Wingsuit

Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), © 2014 Peter Harrill, used with permission

Is there any non-human skill people covet more passionately than the ability to fly?

Understandably, early aviation experiments centered around mimicry of birds, complete with flapping arms that were usually covered in feathers. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is a familiar example, but plumage continued to be part of the trial-and-error approach through the first years of the 19th century, when a tailor named Albrecht Berblinger constructed an ornithopter and then took an ill-fated plunge into the Danube. Those daring young men with their dreams of flying machines… they just didn’t understand the concepts of thrust, lift, and drag, and they couldn’t let go of the idea that soaring requires feathers.

I guess Saturday mornings with Rocky and Bullwinkle were not a part of their childhood.

Skip ahead in the history books about two hundred years, during which heavier-than-air flight went from foolish fantasy to fleetingly airborne, to semi-reliably aloft, to acrobatic enough to decide the outcome of a World War, to commonplace as ~30,000 commercial flights per day in the U.S. in 2017.

And yet…

Aviation advancements and inventions during the greater part of the industrial age were about balloons and dirigibles and planes, i.e., aircraft; human beings remained firmly planted on terra firma unless they could climb inside or hang from some kind of apparatus.

It’s hard to point to a specific aeronautic adventurer as the first to see a flying squirrel, recognized the similarities with their fellow mammal, connected the dots, and think, “Eureka! A wingsuit!” But no one lucky enough to have seen one of these big-eyed nocturnal windsurfers could fail to notice the resemblance to the modern flying suits that have finally allowed human beings to fly free as a bird squirrel, unencumbered by gondola, scaffolding, or fuselage.

Of course, strictly speaking flying squirrels don’t really fly, and neither do the people wearing a wingsuit.

They glide.

The wingsuit mimics a flying squirrel’s patagium—loose folds of skin that span the space between forelimb wrist and hindlimb ankle on either side of the body. Spreading those limbs into a jumping jack X, the furry membranes stretch into a rectangular shape that allows the tiny BASE* jumpers to propel themselves into the air and then slide down the sky at a 30-40 degree angle controlled fall.

© 2008 Steve Collins, used with permission

A long, flat tail is critical for controlling that fall. Serving as a rudder, it allowing 90 degree turns around mid-flight obstacles. The tail is used for landing, too; on the approach, the tail is raised to an upright position while, at the same time, all four limbs move forward to form a kind of patagium parachute. Together, these actions create enough drag to tip the animal’s head and body up as it prepares for impact with a tree trunk or branches, a bird feeder, or a building.

Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) © 2015 Jukka Jantunen, used with permission

The New World is home to three species of rodent flyboys and flygirls: Northern (Glaucomys sabrinus); the recently differentiated and designated Humboldt’s (G oregonensis); and Southern (G volans). There’s some range overlap between Northerns and Southerns, but the two species are relatively easy to distinguish. Northerns are larger, but the belly of the beasts provides a much more notable difference; the underside of a Southern flying squirrel is creamy white, while Northern flying squirrels are beige below with darker roots.

Humboldt’s flying squirrel

There’s range overlap between Northerns (found from Alaska to Nova Scotia down to Utah and North Carolina) and Humboldts’ (whose limit their travels from British Columbia down into southern California) as well. However, the two are close enough in physical appearance and behavior that it took an examination of their DNA before scientists realized earlier this year (May 2017) that they were looking at not one species, but two. Humboldts’ have been described as smaller and darker than Northerns, but the fact that it took so long for the former to be recognized as distinctive (Southerns were first described in 1758, Northerns in 1801) suggests to me that one would have to do a mighty up-close-and-personal examination to make a positive ID.

All three varieties of Glaucomys have one important feature in common: they’re more risk-averse than you might have assumed. Riding the wind wearing a wingsuit is a dangerous activity for humans — one severe injury for every 500 jumps, according to one study, despite advances in materials, design, and training — but it’s just another day in the life of a flying squirrel. That’s not to imply they never miscalculate a distance, or botch a landing, or are immune from injury (or worse), but they do have concerns beyond thrust, lift, and drag, or changes in wind speed and direction.

Which is why, immediately after sticking the landing, a flying squirrel will scurry quickly to their nest hole, or the other side of the tree, or at least toward a deeper shadow. BASE jumpers and skydivers rarely have worry about avoiding predators waiting in the wings.

[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Richard Schneider, and Barbogast. The painting of Icarus and Daedalus is by Charles Paul Landon, and the drawing of a New World flying squirrel is by Charles Henry Dessalines d’Orbigny, currently in the University of Washington’s Freshwater and Marine Image Bank; both images are in the public domain. © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

*BASE is the acronym that stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: building, antenna, span (bridge), and Earth (cliffs).

Long-stemmed

Daddy longlegs are the jazz cats of the arachnid world!

This realization came to me as I watched a single backlit note poised on a broken music staff bebop across the asphalt path in front of me. A soundtrack of jazz piano greats immediately began to play in my head — Willie “The Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and Dave Brubeck, to name but a few. Chill dudes whose spider-like fingers strode, slid, bounced, and stomped across the keys.

Jazz has evolved and diverged from it’s start in the late 19th century as  ragtime and Dixieland into a genre so diverse it can be difficult to define, or even to list all the variations: Swing, Cool, West Coast, Modal, Free, Fusion, Funk, Cu-Bop, Post-Bop, etc.

The harvestmen, as daddy longlegs are also known (that even sounds like a 1950s jazz band, doesn’t it?) have an even longer and more impressive history. They’re a vast, improvisational set that spans millions of years and many taxonomic octaves, with over 6,500 named species worldwide (experts estimate there may actually be more than 10,000). And while not all the players in this big band have long legs, the ones who hangout in my neighborhood— eastern harvestmen (Leiobunum vittatum)— are definitely long-stemmed.

These invertebrate daddy-o’s are arachnids but they are NOT spiders; they’re more closely related to mites and scorpions.  Harvestmen don’t have a spider’s tiny waist… or venom… or silk (so no webs)… and they have only two eyes instead of eight.

Jazz musicians need to maintain their instruments to get the best sound; piano hammers need to be voiced, strings tuned, reeds moistened and valves lubricated.  Daddy longlegs are similarly serious about the tools of their trade, cleaning each leg after a meal by threading them through the pincers by their mouths.

Harvestmen are a gregarious lot who periodically congregate in the hundreds or even thousands. Scientists have suggested these spontaneous jam sessions might occur in response to climatic conditions or provide some protection against predators… but it’s pretty clear they aren’t making music (that can be detected by the human ear, anyway).

Members of Order Opiliones are exceptional even among arachnids. They can swallow small pieces of solid food, whereas their cousins are limited to a liquid diet. Conversely, daddy longlegs sip oxygen through their legs into a trachea, while other arachnids respirate through a gas exchange organ called a book lung. That’s probably just a warm-up, though. Like jazz, daddy longlegs are both familiar and mysterious. Little research has been done on these species… and who can say why? Maybe they’re a bit too avant garde to have a large fan base among researchers.

Or it could be the hours they keep and the dives they frequent. See, eastern harvestmen have more in common with jazz pianists than an impressive hand (or leg) span. Say what you will about the pleasures of sitting outside at a warm summer evening festival, lounging on a blanket in the grass while listening to a live performance — you’ll hear no argument from me. But to my mind, jazz is an urban art form, and the smokin’ hot licks happen in basement clubs. An intimate corner, low lights, insulated from street noise, maybe just a little damp…

Now that the kind of gig daddy longlegs’ dig.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Rob Swatski, Leslie Bliss, Rob SwatskiLuis Fernández Garcia, and schizoform.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Still Life [reprint]

Great blue heron

The great blue heron is a patient angler.

[I’m working on new essays this week so I hope you’ll enjoy this reposting from March 26, 2011]

Racing past a nearby pond, I mistook the bird for an art installation.

I realized my error quickly enough once I downshifted. Then again, there’s just something so painterly about a great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The graceful, sinuous lines; the aqueous blues and grays; the plumage, evocative as a brush stroke. The unhurried disposition that creates a pose of every posture. The stippled scene was realism and impressionism all at once.

Slow, prehistoric wing-beats call to mind the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. The great blue is one of the more easily identified birds in flight, partly due to its size—a 6-foot wingspan is hard to miss—and partly because of its silhouette, reminiscent of a textbook pterodactyl: neck folded back on itself in a compressed S; a contrail of long, slender legs.

Statuesque as an adult, the stalk-and-strike hunter spends much of its life standing still as stone.  Balanced as bronze armature, this is a kinetic sculpture that moves imperceptibly, and yet, as you watch… you can feel the potential energy of that cocked, cursive neck building in your own musculature, grown taut with anticipation.

Patience personified…

waiting…

waiting…

waiting…

and THEN

…the spring detonates with blinding speed, blasting the javelin bill through the water’s surface and into the target!

The spear is dragged back from the depths as a squirming fish-kabob. Or, perhaps, a canapé of frog, salamander, crab, or crawdad… would you prefer a vole, garter snake, duckling, or a dragonfly. Heron menus include far more than seafood.

On occasion, large prey will be consumed bite by bite. A tedious process and, as every angler knows, if you want to increase your catch you need to keep your line in the water. So, more often, there’s a flip of feathered head and neck, then dinner is swallowed whole.

Or not. That narrow neck can accommodate a surprisingly wide load, but in the hurry to put the catch in the creel, herons have been known to choke on a too-big meal.

 

 

I know the feeling. I gobble down the items on my to-do list—even tasks like “take a walk.” I channel surf when I should take the time to savor the canvas before me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to quiet my mind, and settled down to watch… and wait.  Dining, fishing, or appreciating a living, breathing work of art—these are pastimes that can’t be rushed.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: S Pisharam and Len Blumin. Blumin, who is responsible for the “catfish dinner” series, reports that in this particular heron’s eyes were NOT bigger than its stomach, or its throat, and it lived to fish another day. © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Vert-de-Gris

Cope’s gray treefrog on a pepper plant. Photo: Alan Howell © 2017, Star Path Images, Used with Permission.

It isn’t easy being green. Kermit the Frog said it, so you know it has to be true.

He’s always seemed a reluctant celebrity, so my guess is that being the most famous Muppet-amphibian on the planet isn’t always a picnic. I wonder whether life would be a little less stressful if, like some of his cousins, Kermit could change from green to another color when he’d rather not be so conspicuous.

North American gray treefrogs know how to be seen and when to blend into their surrounding, shifting the spectrum from bright emerald to peridot, to gold, copper, platinum, silver, and even gunmetal. Since the places they hang out — trees and shrubs in woodlands, meadows, prairies, swamps, suburbs, and cities — tend toward palettes awash with green and gray hues, these arboreal amphibians can keep their sartorial choices simple. 

What looks like a costume change is actually a rather high-tech, cellular-level special effect created by chromatophores. These pigment-containing and light-reflecting cells, or groups of cells, are present in the skin of certain frogs, as well as some reptiles (including chameleons), cephalopods (such as octopi), fish, and crustaceans. Mammals and birds, on the other hand, have melanocytes, a different class of cells for coloration.

Chromatophores are classified based on their hue under white light:

  • melanophores (black/brown)
  • cyanophores (blue)
  • erythrophores (red)
  • xanthophores (yellow)
  • leucophores (white)
  • iridophores (reflective or iridescent)

The process, known as physiological color change, can be controlled by hormones, neurons, or both. Most studies have focused primarily on melanophores because they are the darkest and, therefore, the most visible. When pigment inside the chromatophores disperses throughout cell the skin appears to darken; when pigment aggregates in cells the skin appears to lighten. Either way, you’ve got an amazing makeover, or a convincing disguise, in no time flat! 

There’s even more to the gray treefrog’s ability to assume an alter-ego than meets the eye —what appears to be a single species is actually two very close relatives: Hyla versicolor, aka Eastern, although there’s a long list of pseudonyms from which to choose (there are more ways to hide than blending into the substrate); and Hyla chrysoscelis, aka Cope’s (which also has a couple of nicknames but not as many as H. versicolor).

Cope’s and Eastern are equally skilled at clinging to and climbing slick surfaces using large toe pads that secrete mucous, creating surface tension. It’s not uncommon to find one plastered against a window pane (allowing for an interesting view of their nether-regions). Both species prefer a diet of small insects, spiders, and snails. Both hibernate under leaves, bark, or rocks. Well, “hibernate” sounds a lot more cozy than the reality… which is that their bodies pretty much freeze and their lungs, heart, brain, and other organs stop working until they thaw out and reanimate in the spring. It’s a pretty nifty chemical trick, on par with being able to transform your complexion at will. 

Kermit has an unmistakable personal brand, but distinguishing H. versicolor from H. chrysocelis visually is just about impossible. Both Eastern and Cope’s are relatively small (1.5—2.0 in/3.5—5 cm), and the adults are often mistaken for younglings. Both wear a sweep of bright citrus-orange along the inseam of their hind legs (a signature shade is all the rage, you know).  Females of both species are usually (but not always) larger, with a ladylike white throat. During the breeding season, males have a macho (make that hipster, since it resembles a beard) black, gray, or brown throat. Guys sing. Gals swoon, but don’t sing along.

The ranges of these two species overlap, but Cope’s are more widely distributed. If you find a gray treefrog in North Carolina or Georgia, you can be reasonably certain it’s a Cope’s, but if you’re in Iowa or Pennsylvania, all bets are off. The only risk-free way to know for sure is to do a DNA test — Cope’s are a diploid species, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent (for a total of 24); Easterns are a tetraploid species, meaning they have four sets of chromosomes (for a total of 48).

Now, some frog call connoisseurs claim they can detect variations in breeding calls, and that Cope’s treefrogs have a faster and slightly higher-pitched trill than Easterns. But the call rates of both species change with ambient temperature… so color me skeptical.

[Postscript:  What kind of frog is Kermit? While I’ve never found a definitive answer to this question, I always assumed that because he was created/discovered by Jim Henson, he was probably Hyla muppetalis or Rana hensonii… something like that. However, in 2015 Brian Kubicki of the Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center discovered a frog who, if not the same species, must at least be a first cousin, or possibly Kermit’s doppleganger.]

Diane’s bare-hearted glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium dianae). Photo: © Brian Kubicki, Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center, Used with Permission

[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dave Huth(composite of color variations), , Chiswick Chap & CheChe, (melanophores schematic), Alan Wolf, Andrew Hoffman, and Douglas Mills© 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Track & Field [reprint]

cottontail leaping

Back to school, and to early morning practice before class – hop to it!

[Students are returning to my university town for the start of another academic year… so in honor of college athletics I’m offering a slightly-edited instant replay of this post about cottontail rabbits that originally ran back in April 2011.]

On your mark…. Get set… HOP!

An article I read while eating breakfast had me thinking about track meets as the terrier-boy and I set off for our morning walk.  That piece may be why I noticed, for the first time, how runners imitate the posture of a rabbit as they settle into their starting blocks. Human runners have to fold themselves up to gain the potential energy advantage of a crouching leg, but rabbits are always ready for the starting gun.

sprinters

In 2009, Usain Bolt set a record of just over 23 mph in both the 100- and 200-meter, but he’s an exception even among world-class athletes. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for Sylvilagus floridanus to reach speeds of 18 mph, and they can maintain that speed for close to 800 meters… while zig-zagging to change direction every few strides. Let’s see Bolt try that!

racing cottontailsMost sprinters are specialists, but cottontails and other Lagomorphs, with the exception of pikas (Ochotona princeps), also excel at hurdles, steeplechase, and in some field events. Okay, they can’t throw a javelin or a shot-put, but they leap to the top of the score board when it comes to jumping.

leaping cottontails

Longing to see a long jump? At first glance, a cottontail’s 4.8 m (15 ft) may not sound too impressive when compared to current world record holder Mike Powell’s 8.95 m (29.4 ft), set in 1991. But consider this: a 4.8 m leap is 10x the average length of an adult cottontail’s body; 9 m is barely 5x the average height of an adult American male.

How high can they flycottontail courtship? The men’s high jump record stands at 2.45 m (8 ft), set in 1993 by Javier Sotomayor of Cuba. That’s only 1.4x the average height of Olympic jumpers. While courting, both buck (male) and doe (female) cottontails will jump 0.6 m (2 ft), nearly twice their height, to demonstrate worthiness. By that standard, not even elite human athletes would be able to find a mate.

cottontail courtship 2Once the mating ritual (which also includes a little boxing, just to keep things interesting) is complete, 1-12 kits are born approximately 28 days later. A doe will often mate again within hours of giving birth—what a woman! Admittedly, she’ll only visit the nursery when it’s time to feed the kids so she’s not going to win any “most attentive mother” awards. But, to be fair, compared to her baby-daddy she’s a doting parent, and staying away keeps predators from getting wise to the location of the nest. It will take her 3 weeks to wean one set of youngsters, then she’s got about 1 week to recuperate before the stork arrives again.

Still not impressed? She may have up to 7 litters in a single year.  Now, I call that a marathon.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Porsupah ReeRob Helfman, and Michale Connell.  © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Oddly Normal

I don’t live far from the eclipse’s Path of Totality, but I decided to stay put just the same. I didn’t even order eclipse glasses. I know there will be plenty of great video to watch throughout the day, and since my sweetheart is a talented professional videographer, I feel like I’ve got that angle covered.  I want to focus on what’s going on down under, here on Earth.

In anticipation, I’ve been reading stories about how the event will impact wildlife. Every single one of these reports has focused on the “strange” animal behavior we can expect to witness as the day goes dark… and I find that very strange indeed.

What these experts are calling odd is considered completely normal activity when it happens each evening. And from the descriptions I’ve read about what to expect, assuming night is nigh would be a perfectly reasonable assumption for any creature—human or non-human—who doesn’t have a television or an Internet connection and, therefore, doesn’t know that the sun will be playing hide-and-seek with the moon for a little while today.

Humans tend to be less familiar with nocturnal species than the ones who are active during regular business hours. I think the eclipse is going to offer a chance to get to know our neighbors who work the night shift… kind of like a rerun of the National Night Out that took place earlier this month.

As the light begins to dim, creatures who are active during the day may start their usual bedtime routines.  Some diurnal birds will sing one last serenade to the daylight as faux-evening falls…

…some will hurry back to nests of eggs or chicks…

…others will congregate for mutual protection, as they do at the end of every day.

Birds who love the night life will wake, possibly feeling less than rested but still ready to boogie in search of an early breakfast (or late dinner, depending how you look at it).

Some wild mammals are active and visible during the day, including a fair number of rodents such as tree squirrels, groundhogs, prairie dogs, and chipmunks. I’m expecting the eclipse to be a great time to see mammals who are usually waking up just as I’m starting to wind down…

Insect musicians will surely want to set the mood with a tune or two.

Fireflies know a little night music calls for romantic lighting…

…and amphibians aren’t about to let the invertebrates steal the limelight!

As the skies brighten we’re also likely to have a second dawn chorus… but without needing to get up before sunrise! So don’t despair just because the eclipse will pass your part of North America by, or because you don’t know how to make and use a pin-hole camera (even after you Google’d instructions). There should be some amazing wildlife sights to see, right here on good ol’ terra firma.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Eric Kilby, Dan Dzurisin, Ingrid Taylar, Pat Gaines, Rachel Kramer, Will WilsonTony Oldroyd, Michael Eisen, Elizabeth Nicodemus, USFWStsaiian, David Huth, and Ingrid Taylar.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Border battles

red-bellied woodpecker on fence (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors” but embattled red-bellied woodpeckers must find other ways to protect their territories. (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

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Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself sitting ringside for a brief but furious brawl. Two male red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were having a boundary dispute that started with an argument over some shrubbery then escalated into a full-on aerial assault. Colliding mid-air, they grasped one another by the feet and were so intent on punching, pecking, and plucking, the adversaries flew thoughtlessly over the nearby road directly in front of my car. Luckily, I was making my way slowly along the otherwise quiet suburban street, so I was able to stop and watch.

With my windshield serving as an impromptu HDTV, the smackdown aired for all of 45 thrilling seconds and then, as if in response to a referee’s break command… it was all over.  Each fighter retreated, shouting insults over his shoulder as he returned to his corner.

male and female RBW by Jason Paluck, Creative Commons licenseRed-bellied woodpeckers (let’s just shorten that to RBWs, shall we?) are a medium-sized bird—just over 9” (24 cm) from chisel beak to stiff tail tips with a 13-16” (33-42 cm) wingspan. Like many North American woodpeckers, they wear a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, but their bright red Mohawk (males sport a full forehead-to-neck cap while females wear an abbreviated version) sets them apart. It’s also the reason these birds are so often misidentified as the similar-sized red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), although once the difference is pointed out the mistake is rarely repeated. RBWs take their name from a subtle scarlet stain on their buffy belly.

red-headed vs. red-bellied woodpeckers by Laura Gooch and Jason Paluck, respectively (Creative Commons license)Year-round residents in U.S. wetlands, river bottoms, woods, and wooded suburbs from the Midwest east to the Atlantic coast, RBWs are omnivorous, consuming all manner of  insects, nuts, seeds, sap, and fruit. They store surplus food in various nooks and crannies and, since they don’t migrate, their larders come in handy during winter. This species employs gender-specific foraging strategies—males search for sustenance primarily along bole while females spend the bulk of their time on the boughs.

Biologists don’t often venture out on a limb to officially identify any non-human behavior as play, but I’ve notice the profession has loosened up a bit on this issue over the past decade or so, thankfully. One example of this trend was a description of RBW behavior I read recently. This species will periodically engage in swift, nimble, and unpredictable forest flights, complete with many direction changes to dodge trees, and accompanied by constant excited chatter. The author of this resource was quick to explain that the activity probably has a practical application in that it helps youngsters practice evasive maneuvers that would come in handy should predators be lurking about. However, and surprisingly, the expert also admitted the birds seemed to be having fun.

male red-bellied woodpecker in nest (Photo- Frederick Knapp, Creative Commons license)RBWs are monogamous—for the extent of a breeding season, that is (so perhaps it would be more accurate to say they are serial monogamists)—and both are actively involved in raising young.  They nest in hardwood and pine trees, along with the occasional fence post, by excavating a cavity or stealing one from other birds. What goes around comes around, though—or so says a timeworn adage; RBWs often lose their precious nest holes, in turn, to European (aka common) starlings (Sturnus vulgaris).

Assuming the pair can hang on to their home, the female lays two to six white eggs on a cushion of wood chip construction debris and incubates them for 12 days. The hatchlings are altricial, meaning they begin their lives naked, blind, and helpless. They don’t waste any time growing up, and are ready to leave the nest for a first tentative flight when they are 24—27 days old. Depending on the region, the adults may raise from one to three broods in a season.

red-bellied woodpecker at feeder (Photo: ehpien, Creative Commons license)Defending the homestead is a top priority during the child-rearing seasons, especially if the ‘hood includes a well-tended feeder (a gold mine for species able to digest seeds or suet). Even though most bird nestlings can’t tolerate seeds and need a diet composed largely of insects, when Mom and Dad can grab a high-calorie meal from the avian equivalent of a fast-food restaurant, they have extra time to hunt for the more illusive foods their offspring need to develop properly.

Since RBW territories range from 3 to 39 acres protecting the perimeter is far from a simple task, especially when feeding yourself and your family is a full-time job. So, naturally, breaches occur… but everyone trespasses and is trespassed against.  Border skirmishes are common but they rarely result in bloodshed. Research tells us that’s due, in part, to the fact that the intensity of defense behavior tends to decrease as an animal moves away from the center of its territory. Put another way, property rights become less important the farther you are from home. In most cases, both combatants throw in the towel long before there’s a knock-out.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [starting from the top] Brian Peterson (on the fence); Jason Paluck (male & female; red-bellied); Laura Gooch (red-headed); Frederic Knapp (in nest); ehpien (rbw @ feeder).

Tangled up in blue

eastern bluebird 2 by Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license

A male Eastern bluebird personifies happiness, whether he’s happy about it or not (Photo: Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license)

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Happiness is a shy little bird. Hiding from sight in life’s nooks and crannies, impossible to find if you look but then it darts out and lands on your shoulder just when you least expect it. It sidles up beside you like a pickpocket on a crowded street, soft and silent as wings brushing against your lapel. Hardly even noticed until something or someone causes it to flush in a flurry of feathers from beneath your jacket, taking with it a sizeable chunk of your heart. Try to grab hold as it flies away and the thief proves as elusive as dreams upon waking, slipping through your fingers like a shadow, like quicksilver.

The concept of happiness has been flitting in and out of my brain and my life for a couple of weeks now. My birthday earlier this month may have provided the initial impulse. This wasn’t a major milestone year, I’ve got too much on my plate these days to leave much room for cake, plus I’m living in a new town and don’t know many people yet… but I did take a little time to acknowledge the day and do some thinking. December 31st may be the culturally accepted time to contemplate one’s short- or long-term past and make plans for the year to come, but my inner-Pagan knows the vernal equinox is the true start of a new trip around the sun. Besides, I’m not much for following the crowd. I was the kind of kid who would disassemble all the board games in the house, shuffling the tokens and cards to make up my own game with my own rules.  So I like the idea of a personal calendar that begins in April, and a personal New Year’s Eve for reviewing said year is also appealing. Later that same week, two unanticipated events provided additional incentive to ponder the nature of happiness.

Then again, maybe I’ve had happiness on my mind because the bluebirds have returned.

mountain bluebird pair (Photo: freeopinions, creative commons license)

Mountain bluebird pair

This year, I’ve been watching eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) each morning while my terrier-boy practices his soccer moves on a squeaky red rubber ball. At other times in my life, while living in other parts of the U.S., I’ve watched spring come to town on the wings of both western and mountain bluebirds (S. Mexicana and S. currucoides, respectively).  A feathered piece of sky flashing across the landscape on shallow wing beats can lift a heavy heart and lighten my mood.

Members of the Turdidae family (aka thrushes), bluebirds are related to that other famous spring harbinger, the American robin (Turdus migratorius). All three Sialia species are easy to spot and identify even though, as fruit and insect eaters, they don’t visit seed-filled feeders. The males are clad in some combination of blue with red and/or white; their mates wear less conspicuous versions of the same plumage.

Efforts to ensure this popular bird’s continued breeding success began with the recognition that they were struggling in the face of competition from introduced species such as the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrow (Passer domesticus), as well as reduced access to nesting habitat. Happily, by building, installing, monitoring, and maintaining special nest boxes, handy men and women across the U.S. have proven crucial to the species’ recovery.

Bluebirds have long symbolized cheerfulness, health, prosperity, and renewal, although I’m not sure why. Their lives are far from easy or free of conflict. Males battle over breeding territories, chasing one another at breakneck speeds, grabbing each other by the feet in mid-air, smacking opponents with their wings as they try to pull each others feathers out with their beaks. They must defend nest cavities or boxes from a host of other birds, many of which are substantially larger. Once a nest site has been established, a mated pair may produce 2-4 broods per season—a task that requires foraging non-stop during daylight hours to find enough food to keep themselves and their offspring fed. If that were not challenge enough, bluebirds undertake an exhausting and hazardous migration of up to 2,000 miles each autumn and spring.

female eastern bluebird by Patrick Coin, Creative Commons license

Female Eastern bluebird

Despite these hardships, some sources claim the connection between blue birds and happiness is global (albeit focused on bird species indigenous to each country or continent). One thing is certain—the notion, however it began, has been perpetuated by Hollywood and on the radio. I have to wonder if any other bird has been as popular with songwriters and singers, starting with  Bluebird of Happiness, a hit song in the early 1930s that may have ushered this phrase into the popular vernacular.  Judy Garland probably helped things along when she sang of bluebirds flying Somewhere Over the Rainbow. For those who like both their birds and their grass blue, there’s Lester Flatt’s Bluebirds Singing For Me. Paul McCartney, Buffalo Springfield, Bonnie Raitt and, more recently Christina Perri and Adam Green all feature bluebirds on their playlist. Sara Bareilles’ poignant Bluebird tells of a kind of migration, but my own favorite blue bird tune, Birdhouse in Your Soul by They Might Be Giants, transports me to a happy scene, sitting at the kitchen table of a remote lake house in a faraway forest.

Emotions can be tricky to articulate and color can help paint a clearer picture. I get that. If a friend says she’s in the pink or he’s green with envy, you know the score even without the details (although you may still want to hear them). Red is, of course, the color of both anger and passion (maybe that’s why one so often leads to the other). Blue is happiness—at least, that’s what a little bird told me. But is it? If I say I’m feeling blue you’re not likely to picture me in your mind’s eye singing in the rain ala Gene Kelly.

western bluebirds by Julio Mulero, Creative Commons license

Western bluebirds

How did a single color come to represent both sides of the spectrum, sadness and joy? I wish I knew, but I’m not sure it matters in the long run. I do know this: happiness prefers an open palm to an iron grip. It doesn’t do well when caged; like a wild bird, it needs to be free to come and go as it chooses. A full life requires both kinds of blue plus all the other colors and creatures, winter and spring, parting and reunion. If you want to have happiness in your life you must be willing to risk losing it, trusting that it will return as surely as bluebirds in April. That’s the trade-off, the price you pay for the flutter of wings in your heart and stomach.

But worth every penny.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Jason Matthews (male Eastern bluebird);  freeopinions (mountain bluebirds); Patrick Coin (female Eastern bluebird); Julio Mulero (Western bluebirds).