Underwater torpedo: Interview with a Common Loon

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege,USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege, USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

 

Me: I feel like I’ve been paddling this canoe forever. Oh, look a loon! It’s standing up and flapping its wings at me, how welcoming.

Common Loon: Idiot, this is a territorial display! What are you doing on my lake?

Me: Well, I’m camped just over there…

L: Is that an outboard motor I see?

M: No, this is a canoe.

L: Planning on doing any fishing with lead weights?

M: Um, no.

L: Okay, I guess you’re not a direct threat at the moment. You can stay.

M: Um, thank you. What do you have against lead fishing weights?

L: Well, unlike you humans I don’t have any teeth. Instead I have a muscular pouch behind my stomach called a gizzard that I fill with pebbles to chew my food. I’ve had friends die of lead poisoning because when they dove to grab some pebbles off the lake bottom, they also swallowed a fishing weight. It isn’t a good way to go.

M: That’s awful. What do loons eat, anyway?

L: Fish! Especially small ones like perch and sunfish.

M: But how do you catch them if you don’t have teeth? Aren’t fish slippery?

L: We thought of that. The tongue and the roof of my mouth are covered with backward-facing barbs that grab fish and force them down my throat.

M: How do you catch these fish in the first place? They’re pretty fast.

L: Not as fast as I am. I’m a specially designed killing machine.

M: Really? I find that hard to believe.

L: There’s more to being a loon then singing mournful songs on a lake.

M: Fine. Tell me about fishing.

L: I find my prey by sight. This means I need to hunt in clear, unpolluted lakes during the daytime so I can see them. Once I spot a fish, I get ready to dive. My body is specially designed for diving. Unlike most birds, my bones are solid so I can sink in the water. I also force the air out from my lungs and from between my feathers to go even faster. My feet are at the very end of my body, and push me down like a propeller. All this means I can dive very deep, up to 60 metres or 200 feet. I can even change direction underwater quickly to nab a darting fish. My heart even slows down to conserve oxygen when I dive. I’m basically a diving machine.

M: Okay, you’ve convinced me. You’re a top predator. When you can’t find fish, do you eat anything else?

L: I will eat snails, leeches, crustaceans and insect larvae in a pinch. But only if I have to.

M: I don’t see you on the shore very much with the ducks and the geese. Why not?

L: My feet are perfect propellers, but they aren’t good for walking. I spend all of my time in the water, except when I’m on the nest.

M: Aww, nesting! Your babies are such cute little balls of grey down. I love to see them riding on your back.

L: They’re demanding little balls of fluff. Our family can eat up to 30 kilograms of fish in a week. That’s a lot of diving!

M: This is an awkward question, but do loons mate for life?

L: Well, it depends on how long we live. Our average lifespan is between 9 and 30 years, and a pair bond usually lasts five years. You do the math. One day my mate won’t return to this lake, and I’ll find another black and white hottie.

M: Return from where? You don’t stay here all year?

L: Goodness no! We only come to Canadian lakes in the spring to breed. Frozen lakes do not make for good fishing. In the fall we migrate and spend the winter on unfrozen water, often in coastlines and estuaries.

M: Okay, back to nesting! Who gets to choose the nest site?

L: The male does. He tries to find somewhere sheltered a hidden on the lake shore. An island is perfect. Lots of animals would love to eat our eggs and young, like turtles, raccoons and gulls. We’ll generally only lay two eggs in a season, and take turns sitting on them for 30 days until they hatch.

M: What happens then?

L: Well, unlike other birds which are born blind and naked, our babies are super mature. In fact, they’re swimming only a few hours after they’re born.

M: That’s incredible!

L: Yep, they’re pretty awesome. That being said, we can usually only stand them for about 12 weeks. Then we take off for a migration honeymoon and leave the kids to their own devices.

M: That seems cruel. How do they know where to migrate in the winter?

L: Oh, they find a flock of other youngsters and figure it out together. Once the kids reach the ocean they’ll stay there a full two years going back north. Even so, they usually don’t start having chicks until they are 6 years old. If they haven’t already been eaten by sea otters or birds of prey, that is.

M: Sea otters, really?

L: Yep. They’ve been seen grabbing us from underneath and then wrestling us underwater.

M: Why don’t you fly away?

L: Well, first it’s a sneak attack, and second, taking off isn’t that easy. We need to run along a stretch of open water 27 to 400 metres long to generate enough speed to take off. This means that if we land in lakes that are two small, we’re stranded there. Flying isn’t something we can do instantaneously, but once we get going we can fly highway speeds of 100km or 70 miles per hour.

M: One last thing: What are those wild calls all about?

L: Our wail is to find a missing mate or defend territory, and the one that sounds like human laughter is to defend territory or chicks.

M: Great, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

L: Thanks for not polluting my lake.

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/loon/
http://www.britannica.com/animal/loon-bird
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_loon/lifehistory
http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/common-loon/
http://seaotters.com/2012/08/did-you-know-sea-otters-can-eat-birds/

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Titillating Trilliums

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn't mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn’t mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Me: Oh wow, the trilliums are really carpeting this maple grove today. I should pick one for Mom. Surely one bloom can’t hurt…

Trillium: That’s what you think!

Me: Oh, hello. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were a talking flower. I seem to be running into a lot lately.

T: Spare me the pleasantries. Just get your fingers away from my stem!

M: I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, it’s just one flower. It will fade in a few days anyways. What’s the harm?

T: First of all, it’s my sexual organ. How would you like someone pulling off yours?

M: Eww, I’d never thought of it like that.

T: I’m not finished! It took me seven years to grow this blossom. Seven. Years. What have you accomplished in that time?

M: Well, I got a biology degree…Wait a minute. Seven years? How is that possible? I thought plants flowered every year.

T: Not trilliums.

M: But seven years, isn’t that a little excessive?

T: We’re pretty slow growing, and we like it that way. It gives us time to scope the place out. In addition, our seeds are pretty needy. We don’t start to grow unless the soil is really moist, and we’ll wait as long as we have to.

M: What happens during those seven pre-flower years?

T: Year one is roots, year two is an embryonic leaf, and year three is the real leaf. Around year five I get one of those voluptuous three-lobed leaves. You have no idea how good that feels.

M: I guess I wouldn’t. But now that you flower every year, what’s stopping me from picking the blossom?

T: Geez, you just won’t let it drop, will you? Okay, I confess, the real problem isn’t actually the flower. It’s the leaf.

M: Really?

T: Yes. It’s very hard to pick the flower without damaging the leaf, which happens to be my only source of food via photosynthesis. Remember how it takes me a full year to grow this thing? If I’m leafless for a year, I can’t make food to get me through the winter. A picked leaf is a death sentence.

M: Gosh, I didn’t realize!

T: Humans rarely do.

M: So what kind of trillium are you, exactly?

T: I’m Trillium grandiflorum, the big white-flowered one. I’m also Ontario’s provincial flower.

M: You seem to be a little bit pink. You’re not a love child between one of these white trilliums and red trilliums, are you?

T: Nope. I’m Trillium grandiflorum through and through. Our petals turn pink as they age. They last up to several weeks, not like those weakling tulips.

M: I see you’re surrounded by dozens of other trilliums. Is each flower an individual plant?

T: You bet.

M: Why do you all live so close together? Don’t you have to compete for nutrients and sunlight?

T: First of all, I’m kind of like a vampire. I don’t like light. I will silently scream in full sunlight. So clear-cutting my forests is bad. It wipes out my colony completely.

M: But why grow in colonies?

T: Well, to tell you the truth, it’s because we have a bit of dispersal problem. While other plants spread their seeds around using birds or the wind, ours are spread by ants. And ants don’t go very far.

M: How do you convince the ants to carry your seeds?

T: Sheer chemical trickery. Half the seed is an elaiosome, or oily appendage. These ant-snacks smell like the insect corpses that ants love to eat.

M: Lovely.

T: Tell me about it. Sometimes the ants are so hungry they break into the fruit and take their seeds back to the nest. They eat their fake dead-insect, then leave the seed to germinate in a tunnel. Nice and buried in the moist earth.

M: Is there anything else that puts you in danger, other than leaf-picking humans and clear-cutting?

T: Deer are not immune to our charms. We get munched on by them a lot. Just the price you pay for being an adorable early-riser in the spring when there’s not much to eat. But if they graze on me to much, they will kill me.

M: Ouch.

T: Yep, if there are lots of deer in area, we can die out within 12 years.

M: That’s awful!

T: Yes, but they did save our butts during the ice age, according to trillium lore.

M: How did they do that?

T: In the ice age it was way too cold for us to grow in Ontario and Quebec. Deer swallowed our seeds and carried them southward in their intestines. Not the most luxurious way to travel, but hey, at least now we’re here to tell the tale.

M: You’ve given me a lot to think about next time I see a trillium.

T: And no picking?

M: No picking, I promise.

References

http://www.ont-woodlot-assoc.org/sw_woodlandplants.html
http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Cotyledon
http://ontariowildflowers.com/main/species.php?id=714
http://www.northernontarioflora.ca/description.cfm?speciesid=1002574
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/homes/story.html?id=fe609c69-0258-444d-9617-1d59d9f89b64
http://www.louistheplantgeek.com/a-gardening-journal/675-trillium-grandiflorum

Symbol of love? Not so much. Interview with a snarky swan

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

Me: This Valentine’s Day I decided to talk to the most romantic bird of all: the swan.

Trumpeter swan: If you get any closer I’ll break your arm with my wing.

Me: Whoa, that was uncalled for! Not to mention unattractive, coming from the symbol of beauty and faithful love.

Swan: Hey, I never asked to be a symbol of anything. I’m just an animal like any other that eats, breeds, poops and dies.

Me: But you do mate for life, right?

Swan: Yes, most of the time. If the egg-laying thing doesn’t work out, we’ll generally split and find another hot swan who’s more fertile.

Me: That’s kind of harsh.

Swan: Well, get used to it. Life is harsh. Speaking of harsh, if we’re such an important symbol of love, why did you hunt us nearly to extinction? In 1933, there were only 77 breeding pairs of Trumpeter swans left in Canada. So much for love and compassion.

Me: That’s awful! But I can’t say I’m surprised. We’re pretty good at hunting things to extinction. Dodo, passenger pigeon, you know.

Swan: Yes, I’ve heard. We used to live across Canada, from the Yukon to the St. Lawrence River. The indigenous peoples ate our eggs and meat and used our feathers, but at least they did it sustainably. Then some dumb Europeans came and decided to kill most of us for meat, skin and feathers. I guess they thought they deserved to wear our feathers more than we did.

Me: I said I was sorry, okay! What does your population look like today?

Swan: Fortunately for us, some 1916 tree-huggers decided make hunting us illegal under the Migratory Birds Convention, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Little by little, by feeding us during the winter and reintroducing us to places we once lived, we bounced back. Now there are about 16,000 wild trumpeters in North America, and we’re no longer in danger of extinction.

Me: Yay!

Swan: Oh yes, whoopee. We’re a little bitter, as you can see.

Me: Do you have any other predators?

Swan: Besides humans? Not really. Eagles, owls, coyotes and mink may take a baby on occasion, but as adults we’re pretty big birds to kill. Much like the Canada goose, not much out there is big enough to eat us. We’re also really strong. I wasn’t kidding about breaking your arm with my wing. I fight off coyotes and dogs that way.

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Me: I’m just noticing now how huge you are.

Swan: Yep, largest waterfowl in North America. I may have a three-metre wingspan, but I’m a lightweight, only weighing 10-12 kilograms.

Me: I guess a lot of that bulk is feathers, right?

Swan: You got it. Our down is five centimeters thick, and makes minus 30 feel balmy. Your fancy Canada Goose jacket has nothing on us.

Me: All that soft down would make for nice cuddling, wouldn’t it?

Swan: There you go getting all touchy-feely again.

Me: So what are you doing these days?

Swan: Well, in the winter my main job is to not starve to death. My favorite thing to eat is plants covered in water, so I have to find places where the water isn’t covered in ice. British Colombia is pretty good for that, because salt water estuaries don’t freeze. There’s also some hot springs in the mountains that stay clear of ice all winter.

Me: What kinds of things do you eat?

Swan: We eat roots that we pull out muddy river bottoms. I can’t think of a less sexy eating habit.

Me: Spring nesting must be romantic, though.

Swan: I guess. We build our nests in the middle of water, often on old beaver lodges or dams or floating vegetation. My partner and I use the same nest year after year. No romantic gestures there, just simple practicality. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Me: How many eggs do you lay?

Swan: Generally five to six. I sit on them for 32 days. 32 days of sitting on bumpy objects and not being able to fly because I’m moulting. I can’t think of anything less romantic.

Me: I’d love to come see your babies in the spring!

Swan: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I can get pretty aggressive.

Me: More so than today?

Swan: Touché

References
http://nandugreen.typepad.com/chasing_the_wind/trumpeterswans.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/trumpeter-swan.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/swan/
https://suite.io/rosemary-drisdelle/205j27t
http://www.abbeville.com/blog/?tag=trumpeter-swan

Farming a wild food: Saskatoon berries

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dbarronoss/526020146/

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dbarronoss/526020146/

If you’ve never heard of Saskatoon berries, you’re not alone. For one thing, this Canadian berry goes by many different names. Secondly, they’re just not very popular. At least, not yet.

I know about Saskatoon berries because I’m from Alberta. Outside of the Prairie Provinces, few people know that they even exist. This is because, unlike strawberries, farmers only started growing Saskatoons commercially in the 1970s. That hasn’t given them much time to develop a market.

Let’s get better acquainted with this berry. After all, it’s an important part of Canadian history.

Rose red

Saskatoon berries look like big blueberries, but they are actually more closely related to apples! Mind blown! Saskatoons belong of the rose family, Rosaceae, while blueberries hang out in the Ericaceae family. In fact, many other fruits like apples, peaches, plums and cherries belong to Rosaceae.

True Canadians

Saskatoon berry bushes are really strong, so strong that wind storms can’t blow them over. This is essential when you live in the prairies where there is nothing to block the wind. European settlers used this strong wood to make umbrella handles and fish poles. I guess you don’t want your umbrella bending in a windstorm!

Saskatoon bushes grow underground using suckers which pop out a thicket of bushes. They don’t mind the cold either, and can stand winters of -60 C! Brrr! No wonder they’re found all over Canada.

How sweet it is

There are 10-15 species of Amelanchier (the Saskatoon berry genus) native to Canada. All of these species have edible berries that are red-purple, and sweet and juicy.

Amelanchier berries are sweeter than blueberries and raspberries, with a sugar content of 20%. However, not all plants are created equal, and the taste of the berry will have a lot to do with what is in the soil and how much rain they’ve had. The berries I picked at the top of the plant were kind of sun-dried. It was 30 degrees, after all!

Humans aren’t the only animal to snack on Amelanchier berries. Squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers and waxwings all like these sweet berries. Bushes are also home sweet home for cardinals and robins.

Humans may like the berries, but bees like the blossoms! The white flowers pop out early, from March to June, making them perfect breakfast food for bees just waking up from hibernation.

Fur trade energy bars

Saskatoon berries have been around for hundreds of years, and the Aboriginal peoples of Western Canada took full advantage of them. They ate the berries raw, or preserved them by cooking them and then drying them in brick-like cakes that could be reconstituted as needed.

When Europeans came to trade Saskatoons were valuable trade items. Mixed with buffalo meat and fat to make pemmican, they became the original energy bar. Fur traders lived on this stuff when they were travelling.
Saskatoon berries were also eaten by early settlers in Western Canada. Sometimes the only fruit available, and were particularly good at keeping farmers alive during the 1930s drought.

Mini Pharmacies

Saskatoons are a great source of vitamin C and minerals like iron and copper. No scurvy here! They also have lot of antioxidants that help our immune system, twice as many as blueberries do. Due to their large edible seeds, Saskatoons also have twice as much fibre as blueberries. Poor blueberries! But blueberries have an edge on the market.

Interestingly, Saskatoon berry seeds are poisonous just like an apple’s, so don’t eat buckets of them! If you cook or dry them, the poison disappears.

Domestication how-to

In the 1970s Saskatoon berries started being grown commercially in Canada. They are in the early stages of domestication and farmers still have a lot to learn about diseases and pests. Most farms let customers to do their own picking. However, a few use machines designed for harvesting blueberries.

Most farms are in the Prairie Provinces, where Saskatoons are the second largest commercial crop.

Who can say whether this emerging industry will bloom? Only time will tell. In the meantime, get out to a U-pick and try some for yourselves!

References

http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/processing.php
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/health.php
http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/rsi/fnb/saskatoon.pdf
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/saskatoon-berry/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/fruit-crops/saskatoon-berries.html
http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/flora/serviceberries.html
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/history.php

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