Interview with a Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Amelia: Hey there, do you have time to chat?

Black-capped chickadee: Can’t stop…must…cache seeds!

A: I happen to have some sunflower seeds right here.

C: Well, when you put it like that…

A: What did you mean by caching seeds?

C: Caching just means hiding food to find and eat later. For example, squirrels cache nuts. I’m not eating the seeds that I grab from your hand. I’m actually hiding them in little holes or under tree bark. I’ll come back and get them later this winter.

A: Do you remember where you put them?

C: Of course I do! I can remember where I hid thousands of seeds. I’m not some silly squirrel, after all.

A: Wow! That’s amazing.

C: Well, I’m pretty motivated. I have to survive -40 C Canadian winters, after all.

A: That’s right! How do you do that without central heating and hot chocolate?

C: With difficulty. I puff out my feathers. This traps warm air next to my body, like your long underwear does. I also sleep away the winter nights in cozy burrows in rotten logs. At night I’ll drop my body temperature 10-12 degrees Celsius to save energy. It’s called regulated hypothermia.

A: Brr, I get chilly when my thermostat goes down 2 degrees!

C: That’s because you’re a weak human. Grow some feathers.

A: Whoa, that was uncalled for! I am generously sharing my sunflower seeds with you, after all.

C: Sorry. I tend to get aggressive in the winter. It’s the only way to survive in our gang.

A: Wait. There are chickadee gangs?

C: Yep. You could call them flocks, but gang sounds cooler.

A: I guess so. So how many birds in your gang?

C: This winter we have five. Two mated pairs from last year and one baby. We also have a few nuthatches and woodpeckers , but the hierarchy doesn’t apply to them.

A: Why would other birds join your winter gangs? Are chickadees really that cool?

C: Of course we are! We know this patch of forest like the back of our wing. Sometimes migrating birds will hang out with us because we know where the food is and they don’t. Just because we’re aggressive doesn’t mean we can’t be helpful.

A: Why are you so aggressive?

C: The gang runs on a strict pecking order. If you’re the meanest you eat first and have the safest nesting places. The meanest chickadee is the most dominant. Generally males and older birds are the most dominant.

A: Okay. Where do you stand in this pecking order?

C: I’m the most dominant male, of course! I keep everyone else in line. In the spring I’ll pair up with the dominant female. Since we’re well fed from being mean all winter, our babies will have a better chance of surviving.

A: Are you looking forward to spring?

C: To be honest, not really. Raising babies is exhausting. Did you know we feed those buggers 6-14 times every hour? It’s ridiculous if you ask me.

A: How many chicks do you usually have?

C: My mate will lay 5-7 eggs. If they’re not eaten by snakes, weasels or even squirrels and chipmunks, we’ll have that many nestlings to feed and change.

A: What do you mean by change? They don’t wear diapers, do they?

C: We have to clean their poop out of the nest. Believe me, they produce a lot.

A: Ah. Do you feed them seeds?

C: Nope. About 80-90% of our summer diet is insects. Insect eggs, insect larvae, insect adults, we eat it all! We’re natural pest control for the forest trees. In the winter 50% of our winter diet is still insects.

A: Wow, I can’t imagine finding insects in winter.

C: I know, I’m pretty amazing. Not to mention cute.

A: Yep, and that’s why people feed you in the winter. You have it pretty good.

C: Yep. Thanks for the sunflower seeds! I’m off to put a juvenile in his place.

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chickadee/
http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/039/articles/introduction
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/chickadee.html

Poppies: how a fertility symbol became a symbol of war

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Last Tuesday was Remembrance Day in Canada, and red felt poppies were everywhere. In Canada, as in many other countries, poppies symbolize those who lost their lives in war.

However, poppies also bring to mind a deadly field in the Wizard of Oz, opium dens and heroin addicts. Where did the poppy, which is arguably just as attractive as a rose, get such a dark reputation?

A one-plant drug factory

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Okay, I know everyone wants to know about opium and heroin, so let’s get this out of the way.

Opium and heroin are opiates, drugs that occur naturally in the opium poppy’s sap. Other opiates include the painkiller morphine and the cough-suppressant codeine. Some opiates, like heroin, are more powerful than others.

Out of the 50-plus species of poppies, you can only get opiates from one. The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, was originally from Turkey. Today it’s grown legally in Australia, India and Turkey to make pharmaceuticals, and illegally in Laos, Thailand and Afghanistan and the United States to make heroin.

Opiates act on the brain and spinal cord to reduce pain and relax muscles. Opiates trick the brain into thinking they are endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemical. Unfortunately, this also makes them very addictive.

For centuries opium was medicine’s main painkiller. It was taken as pills or added to drinks. Because of its medicinal properties the opium poppy spread from Turkey to Greece, China and India.

In Europe opium was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Morphine was used to treat American soldiers during the Civil war, creating thousands of addicts.

When heroin was discovered in the 1900s, governments quickly made most opiates illegal. After that, the strongest opiates moved underground. Today many opium poppies are grown illegally to feed the habit of millions of heroin addicts.

It’s not all bad. Some people grow the opium poppy for its seeds, used to make oil and birdseed.

A big money-maker

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

Today the not-so-strong opiate codeine is one of the world’s most common painkillers. Canadians are some of the drug’s top consumers, spending over $100 million a year on codeine products. All of Canada’s codeine is imported, and some scientists are trying to find ways to make it artificially to avoid import costs.

Origin story

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Poppies belong to the Papaveraceae family. Papaver is Latin for food or milk, which refers to the poppy’s milky sap.

Poppies grow all over the place, including the Middle East, China, Europe, Central Asia and North America. Some even grow in the arctic like the strangely named Iceland Poppy actually from North America. The four-petaled Common poppy of Remembrance Day fame is native to North Africa and Southern Europe, but it’s done a good job of spreading itself all over Europe and Asia.

Fabulous Fertility

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer's fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer’s fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Imagine a poppy seed. You know, one of the black specks in your lemon-poppy-seed muffin. Now imagine 60,000 of them. That’s how many seeds a single plant can make in a single year. This is one reason the Common poppy is a fertility symbol in Europe.

Poppy seeds are patient. They can wait up to 80 years for just the right conditions: churned up and disturbed soil. Poppies love to pop up in newly-tilled fields, so farmers associated them with the fertility of their crops.

Unfortunately, this super-fertile plant started to decline once farmers started using chemical herbicides on their fields. However, poppies still bloom on land farmers set aside, attracting bees and butterflies to pollinate the fields.

Lest we forget

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.


War also does a good job of churning up fields and creating perfect poppy conditions. Poppies bloomed on many fields after the First World War, inspiring Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. His poem sparked the widespread association between the flowers and those that died in war. Today poppies are a symbol of wartime remembrance in many countries, and artificial poppies are sold in support of veterans.

Tiny edibles

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW


What would lemon muffins be without poppy seeds? Poppy seeds are a spice used to flavour cakes and breads. In France they also use the oil of the seed. The bright petals are also used to dye some medicines and wines red, and the young leaves can be eaten like spinach.

Poppies are cultural reminders of war, fertility symbols, spices, illegal drugs and painkillers. Humans owe a lot to this bright red flower.

References

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/470181/poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium/283761/History-of-opium
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-rhoeas-common-poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627065/Veterans-Day#ref1089588
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://ucalgary.ca/news/march2010/poppygenes
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-orientale-oriental-poppy

Post-Halloween Pumpkin Ponderings

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5msURe

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5msURe

Let’s face it. As food, fresh pumpkins are not popular. In Canada they have a week or two of glory alongside the bulk candy corn and bat-shaped gummies. As thousands of jack-o’-lanterns are sent to the compost today, I look into the history and botany of pumpkins.

Family matters

Okay, first things first. Pumpkins are fruit. They belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which has a nice ring to it if you like Latin. This family includes pumpkins, squash and gourds. Generally, pumpkins are carved, squash are cooked, and gourds are bumpy decorations.

Origin story

Out of the darkness, a delicious fruit will arise. Photo by DeusXFlorida. Halloween Pumpkins at the field. CC.https://flic.kr/p/8NNSeK

Out of the darkness, a delicious fruit will arise. Photo by DeusXFlorida. Halloween Pumpkins at the field. CC.https://flic.kr/p/8NNSeK


Just like corn and tomatoes, pumpkins are from Mexico. The name comes from Greek word ‘pepon’, which means ‘large melon’.

Like a lot of good stuff to eat, pumpkins made their way north. When the Pilgrims arrived in North America, the aboriginal peoples they met were already growing pumpkins and roasting them over the fire. They also used dried strips to make mats.

Thoroughly convinced of their deliciousness, the colonists started popped pumpkins into stews, soups and desserts. Legend has it that pumpkin pie was invented when someone decided to bake a hollowed-out pumpkin filled with milk, spices and honey. The colonists even made pumpkin beer! They brewed it with hops, persimmons and maple sugar.

Pumpkin eaters

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving favorite. Photo by Jo. CC.  https://flic.kr/p/aDMSUR

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving favorite. Photo by Jo. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDMSUR

From North America pumpkins made their way to Europe. There it’s served as a vegetable. As we know, in Canada and the U.S. it’s served in pies, muffins, soups and lattes. Oh, wait. There’s actually no pumpkin in pumpkin spice lattes.

Pumpkins are good eating! They’re full of vitamin A and potassium. The flowers are edible too, if you can get them. Pumpkins are also used to feed livestock.

Halloween, or Christmas 2.1

Most of the pumpkins grown in North America turn into Jack-O'-Lanterns. Photo by Clinton Steeds. Pumpkin Carving in the Park. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9cRyQQ

Most of the pumpkins grown in North America turn into Jack-O’-Lanterns. Photo by Clinton Steeds. Pumpkin Carving in the Park. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9cRyQQ

When it comes to spending money on decorations, Halloween is close on the heels of Christmas. In Canada, 90 per cent of the pumpkin crop is sold fresh to be turned into jack-o’-lanterns. Less than 10 per cent is canned. This would explain why the canned pumpkin I purchase is so expensive.

In response to growing decorating demand, pumpkin production in the last 20 years has been increasing. Canada’s crop is worth over $15 million, and is an important source of income for many growers.

Jack-o’-turnip?

This is the scariest Jack-O'-Lantern I've ever seen. It must be the shrunken head look. Photo by IrishFireside. Jack-O-Lantern. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8jEbmP

This is the scariest Jack-O’-Lantern I’ve ever seen. It must be the shrunken head look. Photo by IrishFireside. Jack-O-Lantern. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8jEbmP

The tradition of carving a face in a fruit (which you have to admit, is a little bit odd) comes to us from Ireland and Scotland.

An Irish myth tells of a man named Jack so deceitful that neither heaven nor hell would let him in. His soul was doomed to wander the earth carrying a lantern carved out of a turnip. Yes, you heard right. A turnip.

To keep Jack of the Lantern away, people carved scary faces in vegetables and put them in their windows to scare him away. Europe being pumpkin-less at the time, they used turnips, potatoes and beets instead.

Immigrants brought the Celtic holiday to North America, where it grew to be the commercial scare-fest we see today.

Pumpkins are needy

Every vine produces one or two pumpkins. Notice how far apart they are. Photo by kmadird.CC. https://flic.kr/p/ayicVw

Every vine produces one or two pumpkins. Notice how far apart they are. Photo by kmadird.CC. https://flic.kr/p/ayicVw

For Canadian farmers growing this subtropical plant can be tricky.

Pumpkins love heat and they need space. If it’s too cold they will only produce male flowers, which don’t become fruit. If they are crowded, they produce smaller fruit.

In addition to this neediness, each plant only produces 1-2 large pumpkins. Miniature pumpkin varieties, which nauseating names like ‘Baby Boo’, ‘Sweetie Pie’, ‘Jack-Be-Little’ and ‘Munchkin’, produce 12-15 fruit per plant.

The bee dance

This is one demanding female flower, looking for lots of bee love. Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol. Yellow-Pumpkin-Flowers_59053. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bvuSum

This is one demanding female flower, looking for lots of bee love. Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol. Yellow-Pumpkin-Flowers_59053. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bvuSum


In keeping with their neediness, female pumpkin flowers need to be pollinated at least 15 times to produce fruit. That’s right, 15 times!

Unfortunately, bees don’t like visiting pumpkin flowers because the blooms are too far apart. In addition, there has 10 male flowers for every female flower, which further reduces the chance a bee will visit a female flower.

To add to the stakes, a female flower is only open for one day, usually from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s a wonder we have any pumpkins at all!

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/pumpkin/
http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/not-just-for-halloween-pumpkin-is-a-staple-of-fall/article_b72c05c6-4853-51a4-a892-3ce1cad031fa.html
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins/history.cfm
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins/facts.cfm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/298713/jack-o-lantern
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/483389/pumpkin
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/00-031.htm

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow lab bench to park bench on WordPress.com

Previous Posts

November 2014
M T W T F S S
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Archives

%d bloggers like this: