Saturday, April 28, 2012

Return of miller moths best appreciated from porch

As featured April 20, 2012, on

During the daylight hours it's easy to forget they exist, but as the sun falls they emerge and in the blink of an eye, they’re everywhere.
Their shadows flicker by the window and agitate your peripheral vision; they cover the walls, tickle your skin as they pass by and make you think it's snowing in April when you flip on your high beams along seemingly desolate roads.
You could almost call them a silent invader were it not for the rhythmic dings as they bounce off light bulbs, pings as they ricochet inside lamp shades and of course the yowling of your cat followed by loud thuds when the tile gets the upper hand and your crazed kitty slams into a wall at top speed.
If you somehow manage to sleep through the nocturnal hullabaloo in your living quarters, by morning, there's too many traces left behind to deny it happened, from the faint brown spots on your curtains to the straggler doing back strokes in your nightstand water glass, the crunch of a body under your shoe as you walk to the fridge or the random flutter in the corner spider web.
Congratulations, you have just survived one of many nights to come during the migration of the miller moth.
Spending the winter in gardens and areas of thick vegetation, the army cutworm caterpillar hatches, winters and then matures into the miller moth in the spring when evenings stay warm and plants begin to bloom. They migrate toward higher elevations for the summer, and return to lay eggs in the fall and begin the cycle all over again.
Surrounded by crops, watered lawns and gardens, areas such as ours are a prime location for that cycle to begin and end, giving us a about six weeks of moths every where.
While invasion may seem an appropriate word to describe the thousands of little brown moths that suddenly appear in ours and neighboring regions during the spring months, it really is a bit harsh. Especially when you realize how innocuous the little moths are –though perhaps innocuous isn’t exactly the right word either since they could cause harm to mental health in those prone to easy aggravation.
But otherwise, you can relax.
Sure they may avoid the sunlight, cling to the shadows and have eyes that glow, but you can be assured the Flora lovin', nectar eating miller moth doesn’t want your blood.
Not only that, they don't eat your doilies, they don't chew through the box and eat your oatmeal and they don't spread nasties.
What they are guilty of, if anything, is turn your home into a real live pinball game that can be exponentially more aggravating depending on how many slip inside.
And yes, light is an instant magnet – after all, if you had a body the size of a couple Tic Tacs, you too might think the porch light was the moon, which many scientists believe serves as a crucial moth navigation tool. When there are multiple “moons,” it simply spells moth chaos.
But if you can get past their apparent insanity as they bobble and zing, ping and thunk into things, there's something fascinating about the way they move, living as if each minute might be their last – a distinct possibility when you're a delectable high-fat snack for birds and a host of other creatures.
“It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life,” said Virginia Woolf.
Granted, while Woolf only observed one moth, if your kitchen light has become an annual meeting place for a miller moth reunion, you may find it's one of natures performances best appreciated from the porch.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Animals never cease to amaze

As featured April 13, 2012, on

Every now and then we all need to be wowed and amazed a little, a fact capitalized on by circuses for centuries.
But three rings and a tent are not required to have one of those “wow” moments.
Instead of glitter and tall hats, red honking noses and flaming hoops, one can always look to the animal world for off the wall stuff that isn't just part of a show, it's reality.
Just to illustrate life wins every time, here's a collection of random, gee wiz factoids and freaky creatures:
  • The state of Maryland has offered $200 gift cards to those who catch and kill the “fish from hell,” properly known as a snakehead fish. A native of Africa and Asia, the snakehead's invasion of the state's waters has wildlife folks worried. With a couple nasty rows of teeth, no natural predators and the ability to survive up to four days on land, the 2-foot-long fish is able to destroy entire ecosystems.
  • Never feel alone again. It's estimated there are 50,000 spiders for each acre of land containing plant growth.
  • It might be time to go for brighter colors. Stricken with poor eyesight and estimated to only be able to see a target from about 30 feet away, dark colors, particularly black and blue, attract mosquitoes.
  • And you thought it was exhausting to watch them get from one place to another... turns out the snail's pace drains them too making it possible for some snails to sleep for more than three years at a time.
  • Dante couldn't have written it better. Apparently the most important purpose of a cockroach's head is chowing down. Decapitated, a cockroach is capable of living for up to a month, finally expiring when it starves to death.
  • Sometimes called “Kamikaze ants,” there are nine different types of ants that commit suicide. When in a losing battle, they sacrifice themselves by exploding glands in their bodies that contain toxins, spraying and defeating their foe.
  • Think hermit crabs are creepy looking? Their relative the robber crab grows to about 40 inches long and weighs as much as 10 pounds. Living on land, the giant night creeper lives in the southwest Pacific and Indian oceans and likes to crack coconuts.
  • At 180 feet, one type of ribbon worm is thought to be the longest critter on the planet and if that weren't icky enough, ribbon worms can live up to a year without food by self-digesting.
  • Sweating like a pig is actually not a bad thing. Pigs are a little short in the sweat gland department, hence the cooling mud baths.
  • Aside from being a newly documented species discovered in a restaurant in Vietnam where it's long been listed on menus, belonging to an all female species with the ability to reproduce by self-cloning has earned the lizard Leiolepis ngovantrii some notoriety.
  • With a lifespan close to that of humans, the Chinese giant salamander can grow to be more than 70 inches long (longer than most people are tall) making it the largest amphibian in the world.
While the human world spends a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly normal is, no matter how hard they look, the answer the animal world gives back unequivocally is, everything and nothing at all.
Now that's a circus.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Chickens masterminds of egg hunts

As featured April 6, 2012, on
Shaped exactly as it should be, only much, much tinier, it looked more like those sugar coated versions that go in Easter baskets.
Surely some strange force of magic had shrunken Molly’s egg because no self-respecting robin would have squatted in the corner of the barn to lay their precious one on the floor, yet there it was, smaller than a quarter.
After undergoing enough scrutiny, the little egg went in the refrigerator with its bigger siblings and in the days that followed, the kids squabbled over who would get to make a tiny sandwich with the tiny egg.
The egg laying thing is most curious indeed and the more time goes by, the more I am of the increasing opinion hens engineered the traditions of Easter.
Of course at the forefront of all egg issues is the feathered lady’s mood.
There are those days she decides to change things up, opting for some random nook in which to lay her egg, kind of like the other day when she left one under a huge tumbleweed.
But most days she’s pretty consistent with a mid-morning egg in her corner of the barn, except if she’s stressed or made uncomfortable in the slightest, at which point she goes on strike and days can pass with no egg in its usual place.
Of course the possibility exists that the eggs from those fruitless days are tucked away in a diabolical hiding spot only she knows about, in which case they will no doubt make some paleontologist exceptionally happy eons from now.
As if the constant geo-where game weren’t intriguing enough, she also has a talent for changing up the eggs themselves.
By far, the mini-egg was the most unusual, at least in our household, though it turns out, it’s not magic at all and it’s more common than one might think. Common enough, in fact, that the little eggs even have a couple of names, some – such as “wind egg” – more polite than others.
On any given day, a quick look at Molly’s eggs in the refrigerator's storage bin indicates, to the unscientific eye, a fowl sense of humor.
While predominantly brown, the variations are plentiful. Some are speckled, some near white, and others have subtle patterns in the coloring.
But it doesn’t end there.
With as much diversity as the crowd at a shopping center on any given day, there are short ones, tall ones, fat ones and skinny ones and then there are the truly unique eggs, the ones with the skinny tops and fat bottoms or fat middles and pointy ends and of course those that have striations and ridges and spare tires.
The idiosyncrasies of the eggs, according to the information that’s out there, point to a variety of things that cause odd eggs from seasonal temperature and humidity changes to vitamin balances and even the hen’s age. And apparently it’s not the color, shape or size of the egg, but what’s inside that counts and most of them are perfectly good – albeit sometimes bazaar looking – eggs.
But living with a chicken can really make you wonder when Easter rolls around.
Not a lot is known about the history of egg hunts and one might surmise that rural farming folks came up with the tradition, hiding unique eggs for fun in the spring. But with that apparently being the norm with chickens, it seems unlikely anyone familiar would find that fun and novel enough to do on a holiday.
What is likely, however, is that Easter Sunday, as millions of humans scramble around looking for odd eggs in odd places, chickens are laughing everywhere.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tunes may be tortuous

As featured March 30, 2012, on

It’s a beautiful day so you decide to spend some time with the pooch.
He eagerly bounds into the car, settles in the seat beside you, and off you go – windows down, radio cranked.
Bouncing down the road, head keeping time to your favorite tune, you have a broad smile on your face. It’s perfect.
Your pooch – not so much.
Welcome to Doggy Gitmo, Noriega Nightmare, Psy Ops Central.
Turns out, your dog ain’t a fan of your beats and the only mood those sultry tunes are likely to put your pal in is anxious and depressed or they could even cause aggression.
It’s quite logical really. Humans cover their heads at the permeating crow of a rooster and inversely, the crooning of Barry Manilow might be enough to send Fido chewing through a wall and the yowling sounds of some pop stars may make your cat think he just wandered down the nighttime alley of his dreams.
Case in point, remember that time you flipped on the radio right before you left for work and returned to find the dog had dug up the carpet under the door? Well, if recent research is any indication, he wasn’t missing you; he was trying to escape sheer torment.
The heart, you see, is something of a unique internal metronome that creates musical comfort zones as do the tones and pitches of communication, converging to determine how creatures respond to music – what they like and what they don’t.
That is nothing new, and scientists have known for years that music reaches well beyond the ears. Well enough, in fact, that it can calm you in an elevator on your way to an unpleasant appointment or serve as a torture device that can make you want to put your head through a wall, or, surrender a small isthmus.
About two years ago, Wisconsin animal psychologist Charles Snowden – in a study titled, “Affective responses in tamarins elicited by species-specific music” – conducted research to see if the same were true in the animal world and learned animals are indeed musically inclined, just not to our music.
Snowden worked with a composer to create music similar to the sounds tamarins make in communal and threatening situations, and then played the scores for a group of captive tamarins along with human music. The threat-modeled music agitated the monkeys, the communal scores calmed them and the human music, well it turned out they found silence preferable to the clamoring of hairless apes.
Excluding large breed dogs, whose characteristics are closer to humans, other research has produced similar findings in domesticated animals. With their high sensitivity to sounds and vibrations, to them, a few minutes of rap can be like a Richter 10 and heavy metal like Ahab's storm.
But if you really love your pet, you can make up for all the horrors you've perpetrated with your speakers, because, in the wake of studies like Snowden's, a new breed of music has surfaced.
That's right, not only can you get a CD of tunes specially composed for your dog, cat or horse, some companies even offer specially designed stereo systems on claims they optimize frequencies pets like.
Of course if the research is accurate, that's a lot of trust to put in the pen of a composer.
For instance, with a couple of wrong notes, a cat relaxation CD might turn your feline friend into a version of Ellie’s “Church”, climbing straight out of the dark recesses of Stephen King’s imagination.
And unless one is in the business of breeding critters and needs a professional advantage, notes going the other direction could put pets “in the mood”, which probably just spell trouble for the furniture legs and potential embarrassment if company comes over.
That’s enough to make you wonder if maybe we should just leave the howling and yowling to them, after all, as Duke Ellington put it, “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”