National Penguin Awareness Day

Photo by John Salatas

This coming Thursday, January 20 is National Penguin Awareness Day (not to be confused with World Penguin Day in April), when penguins get a day in the spotlight. And what’s not to love? These flightless sea birds are adorable both as chicks and as adults. They waddle when they walk with their stubby wings awkwardly splayed out from their sides. And then there are the heartwarming images of male Emperor penguins huddled together against the frigid Antarctic cold with an egg nestled on top of their feet.

Depending on who you talk to, there are 17-20 different species of penguins, all in the southern hemisphere. Many of these species live in Antarctica, but not all of them live in cold climates. Some live in much more hospitable places like the Galapagos, South America, Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.

What penguins lack in agility on land, they more than make up for in the ocean. In fact, in the ocean they are expert swimmers, some reaching speeds of over 20 miles per hour. They can even leap out of the water like a dolphin as they swim! Penguins spend most of their lives in the water, which is why they sport the black and white tuxedo. When they are in the water, from above their black backs blend them into the murky depths. From below, a penguin’s white belly camouflages them against the bright sky.

The purpose of National Penguin Awareness Day is a day to bring attention to the environmental issues that penguins face (2/3 are listed as threatened), and to promote conservation and research. Learn more at Penguins International to see how you can help!

MYNA BIRDS

My new favorite bird is the myna – they are raucous and beautiful and apparently very adaptable. My love for these birds began with a tree in Hawaii. Every night, a huge flock that probably numbered into the hundreds, returned to the same tree. Over the course of an hour at sunset, they settled in and chattered away (loudly). And then, almost as if one of the mama birds said, “Hey, hush up now, it’s bedtime,” they’d fall silent. The same thing happened in reverse in the morning. At dawn, they’d slowly begin to chatter until it because a boisterous chorus. Then, one by one they’d fly away for the day.

Photo by Afsarnayakkan, 2017

I’ve since learned that they are actually an invasive species in many parts of the world, including Hawaii. But It’s not their fault they were introduced to the islands in the mid-1800s to control cutworm moths and they thrived. Today they are seen as naughty, loud, and quarrelsome. Some compare them to flying rats. They also compete with native species.

Still, my affection for them has not changed. They are a hardy and adaptable species. They mate for life with one partner. And their chatter is lovely.

HUMPBACK WHALES

Photo by Scott Moore, Maui, HI

Every fall, more than 10,000 humpback whales migrate from the north Pacific Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands (smart whales!). That journey of over 3,000 miles brings them to warmer, shallow waters to breed. Some mate during this time, with “competition pods” of males pursuing a female. They will bump into one another and jockey for position close to her, attempting to become her primary escort. Ultimately the female will mate with several males for a better chance of getting pregnant. Once she is, the gestation time is about 11 months.

For females returning to Hawaii already pregnant, it is a safe place for them to give birth because there are few predators in the shallow waters. In addition, the newborn calves have no blubber, so the warm water is essential. When born, the calves are 12-15 feet long and weigh 1-2 tons. By comparison, adult humpbacks can weigh as much as 40 tons and grow to 60 feet long.

A mother whale nurses her baby with as much as 100 gallons of milk per day. In addition, she prepares her baby and helps it grow stronger before the long migration back north in the spring. She also teaches the baby how to breach, which, in addition to slapping their fins and flukes, is how humpback whales communicate with other humpbacks. The mother does all this without eating for months.

That’s right, the whales do not eat while in Hawaii because the tropical water have much less food available. Instead, they live off the stores of blubber they built up while in the cooler productive waters up north. They return to the North Pacific in the spring, where they feed on an abundance of krill, plankton, and small fish.

No matter what ocean (because humpbacks live in oceans around the world), if you have a chance to see whales, do it…they are an extraordinary sight to behold.

 

Emperor Penguins

Photo by Christopher Michel December 2013

We humans could learn a few things from emperor penguins. In addition to being doting parents and extremely hardy, emperor penguins are a model of teamwork. These large, flightless birds live in Antarctica where wind chills can reach -75° F. They are well-adapted to this cold, but when the Arctic wind increases and the temperature drops, the penguins waddle closer together to huddle! The huddle includes thousands of birds.

Each one finds a place to tuck in, placing their head on the shoulders of the birds in front of them. The interior of this huddle can be as warm as 98° F! But the ones on the outside are not doomed to bear the brunt of the cold and wind. Instead, the dense huddle is always moving as the birds continually shift and rotate. The birds in the center move to the outside so others can have their turn on the inside!

By working together, no one is left out in the cold. And everyone thrives.

Christmas Island

Christmas Island, a territory of Australia, sits in the Indian Ocean. In addition to the spectacular scenery of the island and the azure water surrounding it, Christmas Island is known for its crabs. More specifically, for the migration of millions of red crabs every year.

Photo by Ian Usher, December 2009

These crabs spend most of their lives inland and underground in the forest, feeding on decaying leaves. Yet once the wet season begins (usually in October or November), the crabs start their migration to the sea to mate and spawn. Their march is also dictated by the moon. They want to reach the ocean to spawn before the sun starts to rise, on an ebbing high-tide, during the moon’s last quarter. Somehow they know when it’s time to leave the nest and start the trek! Each female carries 100,000 eggs that she must shed into the sea. The only problem? While she’s a crab, she can’t swim. The goal is to release the eggs at the shoreline without being swept away by a wave.

There are an estimated 50 million red crabs on the island. Therefore, when they begin their migration, the ground, roads, bridges, and shorelines are literally swarming with crabs. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, “It is like a great scarlet curtain moving down the cliffs and rocks toward the sea.” To protect the crabs, some roads are closed during migration, and crab bridges have been built to usher the crabs up and over the road safely.

Leaf-Cutter Ants

If you’ve ever seen a parade of leaf-cutter ants marching their harvest back to the nest, it’s a sight to behold. But that magnificent sight is only one small part of the story.

Those worker ants marching along may be part of a colony 5-10 million strong. Inside the nest there’s space for all the ants in the colony as well as chambers for nurseries, trash chambers, and more. Some nests can have thousands of chambers. Within the colony, each ant has a job, including the workers, those that defend the colony, trash gatherers, and the queen. There are other important jobs, but you’ll have to keep reading.

Photo by Filo Gèn’

When worker ants discover a suitable leafy tree, they leave a trail of pheromones from the nest to the source, for the others to follow. At the source, these ants use their knife-like jaws to cut or saw a leaf into pieces they can carry. And the pieces they do carry can be as much as 50x their own weight (comparably that would amount to an average person carrying a minivan!). Then they follow the trail of pheromones back to the nest.

Perhaps most amazing of all is that leaf-cutter ants do not eat the leaves they harvest. The leaves help grow a fungus garden. And that’s what the ants eat – the fungus! Now back to the other important jobs in the nest – those that grow and tend to this garden. Some ants’ job is to pick dangerous parasites off the leaf pieces before they are taken into the nest. Once in the nest, gardeners crush the leaves into moist pellets and add fecal droplets; then they tuck them into a garden chamber. As the fungus garden grows, some ants will remove pieces of fungus from dense areas and replant them in a new place. And still others watch over the garden and remove spores and hyphae of invading mold species.

And if all that is amazing enough, the ants doing the heavy lifting and marching are all female.

A Raft of Ants

Like many people, I’m not a big fan of ants, especially those that find their way into my house or fire ants that bite and sting. But when I learned how fire ants survive a flood I couldn’t help but be amazed.

One of my current projects is about animal survival. As I researched, I tried to find a diversity of animals to include in the book, including insects. That’s when I came across an article about fire ants. Ants in general work together as a colony for all matters of survival. But fire ants go above and beyond. When their nests begin to flood,

they all leave at one. They clump together, then flatten themselves into a pancake shape – a raft. Linked like that they can float on the surface of the water for weeks, ensuring the survival of the colony.

Photo by Brant Kelly

It gets better. The raft isn’t merely a haphazard collection of ants desperately clinging to one another. Researchers found that the way they connect to each another is purposeful. For starters, 99% of ants’ legs will be connected to another ant, creating an intricate network that is strong enough to support the raft. Plus, the ants on the bottom create a base for the rest of the colony; others can actually move around atop the raft. That base is so tightly woven that water does not enter the raft so most of the ants stay try; this is also what creates buoyancy. Bonus fact: they can also form towers 30 ants tall!

Migrating Geese

I remember Canada geese flying in a perfect V-formation over our house every fall when I was a kid. In my memory, this always happened on a Sunday; we’d hear them approaching because of the honking and go outside to watch them pass over. My dad explained they were migrating south for the winter.

Were they? Or, were they on a Sunday outing? As it turns out, not all geese migrate, especially those in the middle latitudes of the United States. For some, this is a result of climate change; winters aren’t as harsh in many places, so they stay put. In addition, geese are highly adaptable. Modern urban and suburban areas provide plenty of food and open water, and few predators. For the adapted goose, it’s an ideal habitat.

Whether or not a goose migrates is even more complicated than that, though. Geese that take up permanent residence in one place, may, after years of residency, decide to migrate. One cause of this is a failed nest. Studies have shown that close to 50% of geese whose nest failed or had no young will migrate with another flock. This may happen even after years of staying in one place raising successful broods.

The bottom line is that some migrate, some don’t, even geese from the same area. So unless you can tell one goose from another, there’s no way to know who’s a permanent resident and who has migrated. Even in winter, perhaps some of the geese you come across migrated from a place further north! Those that do migrate may fly up 1,500 miles in a 24-hour period and may travel up to 2,600 miles total.

Red-Tailed Hawk

While on a walk the other day, I came across this bird having lunch. Not a good day for the mouse, but a great one for the hawk. We see these hawks a lot where I live, but not often so close. And so, I watched. My encounter left me wondering more about these birds (of course!).

They live across most of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Those living in the middle latitudes don’t migrate, but the northern ones do move far to the south as winter approaches. Red-tailed hawks aren’t overly picky about habitats. They are found in forests, grasslands, deserts, and mountains. They only requirement is open space for hunting and high perches.

Red-tailed hawks are one of the largest birds in North America. Even so, most weigh less than three pounds! They can, however, catch prey that weighs more than five pounds. This prey includes a long menu of small animals, including the aforementioned mouse, as well as rabbits, squirrels, frogs, insects, bats, and other birds. Yum.

I was also happy to learn that red-tailed hawks are not a species of concern. In fact, according to the Audubon Society, even in the face of climate change, these hawks will not lose any range (based on 3° C warming). Predictions are, though, they will gain range and venture much further north in Canada.

AMERICA RECYCLES DAY

Today is a day to celebrate recycling! It is indeed an odd thing to celebrate, and yet it is an important one. Believe it or not, there are still many, many people in the United States who do not recycle even the most basic items; there are also communities that simply don’t offer recycling, either curbside or at centers. The purpose of America Recycles Day is to educate people and to promote recycling. In addition, it is a day for all of us, recyclers or not, to be thoughtful about what we purchase and what we discard.

Studies have shown that in the US, the average non-recycler generates almost 5 pounds of trash per day. On the other hand, recyclers generate just over one pound of trash per day. For the recycler, 75% of the items they discard are recycled as opposed to being sent to the landfill. In addition, recycling helps to conserve natural resources and it reduces the amount of fossil fuels burned to create brand new products. An all-around win. Not only that, the industry generates close to 700,000 jobs and almost $38 billion in wages.

I think the equally important aspect of America Recycles Day is taking time to think about the items we purchase. Things to consider include buying in bulk to reduce packaging; how much unnecessary packaging is used for a single item; whether or not we really need to buy the item at all; and whether the item and/or the packaging fully recyclable.

Sometimes it all may seem futile. But I like to think in bigger pictures. For example, if your household uses 3 boxes of cereal per week and you recycle them, that’s approximately 12 boxes saved from the landfill per month and 144 in a year. See? It’s adding up! What happens if you convince a friend’s family to do the same? That 288 boxes recycled in a year. What happens if you get the whole block to do it? The whole city? You get the idea. So even if you can’t celebrate today, help spread the word because a lot of small steps by many individuals add up to a big difference!