaf, and is what you can say something is not as yellow as.
Welcome to the world, little whitecoat, baby harp seal with tearful eyes. Warm and cuddly in your immaculate pelt, you are helpless and defenseless on the arctic ice; you cannot swim, you can scarcely crawl. And you are so trusting. We think you are beautiful. We love you. We hear your cries of pain and terror under the hunter’s club. But we would wear you. Goodbye, little whitecoat,from the endangering species – those friendly folks who bring you to extinction.
Tallest of American wading birds, the Whooping Crane rears his family in a remote part of Northern Canada, and winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Our forefathers saw him in New England and the East, and, although he flew at great heights, his Mississippi Valley migrations were awesome to experience. But the Whooper Rating is currently so low, in spite of his national publicity, that there is anxious speculation about his return in the fall.
The possum lives downstairs from a drummer, and he was sleeping like a log when that dingbat decided to practice. This was a nice, quiet neighborhood before that dingaling ruffed grouse moved in. Spring’s in full swing, and Mr. Macho BOOMS out an invitation-ultimatum: gather ’round, gals; go ‘way, guys. Ruffed and ready for love or war, he’s tough or tender, depending on their gender. He’s so often depicted wingdinging on his drumming log that this picture could well be his logo.
A continuing census of both ducks and duck hunters is carried on by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the purpose of regulating open seasons and bag limits. Thus the jewel-like Wood Duck, once nearly extinct, was saved from extermination by hunters. But what will happen when the proliferating human population invades the last remaining acres of his habitat? Wood Duck Acres.
The Wood Ibis is our only native stork, but he does not, as you might suppose, hang around obstetricians’ offices. He hangs around swamps instead, where, from his cypress maternity ward, arises a cacophonous chorus of grunts, croaks and squeals suggesting that he is too busy with his own domestic difficulties to run a delivery service on the side. Sometimes, just to get away from it all, he rides a thermal to dizzy heights. He can also fly upside down.
At nesting time, the daddy Wood Thrush vocalizes his territorial claim, and the census taker assumes that he speaks for one Wood Thrush family. By employing this song-counting technique to survey other species, the Breeding-Bird Census has produced these birds-per-acre averages: 9.4 in marshes, 4 in deciduous woodland, 2.25 in farm country, 0 in Bonneville Flats, Utah.
Many people view the grinning skull as an unpleasant reminder of their mortality, but to house wrens an empty cranium is just another home-site with a domed ceiling. In 1888 a Kentucky doctor reported that a skull he had saved as a souvenir of medical school and hung on his back porch had been remodeled by wrens. It was still occupied in 1945 when his son moved the skull to his garage in Indiana, where it was promptly re-wrented. Home is where the heart is, even if it’s a transplant.