Sunday, January 30, 2011

The price of gold

Here's a lovely and common bird. The American goldfinch is a true North American. Some breed in southern Canada and winter in the southern U.S., others live year round in the central States and northern Mexico.

   They do well in human-dominated landscapes, but I bet many non-birders have never seen one despite the male's bright breeding plumage. Birds go about all kinds of business under our noses. Even keen birders miss them. If you don't know what to look for, or you're just not looking, the rarest of creatures could fly by and never be noted.

Goldfinches are relatively common, so keep your eyes peeled.

That attention-grabbing plumage comes at a price. 

   It's long been know by biologists that lush colours in birds and other animals represent fitness to potential mates. In other words, the stunning bumble bee combination of this goldfinch, says to the more drably coloured female 'hey, my genes are good, if you were thinking of laying some eggs, I'd be your guy.' 

   The idea is that to have such a display, the creature must maintain a good diet to get the nutrients to produce the colour. In other words, a good provider. Additionally, such a brightly coloured animal must be clever enough to evade predators despite wearing what amounts to a high vis. vest. This is the theory of sexual selection. It has lead to the evolution of fantastic colours and bizarre appendages in a wide variety of animals.

Interestingly, the dietary aspect of the theory wasn't tested until 2003 when scientists from Cornell University restricted the food available to a male American goldfinch. They found less carotenoids in the birds' blood and eventually grew rather drab feathers.

In our diet, carotenoids can be found in bright orange and yellow fruits and vegetables and also contribute to human health in many ways.

So, theory proven. Hopefully those hungry little goldfinches got fattened up and returned to their glorious hue after their service to evolutionary science.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ghost story

Everyone’s had this experience.

You learn of something for the first time – a new word, or food, or person you’ve never heard of before.

Then it starts popping up everywhere. In the Saturday restaurant review, in a conversation overheard on the bus. You wonder how you were in the dark for so long.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily talking about a new trend. More like something that somehow never hit your radar.

This happened to me with Indian pipe last summer.

This is one of those oddball plants that aren’t really plants. And I’ll admit, I’m not as attentive to the flora of the Island as I could be. The same way I neglect poetry in my literary explorations.

Still, you’d think this freaky, not-quite-a-plant-thing might have come to my attention sooner.

Let’s back up a bit.

I’ve explored the forests of Vancouver Island for nearly 15 years, often in the company of people who do possess a body of botanical knowledge I can only envy.

Yet, the first time I observed Monotropa uniflora (notice how smoothly I slipped in that Latin name) was this summer, reading another nature blog.

Just a couple of weeks later, I was climbing up Mount Galiano and there it was. Ghostly, white nodding pipes. More like a mushroom than a plant. Definitely Indian pipe alternately known as ghost flower, ice plant or corpse plant.

Indian pipe is neither a plant nor a fungi. It's a parasitic myco-heterotroph.

Yikes, what does that mean?

Fungi that are in a mutually beneficial relationship with tree roots act as hosts for this organism that uses hormones to steal the tree's sugars from the fungi.

It does not photosynthesize, as all plants do. The leaf like structures are vestigial, from the days before this plant came up with an easier way to harness the sun's energy than photosynthesizing itself.

The Salish people called Indian pipe wolf's urine because they found it growing wherever wolves marked their territories.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bird stories

Before I ran off to sell Christmas trees, I had two bird articles published. One was about the Christmas Bird Count in Victoria.

And the other, about hummingbird banding, appeared in the University of Victoria alumni magazine Torch.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Oh Christmas Tree

I know, I've done it again. Promised to return to regular blogging then disappeared. Not health this time, nope, I'm feeling much better. Amazing what adequate oxygen levels do.

No, this time, I was absent due to the need to make a living. I returned to my old standby, flogging Christmas trees. Now, anyone who knows me knows I'm not really a Christmas person. For some reason though, I've always enjoyed working Christmas tree lots – something I did for the first time 19 years ago in Winnipeg.

I guess it's a way of being part of the season that's less painful for me than say shopping, or hosting a dinner for 10. Or maybe it's because I love working outside, doing physical labour and having something tangible to show for my efforts (like cash).

Whatever it is, it's set me up for another few months of the freelance life, and that should mean time to blog, which also produces something tangible.

Happy 2011 everyone.