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/

Tip Top Tulips: The King is in the house

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. The patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. Their light-coloured patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

 

Amelia: Ladies and gentleman, please help me welcome our special guest…King Tulip!

Tulip: Thank you, thank you very much.

A: What a thrill it is to speak with you after your tour of the Canadian Tulip Festival.

T: My pleasure, I adore interviews. My miraculous bloom only opens for two to three weeks, and I can’t let all this beauty go to waste.

A: You’re one of North America’s most popular garden flowers, but where are you from, originally?

T: This flawless flower has a rocky past. Literally. I was born in Central Asia on the side of the mountain. Every day I struggled against the harsh winds and extreme temperatures. Close to the ground with yawning petals like a daisy, I looked very different than I do today.

A: So what changed?

T: Around 1000 AD some adventurous Turk picked me up and decided to grow me in their garden. I guess I was already too beautiful to pass up. After 700 years of intense breeding I had my first make-over, with needle-sharp petals and an almond shape. They just loved growing me in Turkey.

A: But you were meant to see the world, right?

T: Yesiree, I’m a Rollin’ stone. The Viennese Ambassador to Turkey brought me home to Europe in 1551. Scientist Carolus Clusius was the first one to plant me in the Netherlands. He just wanted me for research, and wouldn’t share his precious bulbs with anyone else. How rude. I knew I was destined to be a star. Luckily some Dutch entrepreneurs stole me from Clusius and spread my seeds all over the Netherlands.

A: You were a big deal in the Netherlands, right?

T: If by a big deal you mean that 80% of the world’s tulips are grown in the Netherlands, or that in the 1630s some tulip bulbs cost as much as a townhouse, then yes, I was a big deal. Still am.

A: I’ve heard about this, it was called Tulip Mania, right? Speculation drove tulip prices through the roof, and the price of bulbs doubled almost weekly before the market crashed in 1637. Why were people willing to pay so much? You are just a flower, after all.

T: How dare you! I am THE flower. Back then I wasn’t just any flower: I was a status symbol. At the time the Netherlands was one of the world’s largest colonial powers, and the rich and newly-rich merchants had money to spend. I was a rare exotic bloom that happened to fit the bill. Ironically, the mosaic virus also helped my rise to fame.

A: Excuse me, did you say virus? Don’t viruses make you sick?

T: Yes, technically they do. But these ones also make pretty patterns all over our petals.

A: How can a virus do that?

T: My flowers are naturally a solid colour, but some viruses strip away the pigment in our petals to reveal the yellow or white underneath. This means that one year I’d be red, and the next I’d be striped like a circus tent! The Dutch had no idea what was happening, but they loved the result.

A: When did they figure out it was a virus?

T: The mosaic virus was the second oldest viral disease to be described in plants, and there are woodcuts from 1576 prove it. During Tulip Mania striped tulips were worth even more because they were so rare. Driven by money, breeders tried using alchemy, paint or pigeon poop to achieve the stripes, but obviously nothing worked. You can’t beat nature for beautiful accidents. It was only in 1920 that scientists found out it was caused by a virus.

A: Does the virus eventually kill you?

T: No, but it does make us grow short and stubby. It also makes it harder for us to reproduce.

A: How do you catch a mosaic virus?

T: Juice-to-juice contact. Aphids like to suck up our sap. If an aphid that bit an infected plant then bites me, it’s game over for my beautiful ruby red petals. Next time I pop up out of the ground, I’ll have stripes.

A: Are stripy tulips still as popular with gardeners today?

T: Yes, but today’s stripy tulips are healthy virus-free hybrids bred to look like the mosaic-infected kind. Today if a tulip bed has a mosaic virus, gardeners destroy them pretty fast. Otherwise the virus will just spread to other beds. It can even spread to related species like lilies. And nobody likes streaked lilies.

A: Yikes! I didn’t realize that the flower industry was so cut-throat.

T: You better believe it, doll-face. That virus is the Devil in disguise. Ironically, I’m more popular worldwide than I ever was during the Dutch tulip craze. Not to mention way more affordable.

A: Alright, thanks for sharing your story with us.

T: My pleasure. Now I’m off to heartbreak hotel to sleep through the winter and rehearse for next year. See you there!

References

Tulipomania: Novelist Michael Upchurch explains how a Turkish blossom enflamed the landscape: [Final Edition]Upchurch, Michael. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 20 May 2001: C6.

‘Tulip fire’ hits Ottawa OTTAWA (CP)
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 28 May 1981: N.14.

Ottawa tulip winter kill feared
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 22 Mar 1980: P.11.

The elegant tulip symbolizes Ottawa in spring.
Cornish, Douglas. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 09 May 2000: B4.

Tulips: Dutch find fortunes in flowers: [Final Edition]
The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 13 Dec 1988: B16.

Tulip: the flower of manias: From its early days in Europe, it has sparked wild adulation and excesses: [FINAL Edition]Robin, Laura. The Gazette [Montreal, Que] 15 May 1997: D.9.

http://wildthings.sarahzielinski.com/blog/theres-a-lot-of-dna-in-tulips/
http://www.hortmag.com/archive/wild_tulips
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf
http://www.tulipsinthewild.com/?utm_source=gnb&utm_medium=packet&utm_content=gnbindex&utm_campaign=clb14
http://online.sfsu.edu/bholzman/courses/Spring99Projects/tulips.htm
https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/tulips
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/608647/tulip
http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/cuttulip.html
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf

 

Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

Me: Hey there, can I speak with you for a moment?

Downy woodpecker: Aaah! You scared me with your super-loud voice. I spend my time listening to insects crawling around in wood, remember?

Me: Sorry, I’ll whisper instead.

D: Much appreciated.

M: How do you get the bugs out of the tree once you find them?

D: I have a long, sticky, barbed tongue, kind of like a chameleon. After I drill a hole in a tree, I’ll shoot my tongue inside to scoop up the insects. When I’m not using it my tongue sits nestled around the back of my head between the skull and skin.

M: That’s kind of weird. Do you get headaches from hammering trees all day?

D: Nope. We have thick skulls and neck muscles to keep our brains, such as they are, un-addled.

M: I see that you’re currently drilling holes in thin, tiny branches. Wouldn’t you be better off looking on the trunk, where most of the other woodpeckers hang out?

D: Why would I follow the crowd? As the smallest of the 13 woodpecker species in Canada, I can find food where no one else can. I can make holes in branches less than 10cm in circumference, which gives me a lot more options than birds with bigger beaks and gangly bodies. Small is beautiful, if you ask me.

M: Maybe so, but small also means more things can eat you.

D: Touché. Small birds of prey like hawks and Kestrels are our main enemies. They like to snag us while we’re flying, but if we’re on a tree we’re usually safe. If something scary comes along we’ll use the branch as a shield, darting to the other side like squirrels do.

M: Aren’t you damaging the trees by making all those holes?

D: Maybe a little bit, but we’re also eating the pesky insects that damage the tree’s insides. Wood boring beetles that kill trees? We got those. We also eat insects that spread diseases like Dutch elm disease. Anyway, we don’t usually drill holes in perfectly healthy trees. We prefer diseased, dying or rotting trees.

M: Why are you called the “Downy” woodpecker? Were you named after the toilet paper?

D: Why would you even think that? Downy refers to the beautiful strip of soft white feathers down my back. They set off the little red pompom on my head wonderfully, don’t you think?

M: Um, sure. How’s the winter treating you so far? You don’t migrate, right?

D: That’s correct. We’re found all over Canada except in the far North. If there isn’t enough food in our northern Alberta and Ontario range we’ll move south, but generally we stay put.

M: Do you have a good stash of food to keep you through the winter?

D: Stashing food? Please. That’s just lazy. Unlike some birds like chickadees, we don’t hide food. There’s tons of sleepy insects hiding under tree bark to keep us full all winter.

M: Are insects the only thing you eat?

D: They’re about three quarters of our diet, but I won’t say no to fruit.

M: What’s in store for this spring?

D: Oh, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

M: Why’s that?

D: I’m responsible for hollowing out the nest each year. That’s two to three weeks with my head stuck in a 20-30cm hole in a tree. Thank goodness I have feathers over my nostrils to keep out the sawdust. Otherwise I’d be sneezing for months!

M: I want to sneeze just thinking about it. Does your wife help make the nest too?

D: Not really. She claims she’s ‘protecting our territory’ while I have my head in the tree. Her job is to chase other woodpeckers away from our prime nesting site. I say she’s just trying to avoid the grunt work. Sometimes she has the nerve to change her mind about the nest mid-drill, and guess who has to start another hole!

M: That does sound trying.

D: Tell me about it! I’ll drill non-stop for 20 minutes at a time, throwing the lose chips over my shoulder. I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually sleep in the unfinished nest.

M: Does your mate join you for some cuddling?

D: Oh no. She needs her own space. Even when it isn’t breeding season, we have our own sleeping holes. Anyways, she snores, so I prefer sleeping alone.

M: What’s it like when the babies show up?

D: We’ll take turn guarding the doorway of the nest. The opening is so narrow that most predators like squirrels can’t get into it, but snakes are more than happy to sneak in and snatch a baby. Our chisel-like beaks are pretty good at making them change their minds.

Thankfully, the kids grow up fast, by 17-18 days they’re full grown. Then they crawl up the cavity wall and peek out. At this point they are eating so much that we have to bring them meals every three minutes. Eventually my wife and I get fed up and start bringing less food. This encourages them to lean out of the nest wondering where the heck we are with the next grub, and often they fall out and fly.

M: Why do you bang on metal lamp posts and wood siding? There’s no insects in there, you know!

D: We’re not looking for food, we’re communicating. Why waste your voice when you can bang on things? We hammer our beaks on hollow structures like tree stumps, stop signs, drainpipes or chimneys. We usually do it in early spring, to attract a mate and protect territory. This kind of drumming is more annoying to people than damaging to your infrastructure.

M: What can people do if they don’t like you drumming on their house?

D: Well, if they want to scare us away, we’re not a fan of mirrors, reflective tape or streamers.

M: Thanks for the advice, and see you again soon.

D: You certainly will! As one of the most common birds in Eastern North America, our population has only increased in the last twenty years.

References
http://onnaturemagazine.com/ontario%E2%80%99s-woodpeckers.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/biology.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/insects.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/downy-woodpecker.html

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