Monday, June 25, 2007

Animal of the Week -- June 25, 2007

Being a little UK and summer centric at the moment, I know, but I am like some weird child who can only think about what he sees, you know that by now.

This week's animal of the week is another sure sign and sound of summer, so tightly associated with the season in my mind that just thinking about them gives me a tan, which, given the weather here at the moment and my lack of holiday funds, is the only way I'm going to get one this year. This week's animal is Apus apus (common swift).

Flocks of these most aerial of all birds wheeling over the village squares, town halls, and city skyscapes screaming and careening in pursuit of airborne plankton are a common and stunning sight across Europe. Appearing in early May and remaining until late July. Outside their brief visit to these temperate climes, swifts fly thousands of miles to sub-Saharan Africa.

Common swifts live nearly their whole lives on the wing, they are even able to sleep in flight. Their nests are made from floating feathers, petals, and light grasses gathered on the wing and glued together with spit, and all their food -- small insects and floating spiders -- is caught in flight, scooped up in kamikaze dives near the ground or sifted from the atmosphere so high up that from the ground the birds become tiny crescent-shaped specks. Swifts never land on the ground, only punctuating their endless flight with occasional breaks clinging to vertical surfaces with their tiny feet (apus means no feet) and their brief nesting period.

Although they look like swallows and martins, and have similar migratory patterns, swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds than any other birds, weird. You can distinguish swifts from swallows and martens as the former are slightly larger, and their wings are more curved, appearing as a perfect sickle. Swifts also never land on the ground, only punctuating their endless flight with occasional breaks clinging to vertical surfaces. Their exhilarating, screaming call also sets swifts apart. One swallow may not a summer make, but for me, a flock of swifts, certainly helps.

I think my contemplative mood today is evident, so you can do your own swift swallow martin innuendo yourself. Oh, there you go then.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Animal of the Week -- June 18, 2007


It was playing on my mind recently that I had not seen any of this week's animal of the week yet this year, despite it being associated with the month of May and only really being active in European parks and gardens during the early warm summer months. But then, there I was, hanging around the flower gardens of Kennington Park as dusk approached this weekend when a series of rustling, the occasional bumps, and random banging announced the arrival of several of the large and hairy Melolontha melolontha (cockchafers).

Cockchafers (no sniggering at the back), are large beetles that emerge in May and can be spotted flying rather haphazardly whirring through the sky and bumping into trees, buildings and people around green spaces, and feasting voraciously on plant material, particularly oak trees, but also crops, until the end of July. They are particularly active late in the day, so, for example, in London, Hampstead Heath as dusk approaches is a good place to find cockchafers.

Their larvae spend 3 years eating roots and tubers growing to a size of 5 cm, they pupate in autumn, but the adults overwinter in the soil emerging in May. Until recently, cockchafers sometimes reached plague proportions, causing devastation to crops, typically in 30 year cycles. The main measure to combat them would be to collect the adults and disrupt the breeding cycle, this tactic led to inventive recipes for sugarcoated cockchafers and cockchafer soup. Although largely ineffective, this method was far more successful than that employed in Avignon in 1320, when cockchafers were tried in court and ordered to retreat to a specially designated area!

Neither legislation nor culinary endeavour eventually brought the cockchafer under control. The introduction of chemical pesticides decimated their numbers, but in recent years they have had something of a resurgence and parks, gardens, and open spaces across the UK and Europe resound with the sounds of the crepuscular activities of cockchafers.

At about 2.5 cm long and being such a large and noticeable beetle, they have fired the imagination of people, and in the UK alone they have a great many names: not only the suggestive cockchafer, but also the half-right "May bug", the conflicting "July beetle", the unbelievable "spang beetle", and the Spoonerism-tastic "billy witch".

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Animal of the Week -- June 4, 2007

After five whole months in exile following the festive avian glut at Christmas, the ornithologists, twitchers, and bird fanciers among you might be pleased to hear that this week's animal is an ave. Although you may be less excited to hear that this week's animal is actually Columba livia domestica (domestic pigeon, feral pigeon, rat with wings).

Now, the coincidence is striking: this time last year I related to you a tale of bloody murder featuring a herring gull, a pigeon, and the Regent's Canal. I have not seen anything like it since, that is, not until yesterday evening. Stood in the waterfront bar of King's College Union attending a gig by Australian wonderband Architecture in Helsinki and overlooking the Gormley dotted skyscape of the Southbank, my eyes were drawn to a commotion in the sky above the river by Gabriel's Warf. What first appeared to be a dogfight among a group of lesser black-backed gulls was actually aerial pursuit. Barrelling along in front of the five or six gulls was a pigeon -- scraggly, dirty, unloveable, and unloved. Diving this way and that, skimming the treetops, hurtling towards buildings in a deadly collision course before wheeling away at the last minute, the little thing was desperately trying to shake off its pursuers. The dastardly gulls matched the pigeon's every move, frequently seeming to catch up with the pigeon trying to nab him, jab him, tab him, grab him, but never quite getting more than the tip of a tailfeather.

From Blackfriars to Waterloo the birds shot, from north bank to south. Disappearing from sight for a few moments, they would dramatically reappear from above outside the gallery windows at King's Union. I, and other interested onlookers (ie, the kind person I was with who was too polite not to feign interest), watched the dramatic chase for a few minutes. The pursuit was lost to sight finally, but a flock of gulls reappeared shortly after, no pigeon among them, so I assume it escaped.

So, I am pleased to report that the pelicans and the gulls that have turned pigeon killers don't always have it their way. The escape of domestic pigeons has made this species perhaps the most widely distributed non-migratory species of bird, being populous among many cities, with plenty of places being famed for their large flocks. Descended from rock doves, although there are a variety of domestic forms (see the Jacobin breed in the pics), most feral versions have reverted to a rock dove shape with varied colour. They might be a pain sometimes, yes, and being crapped on one cannot be considered lucky, but none of their badness is their fault, they just do what comes naturally in the unnatural settings created by people with all the ideal nesting sites and plentiful discarded food. Talk of pigeons fouling the street occur in Mesopotamian scripts of 4000 years ago; and in classical Rome, large colonies were plundered as a source of fat young pigeons, squabs, for food. They are remarkable animals, adapting better than almost any other to the manmade environment.

One of the domestic pigeon's most famous skills is its ability to navigate home over great distances, up to 1000 km, of unknown terrain. This trait was used to great effect during various wars, when the birds were used to send messages from the frontlines, and a couple of pigeons have been awarded medals for their contributions to war efforts. A lesser known ability that people have claimed for pigeons is an ability to distinguish between impressionist and cubist paintings. In 1995, scientists encouraged a pigeon to sort artwork, after a little training, in which pigeons were rewarded with food for pecking at Picassos but given nothing for pecking at Monets, they soon only ever pecked at Picassos. When new paintings and other artists were included the pigeons could still distinguish between the two schools. And like the punchline to some appalling 1970s sitcom joke in which a dowdy conservative tries to get to grip with modern art, when the paintings were turned upside down, the pigeons didn't know what to do with the impressionist work, but continued to behave as ever with the cubist pictures.

Big up the pigeons!