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Ask Dr. Salvo

October 11, 1994

Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Boss,

Here I am again, your faithful canine research associate:

There are decided advantages in being eight inches tall if you are studying up to be a naturalist, meanwhile contributing Nature Notes to an otherwise fanciful column.

Take the stick insect, for example, a creature I've been studying lately from an air conditioned blind in your living room. This strange insect (for that is what it is, having six legs, four wings, a head, thorax and abdomen) recently took up quarters inside a window screen. From there he occasionally abandons his twiglike posture and scrams across the wires to catch a moth or a spider. This is his serious side. On the playful side, the screen allows him to tantalize several hopeful green lizards (you know, the anole with a penny in his throat pouch) who live in the big world on the other side. The lizard appears to believe that because he can clearly see the stick a few inches away, it should be no trouble at all to shoot out his sticky pink tongue and catch said stick. Not so. The stick allows the lizard ponderously to shift about in slow motion until almost in position to strike. Then with lightning speed the stick flees in simulated terror about eight inches down the screen, there to resume its motionless twig pose. The lizard gages about stupidly then rears up in panic when the stick sallies forth in a mad counterattack that takes him within three inches of the lizard's nose. Not so mad really, since the screen still separates them like lovers visiting in the penitentiary. The big lizard, four times the size of the stick, soon tires. He withdraws into the ivy, to be replaced by a younger, swifter, and more optimistic edition. This lizard repeats with the stick the same stately minuet put on by the big one, but at a more lively tempo. Also he persists longer. Ignorance, or youthful optimism?

Finally he too withdraws, only to be replaced by that gorgeous blue and yellow and purple skink -- What the? -- that skink has lost his splendid tail somehow. He casts a shy-swift gaze toward the stick, then moves back into the ivy.

Now who got that piece of tail -- you should pardon a naturalist's language - - off that skink? I can't help but suspect a certain tufted titmouse I'd seen earlier that day. He too had fooled himself into believing he and the stick were on the same side of the screen. The stick, for his part, would inflame the passion of the titmouse by spreading all four of his soot and mauve-colored wings, expanding and contracting, and generally acting like a tempting morsel. It is at this stage of his game that the stick can be easily mistaken by humans for a runt-sized mantis. Incidentally, this stick creature either produces web- silk (I doubt it) or tramples freely in other animals' webs (definitely, never even slows down).

Boss I tuned in to this program for only an hour, and left when the players were still having a good time with their drama. I was obliged to conclude that not only do dogs have a sense of humor about the drama of the chase, but so do insects and lizards. I begin to suspect protozoa -- since all matter living and "non-living" is in fact sentient and lively. No reason the aliveness at any level should not be play-full.

Which brings me to the subject of black thumb and its kindred ailment, teleklutz. For years I have observed with sympathy and at times incredulity your hopeless struggles to operate various machines and gadgets. I seem to recall that your morale became so abject around Christmas time, that you weren't even embarrassed to hire two teenage boys to assemble a swing set. A job you had spent four hours on, with no sign of progress. Over the years the lawnmower, chainsaw, various cameras, fishing reels -- all died in your clutch. Usually you had only to touch them, but if that didn't suffice a minimal pressure from the left thumb would suffice to disable the average appliance for good.

The symptoms of Teleklutz were outside my visual range, but I learned about them from others in the family: It was enough for you to drive as close as 1/4 mile to a generator plant and all the lights in town would go dim. "Telekinesis" is a fancy term for moving an object with the power of the mind. That's all very well and glamorous, but what do you call it when objects fall on the floor, spontaneously split, or give a high squeal then disappear with a foul smell??? Well, I call it Teleklutz and I say the hell with it. Excuse me, Boss, I know a research associate should have better control. Boss, I guess I'm trying to tell you that summer is over and fall is here. Yesterday I was doing some reconnaissance in a used car lot on big 98 when I saw the proof: There they were, floating and spiralling upward, a white twister at 3000 feet and still climbing. The Autumn pelicans! doing their favorite thing. They climb the up- drafts for an hour or so, with minimal effort and no flapping just soaring. Then they coast off 35-45 miles south to feed in the bays, bayous and creeks along the lower Bay. You'll recall how they feed: They paddle about in a group until they have penned up the bait fish in a circle, then devour them at leisure. I saw an article last week saying the white pelican is a "nocturnal scavenger" -- this is just as far off the mark as I was before I learned about their collaborative fishing and feeding habits. As you may recall, unlike the brown pelican the white doesn't dive on his prey. He calls in a few reliable fishing friends and they encircle the bait fish. Then they slurp them up with every sign of gemutlicheit. (I feel sure that is misspelled, so read: convivial feeling -- and note, their food is eaten alive).

The subject of spring and large birds reminds me of a surprising sight on a recent trip to Greensboro, North Carolina. We were wandering about through the wide boulevards at fifty per, looking for the easiest way to Guilford College, when we found ourselves on the back side of the municipal airport. The big commercial jets were parked here and there in the middle distance, with no human activity around them. In the long grass between the big birds and us were two or three dozen more big birds: Canada geese! They were quite busily plucking the long grass or graazing, as geese like to do. No gabble, no honks, just silent industry, working side by side with their huge descendants. When you think of all the nearby cow pastures they had rejected in order to feed companionably with the big birds at the airport -- why, you must wonder if it is mainly goose humor or goose religion that governs this behavior.

Just a couple of hundred miles northeast, Boss, I think, you'll recall is a wild place called Knott's Island, N.C. You may be inclined to deny that you used to go there to shoot geese on Currituck Sound. The birds that migrated there every fall kept on coming no matter how many were shot -- or so you believed. Now, these airport birds, these savvy travelers from Canada have only to do the same sort of thing: Just keep flying to the same big airports and nobody will fire a shot in your direction. (If I seem to address my remarks directly to the geese, I am doing so. Most geese are fond of my column -- corn, you know).

My favorite goose story of yours, Boss, is the one about you, your partners, and the guide all shooting at a gander at once as he hung in the sky, flaring up and braking as he spotted the enemy below. It seem he flew on off unharmed, and you hunters had to agree that a good story lasts longer than a dead bird.

Perhaps, my most remarkable bird find, Boss, while we were in Greensboro, was a four- or five-pound specimen of "Hen of the Woods." This is a clustered, feathery, grey and silver white mushroom that grows at the foot of a very old oak tree on the grounds of a very old cottage, one block southeast of the library. Sorry, Boss, I got carried away with the uniqueness. I hastened to the stacks after some coaching by a nice redheaded librarian. There to my amazement I found "Hen of the Woods, edible and choice" under the photograph of a mushroom identical to my own. This was a novel experience and a triumph.

Mushroom books, understandably, are rather reticent in their praise of uncommon mushrooms -- to have one say, "edible and choice" is unbelievable. We left the "hen" intact and carrying out her life cycle, because we lacked a skillet, a stove, and some butter. We naturalists have always remarked that Heaven gives almonds to those who have no teeth. (Chinese poem)

Your ever curious and faithful
TIM, research naturalist associate

-- October 11, 1994

The Harbinger