Sunday, October 31, 2010

Voracious Vulgar Vultures

I decided I should do a special Halloween post.  Black cats and pumpkins seemed WAY too obvious. Bats would have been okay, but I decided that vultures would provide just the right atmosphere.

Of course, vultures eat dead things.  When I think about vultures, I always picture a vulture feeding on a wildebeest carcass in Africa.  It wasn't until I saw a vulture feeding on a deer carcass beside the road in Massachusetts that it actually occurred to me that we have vultures here in the U.S. too.  Don't know why that was such a revelation, but it was. Perhaps because I'd never actually seen one before.

Vultures live on every continent except Antarctica, probably because there are dead things on every continent.  There must be some other scavenger on Antarctica, because I'm sure there are dead things there too.  However, there is a difference between 'old world' vultures (those found in Africa, Europe and Asia) and 'new world' vultures.  The old world vultures depend on sight to find their next meal, while new world vultures (particularly turkey vultures) rely on smell.


It says on Wikipedia that "a group of vultures is called a wake, committee, or venue."   A wake makes perfect sense since they eat dead things, a committee also makes sense, but venue?.  After looking up venue in my dictionary, yes, venue also makes sense if you use the definition of 'the scene or locale of a large gathering such as a rock concert or sports event'.  I've never considered a large group of vultures eating a carcass a sports event, but I guess it could be apropos. The word venue also comes the the Old French meaning a coming, arrival, approach. And if there's something dead around, vultures are sure to come. However, I think 'gang' would be a much better term.


Vultures are also known for having a bald head and neck.  This helps when they reach their heads into a bloody carcass; they don't have feathers to get all gooed up with blood and other body parts. They have very corrosive stomach acid which allows them to eat putrid meat contaminated with botulism and anthrax that would be deadly for other animals to eat.  Plus they pee directly down their legs because the uric acid helps kill bacteria collected from walking around in dead carcasses.  After they eat all these wonderful things, they can use projectile vomit to defend themselves against predators.

White-backed vulture, Source:

Grossed out yet?  Didn't I tell you this was the perfect subject for Halloween??  But as vulgar as they are, what would we do without them??

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why can't we all just get along??

In the spirit of Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity that is being held today, I just wanted to share some of my favorite inter-species animal pictures (as far as I know none of them have been Photoshopped), most of which were found on the infamous lol cats and lol dogs website (see Silly Shenanigans post).  It seems as if some animals of different species have figured out how to get along and enjoy each other's company.  If we're supposed to be so much smarter than they are (plus we're all the SAME species) why haven't we??  Enjoy!

And this one is from my own backyard of a cat, a squirrel and a woodchuck.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tree Tragedy!

Yesterday I came out of the shower to the sound of chain saws and wood chippers and my heart sank.  Not again.  I live in a mobile home park and just a few months earlier my neighbor two trailers down had the big majestic tree that stood so proudly in the back of her lot chopped down.  As far as I could tell, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.  I found out later from the park owner that my neighbor was afraid the tree would fall on her trailer.  (Yeah, well I could get hit by a bus tomorrow crossing the street, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to cross the street.)  And the park owner was afraid of getting sued if that should happen.

I quickly got dressed and ran outside to see what was going on.  Sure enough another tree was being worked on.  I desperately hoped that maybe they were just trimming it, but as the morning wore on and the sounds of the chain saw continued, it became pretty clear another big beautiful tree was coming down.

Just as I was getting resigned to this tree coming down, they started on another one - one of the prettiest trees in the park.

It made me sick to see those old wonderful trees come down and incredibly sad.  There are only three or four big deciduous trees left in the whole park and one of them is on my lot.  I'll chain myself to my tree before I let them cut it down.  If I get taken out by a tree falling on my house, then so be it.  I can certainly think of worse ways to go!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Keeping Kanzi

Another birthday, another great ape.  Today is Kanzi's birthday.  I  took care of Kanzi and other bonobos when I was in Georgia.  Bonobos are the fourth great ape along with chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas, and probably the least familiar to the general public. If I say the word bonobo, most people don't know what they are.

Kanzi has been in the news lately and was featured in an article on animal intelligence in Time Magazine and appeared via tape on a segment of the Oprah Winfrey show.  This photo of him appeared in Time:

Photo by Finlay MacKay

Kanzi and some of the other bonobos use lexigrams (symbols that represent words) to communicate, but Kanzi was the first one to really learn the system.  Researchers were trying to teach lexigrams to his mother, Matata, while a very young Kanzi was in the room.  Matata didn't pick it up, but Kanzi did.  That's when researchers realized that Kanzi learned best the same way children do - through daily interaction and the context of the situation.  As a result the bonobos have learned a lot of words and understand what you say to them even without using any lexigrams.

 The lexigram for Kanzi, Kanzi means 'treasure' in Swahili

When I was at the LRC, we had bonobos in two different buildings - the main building and the Psuke building.  Once I learned the ropes, I was in charge of the Psuke building where the non-language bonobos lived.  Then later I worked at the main building where the language competent bonobos lived..  Kanzi spent time at both buildings because his mother, Matata, lived in the Psuke building.  When I was at the Psuke building every morning when the weather was warm enough, I would sprinkle food all around the outdoor area and let them out for the first food of the day.  I would try to give them a variety of things so they never knew what they were going to find.  There was always great excitement to see what was for breakfast. But when Kanzi was there, I always made sure there were plenty of onions because that is one of his favorite foods.  Onions were almost like a comfort food for him and whenever he was upset or concerned about something he would always ask for onions - and lots of them.

Like a lot of men, Kanzi is totally motivated by food and will do almost anything for it.  One of his favorites that I would fix for him (and the other bonobos) was something I called orange lettuce.  It was basically just oranges and lettuce, but I would drizzle a little yogurt thinned with orange juice over it and add some nuts.  One year for Kanzi's birthday I fixed orange lettuce, but didn't use the usual romaine. I think I used Bibb or Boston lettuce, I don't remember which now, but it was a big hit.  There was a lot of other food there too, including birthday cake, but I was told later that Kanzi didn't ask for more cake, he asked for more orange lettuce!

One day after I had taken Mari (see Ode to an Orangutan) out in the transport box and brought her back to the Psuke building, Kanzi was there and started slamming one of the inside cage doors so I couldn't get Mari out of the box.  I finally got Mari situated, but realized later that Kanzi might have been jealous of the attention I was paying to Mari.  If I had asked him to go outside and wait for me to play chase with him, which he loved, I might have gotten Mari out of the box sooner and placated Kanzi. That happened a lot - the light bulb would go on AFTER a situation and I would realize what they were trying to tell me.

Not only did the bonobos understand what we were saying, they also have much better hearing than ours.  We sometimes got feedback from them when we weren't expecting it. On the LRC grounds we had an old trailer located in between the Psuke building and the main building and sometimes we would hold bonobo staff meetings there.  On one of these occasions I was told that from now on I would be the one to purchase all the food for the bonobos.  Almost immediately we heard bonobo vocalizations.  Someone then shouted, 'Do you think Carolyn should buy all the food?'  More excited vocalizations.  So I became the food buyer with the bonobos' definite approval.

Bonobos are endangered and are only found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They look very similar to chimpanzees, but have a totally different family system.  While the males rule the chimp family, females are in charge in the bonobo group. Kanzi's mother, Matata is definitely the matriarch of the bonobos and even though Kanzi is a lot bigger and stronger than Matata, his mom can still put him in his place.

Kanzi and the other bonobos are now at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa.  I'll be introducing you to Panbanisha in November for HER birthday!

For more on bonobos, check out 'Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape' on my Book Recommendations page.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cheering for Chickadees

Besides the Downy Woodpeckers (see previous post), I love the little chickadees that visit my bird feeder.  I didn't see them much over the summer, but now that the cooler weather is here, they are more frequent visitors.  I have two feeders up - one just has safflower seeds in it.  I have hoards of house sparrows (sometimes a flock of 20 or 30 shows up) and that's one seed they're not very fond of which gives the other birds one feeder that's not inundated with them. In the other feeder I have a variety of seeds, but nearly always have black oil sunflower seeds in the mix.  The little chickadees like both safflower seeds and sunflower seeds, but unlike the cardinals that like to dine in and sit at the feeder for a time, the chickadees prefer take out!  I have a terrible time getting photos of them because they grab a seed and then either fly off or head for the butterfly bushes to break the seed open, eat it and then make another trip to the feeder.

I always know when the chickadees are around though with their familiar chick-a-dee-dee call.  Several sources say they hang out in flocks, but I've never seen any more than two or three at a time.  Chickadees have been known to hide seeds to eat later like squirrels, and have a very strict hierarchy within the flock.  Chickadees are in the same family of birds as titmice and they often hang out in the same flock.  I've noticed that now that the chickadees are hanging around again so are the titmice.  I'm sure once the really cold weather sets in, I'll be seeing a lot of them.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sensational Snow Leopards

To me one of the most beautiful cats of the world is the snow leopard.  It lives in rugged mountainous terrain in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and a few other countries with the largest populations in China and Mongolia.  It has an extremely thick coat to withstand cold temperatures and wide paws which act like snowshoes helping to distribute its weight as it walks through snow.  It also has a thick tail which stores fat and helps it balance on rocks and ledges.

Photo by Helen Freeman. Courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust

Snow leopards are loners and don't live in prides like lions.  About the only time males and females come together is during mating season.  If you see more than one snow leopard at a time, it's most likely a female with her cubs.  Snow leopards are most active at dusk and at dawn.  Snow leopards have home ranges and territories, but its size depends on the abundance of prey.  They eat goats, sheep, marmots, rabbits, and a variety of rodents.  Unlike other big cats, they will also eat vegetation if nothing else is available.

The snow leopard is endangered.  One reason is because of its beautiful fur and is sought for its pelt for fur coats.  I happen to think the snow leopard wears his coat much better than I ever could.  Herders bring domesticated goats and sheep to graze in his territory.  If wild goats and sheep are in short supply, a snow leopard will go after what ever one is available and herders shoot snow leopards to protect their flocks.  Working with local communities in snow leopard territory is crucial to the conservation of this wonderful cat and the ecosystem in which it lives.


Since the snow leopard is at the top of the food chain, preserving the biodiversity within its ecosystem is crucial to its survival.  This shy elusive cat is one of the least aggressive of the bigger cats and will avoid humans if it has a choice.  There are several hundred snow leopards in zoos, but without these beautiful creatures in the wild life would be a little less magnificent.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ode to an Orangutan

This post is a day late - mainly because I was hunting for the accompanying photos (you're not the only one, Jeff).  When I worked in Georgia, I worked mainly with bonobos, but I also worked with one orangutan named Mari.  Yesterday was Mari's birthday which is why I said this was a day late.  I wanted to pay tribute to her on her special day.  Mari is a very special girl because she has no arms.  When Mari was a baby, a male orang came into the enclosure while Mari's mom was holding her.  Mari's mom got very agitated and started to bite Mari's arms.  Not sure why, but by the time the vets got a hold of Mari, her arms were so mangled they had to amputate them. When you picture orangutans perhaps you envision them swinging through the trees.  This is something Mari is not able to do, but don't feel too sorry for her.  She certainly doesn't and is able to get along just fine.  She uses her feet like hands to eat and manipulate things, when climbing she uses her chin to pull herself up, and walks bipedally to get around..  I helped take care of Mari and brought her food and occasionally took her for a ride in the transport box.  Mari would lie back and view 'her kingdom' and give directions as to where she wanted to go.

Mari is now at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida.  I believe the picture below was when we were getting Mari ready for her trip to Florida.  Both Holly and I were trying to get Mari to look at the camera which is why we were both laughing.

The Center for Great Apes takes in orangutans and chimpanzees who have been used in the entertainment business but are getting too mature to use safely or raised by humans and who otherwise would not be suitable for living in a zoo.  Mari was used at the LRC for strictly noninvasive research and could work mazes using a joy stick and did some work with numbers and memory.  There was one other orangutan there, but she and Mari did not get along and Madu ended up at the Atlanta Zoo.  Because of her handicap, no zoo wanted Mari which is how she finally ended up in Florida.  As an orang who lived with bonobos she stood up for herself pretty well.  Occasionally she would get teased by them or bullied, but a swift karate kick with a foot put them in their place. Now Mari has 13 other orangs to keep her company and lives in a group that includes a couple of young females who Mari adopted when they first arrived.

Right now the Center for Great Apes is vying for a $50,000 donation from Pepsi.  They currently have over 40 chimpanzees and orangutans and need to build a new home for a couple of their male orangutans. You can help them out and not spend a dime simply by voting for them here.  There is an explanation on the site about how the money will be spent.  You can vote every day until October 30th so time is quickly running out.

Orangutans are endangered species and are only found in Borneo and Sumatra.  Like so many other endangered animals loss of habitat due to human encroachment and logging is the main cause.  I can't imagine a world without these wonderful primates, especially having known one personally!

So please vote and a Happy Birthday to my girl Mari!  How could you not love a face like this!??
Source: Center for Great Apes

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Multitudes of Maples

Fall is upon us and the leaves around here are really starting to show some color.  We had a dry summer and the colors are maybe a little more muted than usual, but there are still some beautiful leaves out there. And multitudes of maples are one of the reasons New England is a 'fall foliage viewing' travel destination.

 Flame Amur Maple, Source:

There are more than 125 species of maple trees and some can grow up to 145 feet tall, but only 13 species are native to North America.  They are an important source of wood, and are used to make furniture, musical instruments, and baseball bats.

My favorite maple tree is the sugar maple!. Probably more than anything, we recognize maple trees as the source of maple syrup.  I love maple flavor, and Dare's Maple sandwich cookies are one of my favorites.  Of course they're in the shape of a maple leaf. And I love maple candy!

The maple tree is a source of so many things.  Without it, the world would be a little less beautiful and a little less sweet.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Searching for Sea Dragons

We go from one of the least appealing creatures, the opossum, to one of the most exquisite creatures of the sea - a relative of the sea horse, the sea dragon.  They are covered with appendages that look like leaves so they blend right in with kelp and sea weed and are perfectly camouflaged, or seen by itself can look like a floating piece of seaweed.  They can also change color to more fully blend in with their environment.  What?  You thought sea dragons were just a myth?  Not at all.  They are quite real, but at 8 to 14 inches long, perhaps somewhat smaller than you had imagined.  This is a leafy sea dragon in among the seaweed.  Can you see it?


How about now??!!  Don't you think it's appropriately named?


If you saw it float by, would you think it was a fish?  The weedy sea dragon is related to the pipefish and isn't nearly as ornately decorated, but in amongst the seaweed and kelp, you would still be hard pressed to see it.  What do you think?


Sea dragons are only found in the waters off southern and western Australia and Tasmania.  Both are endangered species because of disappearing habitat, and are now protected by the Federal Government of Australia.  Particularly around Tasmania the giant kelp beds have almost completely disappeared due to rising ocean temperatures and being inundated by sea urchins which eat the new kelp sprouts.  The area has been overfished for lobsters which love sea urchins for breakfast, lunch and dinner so now scientists are now trying to reintroduce them to the area to try to give the kelp a chance at recovery.


Like the male seahorse, the male sea dragon cares for and carries the eggs on a brood patch on his tail.  Once born, the youngsters are totally independent and take two years to reach maturity.  Fully grown sea dragons eat plankton, shrimp and small fish.


Wouldn't you feel privileged to see one?  But let's hope THESE beautiful, delicate little sea dragons don't become the stuff of legend as well.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Opportunistic Oppossums

And speaking of Georgia, when my next-door neighbor Leanne and I would put food out for all the stray and feral cats, they were not the only visitors appreciating a free meal.  Meet Fred.

No offense to all the guys named Fred out there, but to me he looked like a Fred.  I don't even know if it was male or female, but I never saw any possums with babies in tow although they were more than likely out there.

While possums aren't the handsomest animal, they do provide a service because they eat carrion.  They are often killed along highways because they go after roadkill.  They also eat mice, worms, insects, birds, nuts, fruit, and, of course, cat food.  They adapt very well to city living and are known to raid garbage cans. And they are the only marsupial that lives in North America.  The babies are born the size of bumblebees and live in their momma's pouch (like kangaroos) until they're developed enough to ride on their momma's back and no longer need their mother's milk.

Possums have a short lifespan - only 2 to 4 years.  They are nocturnal and spend a lot of time in the trees, living in holes in the trees or dens made by other animals.  They have a prehensile tail used for clinging to branches, along with sharp front claws good for climbing.  There are over 60 species of opossums and range in size from a mouse to a large cat.  Of course, their claim to fame is 'playing possum' or playing dead if they are threatened and can't escape a predator.

I live next to a big park so I see possums on occasion here as well.  I think the smaller younger ones are actually kind of cute, but the older bigger ones do look like overgrown rats.  Since I feed the stray and feral cats here too, I make sure I leave a little extra for 'Fred'.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yearning for Yoda

Since the character Yoda from the Star Wars movie was in my very first post, you may think that's who I'm talking about.  Oh, contrare!  If you thought that, you'd be wrong because Yoda is also the name of one of my cats.

I named her that because when she was little her ears were too big for her head.  Name a girl Yoda?.  Yes, there's absolutely no reason SHE can't be a Jedi Master too.  Once she grew up I thought the name didn't fit her any more, but she is a little strange.  As long as I've had her (over 9 years) she still hasn't really connected with me, or I with her.  She goes through stages.  She'll come up to me and want to be petted and act like we're buddies, and then all of sudden she won't want to have anything to do with me again.  Who knows what's really on her mind.  But all cats act like that you might say.  Yes, but with Yoda it's over the top, and her mood lasts for weeks.  And she doesn't just ignore me, she avoids me. (Forget trying to clip her nails, and putting flea meds on her is a total struggle.)   I haven't been able to figure out an obvious event (like a trip to the vet) that causes her to change her mind.  About the only time Yoda REALLY likes me is when we're AT the vet's office.  Then she'll try to hide her face in the crook of my arm, act like I'm her best friend in the world and doesn't want me to leave her sight.  I'm good for comfort when she's scared, but the rest of the time she doesn't have much use for me.  And it's not just me.  With total strangers she's much worse and will hide under the bed covers until they leave.  The only way you know she's there is because of a big lump in the bed.  (That's why the above photo is a little blurry - I caught her just as she was coming out from under the covers.)

I have seven cats.  I intend to have seven cats; it just sort of happened.  Yoda was the next to last of my 'acquisitions'.  When I lived in Georgia, I lived in an apartment complex towards the back.  There were lots of stray and feral cats because people would drive to the back of the complex, drop off their pets and drive away.  Most were not spayed, so several cats became many cats.  Of the seven cats I have, four were taken in as strays or ferals there (one had two kittens that I kept and I've taken in one more since I moved to Rhode Island).  When Yoda was a kitten, I saw her one day with a huge abscess behind her ear.  I took her to the vet, got medicine and treated her thinking I would just let her go back outside when she was well.  Obviously that didn't happen.

Right now Yoda's in her 'I think I like you' phase, so I told her she could be the first one of my cats to appear on the blog.  I don't know how long it's going to last, but will enjoy it as long as it does.  No matter what, she's still my little bunny.

Update:  6/25/2015  I was with my little bunny when she crossed over the Rainbow Bridge today.  She had bad arthritis, a bone spur in her hip and heart disease.  She wasn't eating hardly anything and just lay under my bed.  I didn't want her to just waste away.  She's now with my kitty Cookie, playing in the fields chasing butterflies and grasshoppers, feeling great and not in pain.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Swooning for Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potato casserole, sweet potato pie, sweet potato fries, sweet potato pancakes, sweet potato chips, just plain sweet potatoes - I love them all.  I even got some sweet potato gnocchi the other day.  It doesn't matter what it is, if it's got sweet potatoes in it chances are I'll like it.  And no, that doesn't include sweet potato poo or any other disgusting thing with sweet potato in it, but you know what I mean.

9 varieties of sweet potatoes, Source: N.C. Sweet Potato Commission

Even though sweet potatoes are native to South America, China is now the world's largest supplier at 80%, growing over 100 varieties. The sweet potato has been domesticated for over 5000 years and is a staple in many Pacific island nations, as well as several countries in Africa.  In Korea, U.S. pizza chains like Pizza Hut and Domino's offer it as pizza topping.  Sweet potato pizza!  Now that's one thing I haven't tried.  Looks good, doesn't it?

Source: Rice of Life

Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritional vegetables you can eat and is high in beta carotene, Vitamin C, pantothenic acid, and B6, as well as providing a good source of fiber and complex carbohydrates.  Nutritional AND tastes good?  What more could you possibly want from a vegetable?


As a vegetarian, whenever I'm invited for dinner, people always fret about what they're going to feed me.  Just feed me sweet potatoes and I'll be happy as a clam!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Awesome Auroras

One of the most magnificent sights in the night sky is of the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.  The same type of phenomenon is also seen in the southern hemisphere and is known as the Aurora Australis, or the southern polar lights.  Both can be seen in areas near the north and/or south pole, but on rare occasions can be viewed in more temperate zones.

It was once thought that the Aurora Borealis was caused by refracted light, like rainbows, but we now know that's not the case.  It's a lot more complicated than that.  Much more complicated.  When I started reading all the explanations and details, things like,

"At the magnetopause, Earth's magnetic field points north. When Bz becomes large and negative (i.e., the IMF tilts south), it can partially cancel Earth's magnetic field at the point of contact." from Wikipedia

I have to admit I kind of zoned out.  I love science, but there are times when I think you don't need all the whys and wherefores and should just enjoy the moment.  (Not to mention the fact that half the time I didn't understand what I was reading.)  So I'm just going to give a simple explanation here - it is caused by energy particles from the sun colliding with the earth's magnetic field.  (If you want all the details, you can go to this page on Wikipedia. The color of the lights depends on the type of particles.  The aurora can appear as a soft glow or curtains of light.

One source says the best time to see the Northern Lights is December through March, when the nights are longest.  Another source says spring is definitely the best time.  However, they can also be seen as early as September because they tend to be tied to equinoxes. One thing they do agree on is that the best viewing occurs with a dark sky (when there's a new moon) and no clouds. The lights can last 10 to 15 minutes or for hours and are brightest a few days after there has been heavy sunspot activity.  In the US Alaska has the best viewing as it is closest to the magnetic north pole, but they can also be seen in other northern states when there is especially high activity.  In other words, if you go somewhere specifically to see them, there's no guarantee that you will.  That said, there are sites that try to predict the best time to see them, such as this page from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Source: Wikipedia

I can't imagine the thrill of seeing this spectacular sight.  I haven't seen the Northern Lights yet, but it is definitely on my bucket list.