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Earth Almanac

Tusk, Tusk
Winter’s Wildflower
Chirping and Chattering
Appealing Repellent
Yummy Butterflies
Hail Rail

 

Tusk, Tusk
In icy Arctic seas, walruses—one of the largest pinnipeds and the only surviving member of the family Odobenidae—have started their none-too-delicate courtship. The male, which can weigh as much as 3,850 pounds, will rest on the surface, buoyed by an inflated throat pouch that doubles as a life preserver and an amplifier for his booming love song. A penis bone called a baculum, the largest of any mammal, assists him with several impregnations a year. Most taxonomists recognize only two subspecies—the Pacific walrus, which has recovered from intense commercial exploitation during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the slightly smaller Atlantic walrus, still severely depressed. Assisted by highly sensitive whiskers called vibrissae, both subspecies feed on shrimp, crabs, tube worms, soft corals, tunicates, sea cucumbers, and various mollusks. But they do not, as previously supposed, employ their tusks to excavate prey. Instead, tusks—both sexes have them—are used to maintain holes in the ice and haul out onto it. Males also use them for fighting and display (the larger the tusks, the more dominant the male). A few males even use their tusks to kill and tear apart seals, thus supplementing their normal diet. Walruses spend about as much time resting on ice, rocks, and sand as they do in the water. And as the sun warms their drying bodies, blood—previously cut off to extremities—moves to their skin, turning it pink.

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Winter’s Wildflower
Contributing to scant evidence that “beauty improves with age” is tall thimbleweed, a buttercup relative found in most of eastern and central North America. The odorless white, green-centered blossoms that danced on foot-long stalks in mid- and late summer and the thimble-shaped fruits they produced in autumn are distant memories. Now the seedheads have transformed into striking, cottonlike masses that may last until early spring, gradually dispersing tiny seeds that sail away on winter winds. This adaptation probably accounts for the plant’s generic name, Anemone—from the Greek word for “wind.” Tall thimbleweed is easy to cultivate. It grows best along a wooded edge or in light shade, spreading rapidly in rich, moist soil, more slowly in poorer, drier habitat. The plant was used by Indians for treating whooping cough, tuberculosis, and diarrhea and for giving Iroquois men dreams, if not proof, that their wives had been faithful.

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Chirping and Chattering
Little birds with big attitudes, pygmy nuthatches seem to revel in winter’s icy blasts. While other birds are getting out of western North America, you’ll hear these garrulous sprites flitting about the tops of conifers, especially ponderosa pines, chipping, chirping, and chattering as they gorge on seeds. In southerly regions and warmer seasons they’ll circle tree trunks, gleaning spiders, insects, eggs, and pupae from bark crevices, and come readily to your yard for suet and sunflower seeds. They combat severe cold by lowering their body temperature and huddling together in tree cavities, sometimes in groups of 100 or more. In fact, no record exists of a pygmy nuthatch roosting alone. This sociability extends to the breeding season, when, for a large segment of the population, brood rearing becomes a community effort, with other birds—usually, but not always, male offspring from previous years—helping parents defend territory and feed their young.

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Appealing Repellent
Last summer you may have missed the tiny pink to lavender blossoms of the American beautyberry amid the profusion of wildflowers that brighten coastal plains, swamp edges, and bottomlands from Maryland to Florida and west to Texas and Arkansas. But now the spectacular purple clusters of berries stand out in bare winter woods. They look unnatural, almost as if they were molded from plastic and belonged on a table in a cheap diner. They’re edible, but people who have tried them find them insipid. Wildlife vehemently disagrees. The berries are relished (especially at this time of year, when other foods are scarce) by deer, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, wood rats, foxes, all manner of small rodents, and at least 40 bird species. If you find a remaining leaf, crush it and take a whiff. After you recoil from the vile odor, note that the chemicals that repelled you will also repel ticks and mosquitoes. Beautyberry is easy to grow and will attract birds in fall and winter as well as butterflies in summer. Clean the pulp from seeds by rubbing them with a paper towel, sprinkle them into a pot containing at least two inches of potting soil, then keep them moist. Birds will take care of future plantings.

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Yummy Butterflies
California tortoiseshells—those delicate and beautiful butterflies that filled the air last summer from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico west to the Pacific—seem the least likely of all candidates to burst forth upon the landscape in biblical plagues. But when nature conspires to limit such population controls as predation, they do just that, hatching in such profusion they become a hazard to motorists when their wings block vision and their bodies smear across windshields. Even bikers complain about tortoiseshells smashing into their chests and staining their glasses. Apart from this, however, California tortoiseshells do no damage. And now they feed winter’s ravenous wildlife. Draped from branches like ripe grapes for hundreds of acres, tortoiseshell pupae are feasted on by birds, bears, skunks, raccoons, opossums, and mice. On warm February days look for the first adults in chaparral, brush, open woods, and forest edges as they emerge from hibernation. If a new generation brings an irruption, you won’t see it until California lilacs (their larval food source) emerge.

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Hail Rail
“Doddering,” “clumsy,” and “crazy” are words commonly used to describe the American coot—and about as accurately as “wise” describes owls. This duck-sized rail—the only North American family member that feeds and migrates in large groups and that is fully adapted to aquatic life—is alternately known as “mud hen” because of the chickenlike way it bobs its head when swimming or walking. Now coots have left their northern breeding grounds and taken winter refuge from California to Florida. Far less secretive than other rails, they congregate, sometimes by the thousands, in open water, and they migrate in flocks. Coots don’t have webbed feet like ducks, geese, and gulls; instead their toes are equipped with lobes that splay out when they swim. And like loons, they have to flap and run along the surface to get airborne. It’s hard not to smile when a coot starts harassing other diving birds and stealing their food (usually tender plants but also snails, insects, small fish, and tadpoles). And it’s hard not to envision a street person when one brings up a clump of vegetation from the bottom of a pond or slow stream, then picks through it for edible items.

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