Sightings for Dec. 24

This little screech owl sitting on the opening of their cavity nest is pretty well camouflaged as it soaks in the rays of the low-angle sun. Its mate, a red-phase, stands out quite a bit more dramatically.

Contact Bob Henke with your sightings or questions by mail c/o The Post-Star, in The Post-Star on-line comments feature, by email at rahenke@hotmail.com, on Twitter at @BobHenke, or on Facebook.

On what is arguably the worst driving day so far this year, I have been, of course, out driving around.

I have all sorts of excuses; I have to go to the office, I have to finish Christmas shopping, I have to go to the post office, I have to go pull my son-in-law’s van out of the ditch. The actual fact of the matter is I enjoy driving in rotten, slippery conditions.

It is a little less exciting when I have the Jeep because there is always the option of four-wheel drive. In my days of big heavy rear-wheel drive police cruisers with big V-8s and the need for momentum to prevail against glassy inclines, it was more like working without a net. If you screwed up, there was no 4-WD lever to save you. There was always an affinity for corners that would have simply plowed the front end, but negotiated very adroitly by just blipping the gas to kick the rear end around a bit.

This morning, instead of a three-point turn at the post office, I just brought the Jeep around in its own length with a little power, a small rooster tail, and the traction control turned off. By the way, I HATE traction control, IBS and other systems that diminish my control of the vehicle.

Anyway, my tiny power spin seemed as natural as breathing, but it sure did raise some wifely ire and the invoking of a couple deities.

As I listened to the term “man” used repeatedly as a pejorative, I noted a young mother across the street leading her two children along the sidewalk. The little girl, about 4, held a scruffy rag doll in her left hand and her mother’s hand with her right. The boy, 2 or 3 years old, repeatedly shook off his mother’s attempts to hold his hand as they negotiated the 4 inches of snow on the slippery sidewalk. He would get free, go 3 or 4 yards, and wipe out. The combination of his stubby legs, the icy sidewalk, and the ubiquitous thick snowsuit made it impossible for him to get up and he wallowed about in the deep snow bellowing. Mommy would reach down, take him by the hand, get him up and immediately, in spite of his recent history, he would shake off her grasp and forge off on his own.

This little tableau, accompanied by the discussion of my poor judgement with regard to alarming wives, reminded me I had to get to work on this month’s questions.

It is much more difficult to teach bull calves to drink from a pail than heifers. My (male) dog just spent two hours barking incessantly at a tree where there used to be a squirrel and we ALL can agree that men are pretty dumb. Is being thick-witted a characteristic of males of all species?

In light of the little vignettes above, you might think so. In many species, the number of males born is slightly higher than the number of females. My first genetics course, back in the Cretaceous, explained this by the fact male gametes are a bit faster because they are only carrying a svelte Y chromosome whereas the others have to carry a large, heavy X chromosome.

This sufficed perfectly until I learned about a couple species of birds and amphibians where the father does all the parenting. In these cases, there are more females than males born — go figure. The math works out because, in keeping with your hypothesis, young male creatures tend to die at a far greater rate than females, primarily due to ill-conceived activities, so by the time they all approach breeding age, the numbers are roughly equal.

Becoming a parent does not seem to help much because the death rate for males continues higher in most species so by end-of-life, females outnumber males by about the same as the birth ratio. So, while I guess I could think of more complimentary adjectives than “thick-witted” to explain it, males of many species seem to encounter mishap more frequently than the distaff portion of the population.

I feel cheated. Usually, you devote a couple columns ahead of Christmas to traditional plant decorations, but not this year. What’s up with that?

I protest! I did a whole column on poinsettias. However, as you note, there are many traditional plant decorations associated with the winter solstice holiday period. If I had to pick my favorite Christmas plant, it would be the thorn bush. This is not a widespread tradition in the United States, but traditional beliefs on the British Isles still include the Glastonbury thorn.

The Glastonbury thorn legend ties in Christ’s death as well as the celebration of his birth. The legend goes that soon after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain to spread the message of Christianity. Being tired from his journey, he lay down to rest. When he did so, he pushed his staff into the ground beside him. When he awoke, he found the staff had begun to grow and blossom. The legend does not, of course, say how long he had been sleeping. It is said he left it there and it has flowered every Christmas since. It is also said that a puritan trying to cut down the tree was blinded by a splinter of the wood before he could do so. Many cuttings were taken and planted in holy places. It is one of these very cuttings that is in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey today. A traditional Christmas decoration in Europe is a small clipping of the holy thorn.

I just took my mother her Christmas present — a Christmas cactus, which is a clone of the one my great grandmother (her grandmother) had. My grandmother started another from a slip and I one from hers. My big old plant had a bad time last year, so I rooted a couple more slips. Not a true cactus, Christmas cactus were a traditional English houseplant, also known as the Christmas rose. In the wild they are one of the few plants to blossom in the winter, typically coming into flower at about the time of the winter solstice. This was close enough to Christmas to satisfy the English who have used it as a Christmas symbol since the time of early Christianity. Actually, I took this one to Mom a bit early because it started budding about Thanksgiving and looked like it might be finished flowering before Christmas actually got here.

Where do all the crows that I see flying west every night come from?

The question is not where they come from, but rather where they are going. In winter, roosting for the night is a dangerous thing for large birds like crows — they stand out when there are no leaves. Statistically, the larger the group, the lower the odds of any individual being picked off — this is why everything from sardines to starlings form large schools/flocks. In the morning, the individual groups all head off to their feeding territories. They will battle each other all day over these territorial boundaries, but at night, they all head for the roosting area to spend the night together.

And, with that, it is clearly time for me to go drive around bit — I mean, I have to go finish the plowing. Yeah, that was it...

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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