Today I wanted to write about Steller’s jays because they are outside my office window squawking for attention – screeching really. Those birds certainly cause a ruckus. And every time I look out the window to see what’s going on, there’s nothing going on. Except the cacophony of Steller’s jays. Don’t get me wrong, I love the noise. I like to think they are just yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” In truth, they are communicating to one another about what’s going on and potential threats.
Photo by Noel Reynolds, 2013
Steller’s jays are beautiful too. From afar they appear blue and black; but up close, as in right through the window, I can see the white markings around their eyes, like a painted decoration. Their blue feathers are also shimmery in the sun.
I learned a few other things about these birds. They are highly intelligent and social, most always traveling in groups (thus amplifying the noise!). Considered foragers (including stealing from other birds’ nests), Steller’s jays will also cache food. And about that ruckus? Apparently these birds are masters at mimicking – they can imitate other birds, squirrels, dogs, cats, and even some mechanical noises. I’m going to start listening more closely!
Treehoppers – they are not birds nor are they primates, they are insects. Very. Strange. Insects. There are over 3000 species of treehoppers (with possibly many more waiting for classification or discovery) and they all sport some weird headgear. Some have helicopter-like protrusions while others have funky horns, barbs, or spires. They are disguises, adaptations to make them look not-very-tasty or to help them blend in with their surroundings.
These insects, which live all over the world (except Antarctica) are about the size of a dime. Despite their diminutive size, they communicate by shaking and jerking their bodies which sends signals through the plants on which they rest. While inaudible to humans, scientists have used special microphones to record treehoppers’ calls, clicks, songs, and chirps. This communication helps them defend their young. While most insects lay eggs and leave, treehoppers are good mothers. They stick around to guard their young until nymphs mature and fly away. Of course all of that is interesting, but really, go find more pictures of these strange insects – they’re beautiful!
Wombats are cute, stout, short-legged, waddling, marsupials. And they have bums of steel. When chased, often by a Tasmanian devil or a dingo, a wombat will dive headfirst into its burrow, blocking it with its rump of tough, extra-thick skin and almost no tail. A bite from predator on that end isn’t a big deal. They can also deliver a powerful kick.
Their bums of steel aren’t the only interesting thing about wombats. Though they may look pudgy and slow, they can actually sprint up to 25 miles per hour. They are also built for digging, with wide, strong feet and long claws to dig their own burrows – a network of tunnels and rooms. Female wombats even have a backward-facing pouch for their joey, so it doesn’t fill with dirt as she digs. And if that isn’t enough, wombats have square poop. True enough. They have special bones in their nether region that squeeze the poop pellets into cubes
If you were to pick up a handful of healthy soil, you’d be holding billions of microorganisms in your hands. Yes, billions. And when those healthy soil microbes work in harmony with plants and animals, they sequester carbon. That means the key to combating climate change is literally right beneath our feet.
The problem is that modern, commercial farming has poisoned, over-tilled, and literally killed the soil in so much of the world. The result is desertification and the release of carbon into the atmosphere. And yet, there is hope: there is a movement promoting regenerative agriculture – a method of farming that focuses on increasing biodiversity (both above and below ground), enriching the soil, and improving watersheds. The results are stunning. In the documentary I watched, called Kiss the Ground, the results were clear. On a ranch in South Dakota, a rancher had turned to regenerative farming after suffering many years of crop loss due to weather. Today, his ranch is lush and full of biodiversity; the adjacent ranch is dusty, brown, and dead. There were similar results over an enormous area in China; once almost devoid of life, the area is now thriving.
Working with Mother Nature, instead of against her, means that not only do crop yields increase and become more resilient to climate instability, but carbon is captured and stored by plants and microorganisms (a process called biosequestration). If we change the way we raise and grow our food, we can begin to heal the planet one field at a time. We can restore balance.
Yesterday we turned the clocks back an hour and are now in standard time again. But why? The concept literally has its roots in “saving daylight” to reduce electrical usage. I’m on board with that! In the northern hemisphere, we can take advantage of the extra hours of sunlight in the evening in the spring, summer, and fall to avoid turning on our lights on when we are awake. Now, in the winter months, more people can also rise with daylight.
The first person to write about the idea (that we know of) was Benjamin Franklin in 1784. More than a century passed, though, before the idea was actually applied. During WWI, Britain and Germany implemented daylight savings so troops would use less artificial light and thus save fuel. The United States also followed daylight saving during WWI; it was abolished after the war and brought back again during WWII. After that, individual states and towns were given the liberty to decide for themselves whether to use daylight saving time. Not surprisingly that led to chaos. Finally, the US passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966. Worldwide, only 70 countries “save time,” and in the US 48 of 50 states do, with Arizona and Hawaii being the exception.
Ironically, “standard time” is only four months of the year anymore. Starting in 2007, daylight savings started in March and ended in November. There is also a debate about whether or not daylight saving actually saves energy or not. Studies have produced varying and conflicting results. For now, though, it’s time to hunker down; there’s not much daylight no matter what.