Tag Archives: nature

Of Pies and Birds

Bird pies, pied birds, and pie birds.

It all started when I wanted to do a full-on program on mute swans and swan upping. As it turns out, this was a weird idea, and maybe not suited for an actual mini-class that people would actually come to. I never did get enough material for a program, but I did keep turning up primary sources on a fairly bizarre historical food. Behold! A Mute Swan Pie.

Kitchen scene with fancy swan pie.

Kitchen Interior by David Teniers the Younger, 1644.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but take a minute, and really process this. In the back, there’s people roasting various birds on spits over a fire. There’s even more game birds, including teeny songbirds (Katherine, later: and a GREY PARTRIDGE!! They’re everywhere!), bottom left, probably also destined for their own pies. Various meats abound. The swan pie is right there, on the table, next to the red-skirted cook who’s peeling apples. It’s fancied up with a crown and flower garlands.

Sooo… what on Earth is with the swan pie? Well, the pie itself is the ancestor of pot pies. So, meat filling, and the crust is a lot thicker and tougher than our flaky pie crust is today, because it’s meant to seal in and support all that meat. People still make and eat meat pies of this sort in the UK. So, inside the elaborate crust is the roasted mute swan meat, in its own gelatin and drippings. Also, it’s decorated with its own severed wings and head, which, guessing from copious amounts of 17th Century paintings, was the fanciest possible way to cook and present a bird.

Turkey Pie

Turkey pie with a pink rose in its beak.

Still Life With a Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627.

 

Some Kind of Personal Small Bird Pie (Grey Partridge Perdix perdix ?? That’s my best guess.)

A picture representing February of a cook holding a tiny pie - what looks like a gray partridge pie I guess.

February by Joachim von Sandrart, 1642.

I think that the personal pie bird in question really looks like it’s a gray partridge. What do you think?

Gray partridge in snow.

By K.Pitk [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hmm. Gray neck and front. Speckled wings and tail. Rust colored face. Also, I’ve been looking at partridges long enough trying to figure out what that bird is that the word has started to look really weird. Partridge. Partridge.  P a r t r i d g e.  Gah! On to the next thing.

In addition to ending up inside pies, some birds are pied birds. Magpies, for example. Pied is an archaic word describing the pattern of having patches of different colors, usually black and white. The Eurasian Magpie is usually what people mean by magpie, and it’s easy to remember what it’s scientific name is, because it’s what Pikachu would say (although arguably misspelled.) Pica pica

Eurasian magpie on a fence

By Garry Knight (Flickr: Magpie on a Fence) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Pied Piper 

A street fair in Hamelin, Germany, with a bunch of kids dressed up as rats, and a pied piper guy.

The city of Hamelin, Germany still has all sorts of stuff commemorating the Pied Piper from folklore, or, creepily enough, maybe based on historical fact.

Healthy surplus kids getting sold to slave traders is not off the table in this case. Especially since the rat-catching bit seems to have been added a couple centuries later, and doesn’t show up in the original sources we have for this folktale… Check it out at this nifty archive of folktales. Well, that took a horribly grim turn. You know what will cheer everybody up? Ponies and linguistics! Yay!

 

Piebald Horse

An old picture of a piebald drum horse.

A piebald horse is a horse that is black and white. A skewbald horse is a horse that is any other color than black and white.

Stewball was a racehorse. No. Really. He was an actual horse. And he was probably a skewbald. Hence the name. Also, if you’ve never heard this word used for horse colors before, it’s because in North America, we generally use the Spanish-derived pinto (painted) to describe a white-splashed horse. Then the word bounced back to English, and we call them paint horses too. Lest you assume that the picture is one of those dusty crusty remains of the long lost past, nah, they still totally have ceremonial drum horses. What’s harder than playing a slide trombone? Playing a slide trombone on a horse.

The Pied Crow Corvus albus

A pied crow - black with a white belly - in a tree.

By Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These guys are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not to be confused with crow pie, of course. As we’ve seen already, it’s totally reasonable that the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie are literally an entire crow massacre cooked in their own juices in a pie. What a way to eat crow.

So, now that we’ve covered bird pies and pied birds, what about pie birds? If you made a totally sealed pie, with no holes cut in the top crust, the steam and pressure build up from cooking might cause a piesplosion. Or, less dramatically, at least soggy crust. To keep the steam from ruining your pie, you need to make sure the crust has a hole to let it out. Sure, it’s pretty easy to just cut holes in the crust, but, in true Victorian fashion, the people of the 19th Century weren’t going to leave it at that. A pie bird is a little ceramic piece shaped like a bird (usually with an open beak), and hollow, with an open bottom and top. You put the pie bird in your pie and poking up through the crust, to vent it. That’s it. Wikipedia has an article, but otherwise it’s hard to find more about the use of pie birds. We just don’t use pie birds much anymore. Instead, people collect them as prime examples of obscure consumer culture kitsch. Nothing quite like kitchen accessories that nobody really needs.

You Fight Like a Cow

Monkey Island notwithstanding, your life might just be better if you take “you fight like a cow” as a compliment. The truth of the matter is that – whatever Tennyson and the Victorians’ moralistic viewpoints – “nature red in tooth and claw” really mostly holds true only for predatory attacks on food animals in actual nature. Even then, few predators will attack prey with a mind to getting in a fight. After all, if your food stands a good chance of thrashing you in a fight, the predators won’t be around for long. An actual fight is just too risky. It’s not like there’s emergency veterinary hospitals in nature. Even a small cut could get infected and eventually kill you. A broken bone or chipped tooth could prove fatal if it means you can’t catch meals. As an aside, this is one of the major forces shaping the evolution of venom. The geographic cone snail has some of the most outrageously potent and fast-acting venom of any creature, purely because it’s a snail that eats fish. If a fish, once bitten, had any chance to run away or fight back, cone snails would have a very rough time just catching breakfast, let alone surviving it.

Given how much animals in the wild stand to lose from fighting, most will go to a lot of effort to avoid a fight in the first place. Lots of animals have specialized equipment – horns, antlers, ossicones, tusks, gill frills, song – specifically for settling disputes with other members of their own species in a way that keeps it from getting too violent too often. There’s a whole suite of behaviors that virtually all animals have to prevent fights in the first place and settle those that do occur as fast as possible.

Let’s talk about cattle. They actually have one of my favorite conflict sequences, and you can plainly see how cow disputes progress through several stages at each of which the parties have a chance to de-escalate the conflict, or decide to proceed to the next step.

The Official Cow Fight Procedure:

  1. Rival Cow Spotted!
    • If you know this cow, and you each know where you stand with each other, you’re cool, and both can back down now. If either has any doubts, proceed to step 2.
  2. Angry mooing.
    • Let the rival know you’re not happy about this incursion. If the rival responds with more angry mooing, and you don’t want to back down either, keep up the noise and proceed to step 3. Otherwise, if you get no response, the rival agrees to back down.
  3. Pawing of dirt to signal aggressive intent. 
    • If each cow is still prepared to get in a shoving contest, they’ll proceed to step 4.
  4. Standing sideways to each other to show off size.
    • If either individual decides that the other is too big to take on, they’ll just quiet down and walk away to eat grass. Otherwise, if both are convinced that they can take the other, proceed to step 5.
  5. Prepare to lock horns.
    • Both cattle lower their heads. This is the last chance to back down, and can be very brief.
  6. Shoving contest.
    • The rivals lock horns, or rest their heads against each other (if polled or hornless), and try to shove the other until one disengages and walks away.
  7. Resolution.
    • When one of the rivals backs down, it is possible to continue angry mooing, and allow the rival to angrily moo a bit to save face. If the issue isn’t settled, the cycle might repeat (but usually doesn’t) until the cattle can predict who will win the shoving contest and accept the results. Generally, just once is enough to settle the issue. Most of the time, cow fights don’t even get to step 6 at all before one of the rivals backs down.

You can watch the whole complicated sequence below, with these two Hereford bulls.

Switzerland has a whole sport based on introducing cows to each other in the Spring. The cows spend the Winter on their individual farms, but in the Spring, they get together again for the drive to alpine pastures. Of course the cows need to settle who’s top cow, and it was only a matter of time before people started painting numbers on their sides and setting up concession stands. Yes, these are actual cows, too, not bulls. Note udders. When a cow backs down, she’s removed from the ring until only one cow remains, and is crowned Queen of the Cow Thunderdome. Sorry: “Queen of Queens” technically, as the cow fighting is called the “combat de reines” or literally the “fight of queens.” Cows are Very Serious Business in Switzerland, in case you couldn’t tell.

These cows are all members of the Herens breed of cattle, and are selectively bred for cow fighting. Meet Penelope, a Queen of Queens.

Notice that nearly all of the Official Cow Fight steps are about communicating a problem and providing plenty of chances to back down. And if the other cow does, but they make a lot of noise about it, let them. It’s all just angry mooing.

Once everything’s settled, even Herens Queens are perfectly chill with each other, and pass their Summers in idyllic alpine meadows.

Plenty of other animals have an official fight procedure, like cows do, it’s just that in cows, it’s so clear and well-defined. There are plenty of videos of Complicated Cat Space Negotiations, for example. Just remember: if there’s video of it, someone found it interesting and exciting enough to record, so for all of these videos of cow fights, there’s lots and lots of cow fights that never happened. This is an example of selection bias – if you were to study how often cows fight, cow fight videos on YouTube would be junk data to draw on, because people are way more likely to record and post interesting video of cows fighting than the many, many allegedly boring instances of cows not fighting.

English Language: Bizarrely Precise Animal Vocabulary

As hinted at in the Amazing Mules post, due to some historical quirks, the English language has a truly ridiculous amount of incredibly specific words relating to animals. This goes light years beyond preschool “the Cow Goes Moo” stuff that everybody knows. In fact, most of this is so insanely, ludicrously exacting that you’re unlikely to ever use it or even know it, unless you take up a hobby related to the animal in question, in which case it falls under specialized jargon. Why learn it at all then? Because these words can reveal an awful lot about the history and society that produced them, and the people who need this vocabulary today. You’re not going to come up with and agree on an intricate vocabulary relating to, say, inducing a bird of prey to hork up a hairball made of its un-digestible prey remains – called casting, unless it’s really important. Rest assured, what you see here is just the very tip of the English animal terms iceberg.

Here’s your obvious LANGUAGE WARNING for the post: due to use as insults, some of these words have become “bad words” in modern English. I can’t censor anything, since the whole point is to learn the vocabulary.

 

Keep an Eye Out! It’s Historical Background!

There are a few processes at work here, as to why English has so many animal vocabulary words. Let’s look at four of them:

  1. Modern English is a constantly changing mishmash of several languages. At the time in which these animals were so important, the Normans were in power in England, and a lot of the courtly animal-terms were adopted from their language. This is especially obvious in the case of meat vs the animal it comes from. This is why it’s a quarter pound ground beef (beuf) burger, and not a quarter pound ground COW FLESH burger. As a contrasting example that proves the rule, this didn’t happen in the related language German, and that’s why in that language, pork is literally SWINE FLESH.
  2. (Highly ritualized) hunting was a foundation of medieval European society, and was a means of enforcing class dynamics. Proper use of the jargon separated the nobles from everyone else, and maintained the shape of society. There are several weird holdovers of this dynamic today, that we notice from the United States of America, where we jumped the tracks before a few key social changes in Britain, proper. There’s probably a whole post on this in the future, but, suffice to say in Britain hunting and hunting opposition is very much tied into class conflict, where here it isn’t so much. Robin Hood was outlawed for killing the King’s deer, but here everybody was eating venison to survive, and even today we just try to make a buck. Look for animals people probably hunted.
  3. Actual jargon. In the same way that we work with computers as a basic matter of keeping our society running, and therefore we have a bunch of highly technical terms for computers, what computers do, and parts of a computer, when everything ran on literal horsepower, there was a whole host of specialized horse terms. Look for animals people needed and lived closely with in their daily lives, or to do their jobs.
  4. The wanna-be brigade. For some of these animals, when they were beginning to be bred selectively in the 18th and 19th Centuries, people who participated in this dawning animal fancy wanted to make their hobby more respectable and legitimate by coming up with specialized vocabulary, to match the historical ones. Look for animals that were part of the selective breeding boom in the last 300 years, like cats.

 

Let’s Learn Some Really Precise Animal Terms in English:

Ankole Watusi cattle lying around in a field.

Ankole Watusi cattle in a field. My personal favorite breed of cattle. They’re a status symbol, a medium of exchange, and basically the cattle equivalent of a purse dog. Cows aren’t always about meat and milk.

The Cow Goes Moo!

The sound they make – low

Cows, as a species – cattle

A group of cattle – herd

Cattle-like – bovine

Baby – calf

Female, before first birth – heifer

Female, after giving birth – cow

Male, castrated – ox, steer

Male, adult and intact – bull

Female, born as part of a set of fraternal twins with a male calf, exposed to enough testosterone in the womb that she acts like a bull – freemartin (see what I mean about ridiculously specific?)

 

 

The Horse Goes Neigh!

The sound they make – neigh, whinny, snort, scream, nicker

Horses, as a species – horses

A group of horses – herd

A family group of feral horses – band

An all-male group of mostly unrelated feral horses – bachelor herd

Horse-like – equine

Baby – foal

Female, before puberty – filly

Female, after puberty – mare

Male, before puberty – colt

Male, castrated – geldling

Male, adult and intact – stallion, horse

Male, adult, and with an un-descended testicle – ridgling

 

The Ass / Donkey Goes Hee-Haw!

The sound they make – bray

Donkeys, as a species – donkeys, asses

Doney-like – asinine

A group of donkeys – herd

Baby – foal

Female, intact – jenny, jennet

Male, castrated – gelding

Male, adult and intact – jack

 

A small flock of sheep on a rainy day.

Sheep are also amazing. Shear them to get wool. The grease from the wool is highly prized lanolin, which is sold in high-end skin creams.

The Sheep Goes Baa!

The sound they make – baa

Sheep, as a species – sheep

Sheep-like – ovine

A group of sheep – herd

Baby – lamb

Female, intact – ewe

Male, castrated – wether (a wether won’t get your ewes preggers, or go aggro on the other sheep, and he’ll follow the herd wherever they go. They used to put bells on them, so that if you heard the belled wether, you’d know where the rest of the sheep were. That’s why the word for an individual that shows the direction that the rest are going, or where they are is BELLWETHER.)

Male, adult and intact – ram

 

The Whale Goes (cetacean vocal range extends from infrasound to ultrasound – good luck with figuring that out).

A group of whales – pod

Baby – calf

Female – cow

Male – bull

 

The Cat Goes Meow!

The sound they make – meow, hiss, caterwaul

Cats, as a species – cats

Cat-like – feline

A group of cats – clowder

Baby – kitten

Female, intact – queen

Male, castrated – gib

Male, adult and intact – tom

 

birds, flowers, and puppies silk scroll.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a human culture that doesn’t have dogs. The style of this Korean silk painting by Yi Am (Joseon Dynasty, first half of the 1500s) just makes them look even softer and cuter. PUPPIES!!

The Dog Goes Bark!

The sound they make – bark, howl, growl

The howling of a pack of hunting hounds on the trail of prey – bay

Dogs, as a species – dogs

Dog-like – canine

A group of dogs – pack

Baby – puppy

Female – bitch

Male – dog

 

The Falcon Goes Skreeee!

(Except they don’t, generally. The famous piercing scream used as a stock sound effect for birds of prey is actually very specific only to the Red Tailed Hawk, which isn’t even a falcon. Birds you’ve heard this used for, like Bald Eagles, actually make very different sounds – in their case, the Bald Eagle goes tseep eep-eeep eep eep … twitter-itter-itter-itter … twitter-itter … tseep eep.)

Falcons, as a group – falcons

Baby – eyas

Female – falcon

Male – tiercel (Male birds of prey are usually noticeably petite compared to the brawnier females, on average about 1/3 smaller. As such, the males are quicker, but the females generally take larger prey, and were the more favored birds to hunt with.)

 

 

The Chicken Goes Cluck!

The sound they make – cluck, cheep, crow

Chickens, as a species – chickens

A group of chickens – flock

Baby – chick, chicken

Female, adult – hen

Male, castrated – capon (Yes, this is a thing. Fun fact about puberty: the signal to stop the growth spurt, develop secondary sex characteristics, and put on muscle in male animals is sent by the testes. Some castrated male animals go through a growth spurt that never slams to a halt like this, since the signal never comes, and get bigger and fatter than they would have, until the rest of their hormonal system just kind of gives up on puberty and settles down. As the biggest, fattest, and most tender of chickenkind, as well as the fact that some surgery is required to make them, capons are pretty expensive. Check the specialty frozen meats in the store to see what I mean.)

Male, adult and intact – rooster, cock

 

ducks as far as the eye can see.

Although they’re not so common here, and therefore quite expensive, ducks are a hugely important livestock and eggs animal in other parts of the world.

The Duck Goes Quack!

The sound they make – quack

Ducks, as a species – ducks

A group of ducks – flock

Baby – duckling

Female – duck

Male – drake

 

The Goose Goes Honk!

The sound they make – honk, cackle

A group of geese – flock

Baby – gosling

Female – goose

Male – gander

 

The Swan Goes (…)

The sound they make – hiss, (there’s a reason they’re called Mute Swans)

A group of swans – flock

Baby – cygnet

Female – pen

Male – cob

 

What Does the Fox Say?

What does the fox say? – yip, yelp

Foxes, as a species – foxes

Fox-like – vulpine

Baby – kit

Female – vixen

Male – tom

 

Mistletoe

In the middle of Winter, in our temperate climate, you might not think there’s much nature to be seen. But, right now, with leaves off the deciduous trees, it’s the best time of the year to spot a freaky plant parasite of trees. Plants grow so slowly, that you might think they’re not very lively, or even boring. Look closer, though, and be patient, and you might see that plants are perfectly capable of as much drama and violence as animals are, if given enough time. From competition to chemical warfare, plants are actually fairly exciting, and this post is all about the most famous plant parasite of all.

Mistletoe is the common name of a family of related plants, the Santalaceae, nearly all of which are parasites of other plants, mostly trees. During the Summer, when their host trees are covered in leaves, you might not even know they’re there, but in Winter, the mistletoe growing on the tree is exposed, evergreen, when the rest of the tree is left bare. From a distance, mistletoe growing in a tree looks like this:

Green, bushy mistletoe in a bare tree.

By Lienhard Schulz (Own work) CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a little green bush, perched in the branches of a tree. How does it happen? Well, here in Kentucky, we mostly have Phoradendron leucarpum, which makes white berries.

Eastern white mistletoe berries.

By Joe Decruyenaere (originally posted to Flickr as 010408 080) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the berries are poisonous to mammals, birds love them, and eat them, pooping out the seeds on the branches of trees, and then the seeds germinate. The seeds sprout, but instead of making roots like other plants, they make a structure called a haustorium which penetrates and connects with the host plants’ vascular system through the bark, delivering nutritious sap to the mistletoe. These little green vampires continue to suck the sap of their hosts while also growing green leaves and stems, in the form of a bushy growth. Our mistletoe is capable of making its own sugars with sunlight energy, just like regular plants, to some extent, but it can’t make roots and instead literally taps into the host to get what it needs.

mistletoe on a branch, chillin' like a villain.

By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) Email the author: David R. Tribble Also see my personal gallery at Google Photos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few mistletoe bushes won’t hurt a healthy tree, but one that’s already sick could be killed by a very heavy infestation. Mistletoe bushes are just like plant leeches, if, instead of biting, a leech actually grafted itself to you, interconnecting your arteries with itself. I also just found out that some South African mistletoes – like Viscum minimum – don’t even go as far as to make a little bush. They don’t photosynthesize to any noticeable extent, living almost entirely inside their Euphorba succulent host, bursting out only to flower and set fruit.

Tiny Visicum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne?

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Look at those tiny Viscum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne? So cute, yet so creepy. Here’s the flowers:

Tiny Viscum minimum flowers.

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like Alien chestbursters, but permanently attached. And cute.

Have a safari in your own neighborhood this Winter. Look for mistletoe bushes. Notice birds – we’ve got different birds staying here in Winter, compared to Summer. Listen for Great Horned Owls staking out a territory. Even in Winter, nature never sleeps, and there’s wonders all around you, if you just keep aware of them. Including the weird tree-leeches known as mistletoe.

Amazing Mules

Mules are pretty amazing. In this very special LFPL Teen Blog post, we’ll explore key points of history and biology – as well as thorny ethical issues – all at the same time through the lens of these famous hybrid equines. (Language warning? Or something. It’s all clean in context, but we do need to talk extensively about donkeys, especially jacks.)

The Definition of a Species

A species is all of the living things that can make babies together, whose babies can also make babies without any problems like diminished fertility. That’s it. Easy, actually. That’s why a gray wolf and a toy poodle are members of the same species, even though they look so different. Wolfdogs are a thing, and absolutely can go on to have lots of puppies. Like so:

wolfdog with puppies.

By Venpia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Chinstrap Penguins (for example) and cabbages are not members of the same species, because they can’t make babies. That’s also why Chinstrap penguins are not the same species as Little Blue Penguins. Almost always, two species can’t interbreed at all, let alone produce living offspring. But sometimes, two species are close enough that they can produce healthy babies together, but those babies have trouble reproducing.

This brings us to equines (the horse family) and mules.

 

Introducing Mules

There are lots of equine hybrids, actually. You may have heard of mules, hinnies, and even zorses, but one of my favorite equine hybrids is the otherwise fairly rare and obscure zebroid stallion zebra X jenny donkey hybrid, called either a zedonk, a zebronky, a zonkey, or a zebrass.

a zebrass in tall grass. zebra-like leg stripes, upright mane, roundish ears, but a shaggy gray body coat.

By Whitney Carpenter. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Majestic! Stripes, upright mane, solid gray body coat, and all of the untamed aggression and cantankerousness of a zebra with a donkey’s thoughtful stubbornness, which is exactly why they’re fairly rare. There’s no demand for this animal, except as a curiosity. It certainly isn’t going to carry you or your luggage.

Mules, though, were wildly popular, and continue to be the most commonly bred equine hybrid. They’re reliable to breed, and generally have the best traits of both horses and donkeys. Horses are fast, but tend to panic. Donkeys are strong and sensible, but are usually smaller than horses. A mule (if you choose the parents wisely) can be in the size range of a horse, strong, fast, and sensible. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey, and a female horse. To make all this easier to understand without too much typing, here’s some basic terms!

Horses:

Baby horse – foal

Immature female horse – filly

Immature male horse – colt

Mature female horse – mare

Castrated male horse – gelding

Mature male horse – stallion/horse (We call all horses horses, even though technically it’s just the stallions that are horse horses. Just like we call all cows cows, even though it refers to specifically female cows, which is kind of redundant. Similarly to dogs: only male dogs are dog dogs. I’ll probably do a whole post on the English language and all our weird animal terms. Also, different breeds take different amounts of time to grow up, so the exact years in which a horse is a filly vs a mare or colt vs stallion can change, depending on the breed. Just like humans take different amounts of time to hit puberty or something. Some breeds are just late bloomers, or early ones, depending.)

 

Donkeys / Asses:

Baby donkey – foal

Female donkey – jennet / jenny

Male donkey – jack

Castrated male donkey – john / gelding

 

To get a mule, breed a mare to a jack. That’s much easier to say.

 

Mules

Baby mule – foal

Female mule – molly

Intact male mule (super rare – why put up with behavior issues if they’re sterile anyway?) – horse mule

Castrated male mule – john mule

 

The trick with mules is that most jacks are tiny, since most donkeys are also tiny. This is about average size for a regular donkey:

A woman walking next to a donkey, which stands maybe chest high at the shoulder.

By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Oromo Woman, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What if you want a big strong mule? There are also breeds of donkey that exist just for making mules with specific traits, like size, such as American Mammoth Jackstock (and, in the case of the Poitou Mule, a specialized breed of horse, too.) This is where stuff gets WEIRD.

 

The Famous Poitou Mule

In France over the 18th and 19th Centuries, mules were so important to agriculture that an entire breed of horse AND an entire breed of donkey were developed purely so that farmers could get large, strong mules to pull their farm equipment.

This is a Poitou Horse, or a Poitevin Mulassier (Poitou Mule-maker):

A poitou horse stallion.

By Poitou (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This one’s even a horse horse. A stallion. His literal only reason to exist is to look pretty at horse shows and produce mares who will produce mules. Historically, anything else a Poitou Horse could do (especially a horse horse), like pull carts or even provide meat, was just a nice bonus. This animal is effectively a living gene bank.

There’s also the Poitou Donkey, a giant-sized breed with a long shaggy coat. This is a jennet and her foal at a show:

A shaggy mother poitou donkey, and her baby in a parking lot at a show.

The foal is nearly as big as an adult regular-size donkey.

Again, since the jacks are the ones that people use to make mules, jennet Poitou donkeys are also living gene banks, like stallion Poitou horses.

So, that’s two breeds (each from a different species) of equine, each selected over time just for making mules. When you do breed a Poitou donkey jack to a Poitou horse mare, you get a gorgeous, versatile Poitou Mule:

a Poitou mule wearing a pack harness at a show.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

They’re beautiful, really. You can ride them:

A Poitou mule under saddle at a show.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You can drive them:

A pair of Poitou mules pulling a cart.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

They’re very photogenic:

Closeup of the face of a Poitou Mule.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tragically, though, farmers have moved on to tractors, rather than mules. Now, heavy breeds of horse and donkey are generally much less popular than they were in the past, and mules along with them. The Poitou mule exemplifies this trend: as breeders strive to redefine what their donkeys and horses can do, all three breeds – the Poitou Mule, the Poitou Donkey, and the Poitou Horse – are very rare. All that has to happen for mules to stop existing is for people to quit breeding them: their genetic bank exists not in the population of mules, since those don’t breed, but in the population of horse and donkeys. Since DNA degrades over time, the best way to keep genes available is to keep the population that carries them going. But, even if you could straight resurrect members of extinct species Jurassic Park -style, in the end, that just sets up another pile of problems, and maybe not the kind of ethical dilemmas you might anticipate…

 

The Ballad of Idaho Gem / Idaho Star / Utah Pioneer

The setup: cutting-edge science, a wealthy entrepreneur who will “spare no expense” in pursuit of his passion, and a potentially lucrative payoff. This story isn’t a novel or a movie about what could happen with cloning technology. It’s about what did happen, over a decade ago, with the first batch of cloned equines.

Don Jacklin, the President of the American Mule Racing Association, wanted a way to reproduce his best racing mule. Since mules are sterile, this meant enlisting the aid of a crack team of equine reproduction scientists and veterinarians, and cloning his champion mule. Idaho Gem, Idaho Star, and Utah Pioneer were the genetically identical results of this successful quest to clone the first equine. Technically, due to being born first, Idaho Gem was the official first equine clone.

So, as clones of a champion racing mule, did the three duplicates go on to dominate the sport? Interestingly, no. Idaho Star apparently never was that into running, Utah Pioneer remains an educational exhibit entertaining schoolkids, and Idaho Gem – although good at racing – didn’t live up to Jacklin’s expectations as a champion. He eventually retrained for gymkhana.

I guess it makes sense, really, that clones of the original aren’t like the original exactly. After all, the three cloned mules are effectively identical triplets of each other, and identical siblings can be very different from each other in all sorts of ways, including personality.

Genetics literally isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t destiny.

Image Gallery

In my quest to provide you only the best of content, I frequently raid Wikimedia Commons – the free-use image archive from which Wikipedia gets its pictures – to complete my posts. When I need a picture of something crazy, like a Javan Chevrotain, or a fancy coconut chalice, that’s where I go. The point is, I look at a LOT of images, to pick the best ones. Sometimes, I stumble across images that are so amazingly great, that I can’t forget them, even if they can’t be used for the post I’m writing. It would be a shame to let them fade into obscurity, and I just have to share some of them with you. You’re welcome. (Since I’m finding crazy images all the time, this will probably become the first of a series, too!)

 

A Snuggle of Honduran White Bats

Four white tent bats snuggle up under a leaf.

By Leyo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ch (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ch/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ectophylla alba, the Honduran White Bat, or the Honduran Tent Bat, is a species of bat that roosts, not in caves or hollow trees, but underneath large leaves, like those of banana plants. They nibble through the ribs of the leaves, to cause them to droop over in a tent, sheltering the small colony of bats from the weather. Their stark white fur also acts as camouflage, as sunlight filtering through the leaves tints the bats a matching green. This picture shows a colony of four bats all snuggled up together to sleep under their leaf tent during the day. You can even see the bite marks along either side of the leaf spine. These bats are incredibly cute. “Snuggle” should obviously be the collective noun for a group of roosting bats.

 

The Monowheel Driver

Smug man in a hat on a monowheel, which is a motorcycle that has only one wheel, but instead of the engine and driver sitting over the wheel, they sit INSIDE a really large single wheel.

Look at that smug expression. I think I’d be that smug too, if I had a monowheel motorcycle.

I love everything about this picture. The boots, the hat, the diesel-punk aesthetic of the technology (except this actually happened in real life). The fact that it’s a monowheel. A monowheel is like a motorized unicycle, but instead of you sitting ON the engine and wheel, you sit on the engine, INSIDE the one giant wheel. The engine ratchets you around the rail inside the wheel, and your gravity keeps the whole machine moving forward. Don’t ask what happens if the wheel gets stuck in the mud or something. I love the nonplussed bystanders, just out of focus in the background. Most of all, though, I love the smugness on the driver’s face. The “you know you want this monowheel” look in the eyes.

 

Cry ‘Havoc’! and Let Slip the CATS OF WAR!!

It's a painted wall scroll. Of a samurai in black armor with kitty ears on the helmet, walking a cat - who also is wearing armor, on a leash.

I’m speechless.

What. What is even happening here. This is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen. It’s a painted scroll of a warrior, in armor, walking a cat on a leash. Yet, if you take the time to look at the details, it only gets weirder. The cat has its own tiny suit of brigandine armor. Cats are not known for their ability to either leash train or wear clothes. The warrior’s helmet has cat ears on it. I love the kind of put-out expression, and the dainty hold on the leash. Why isn’t he wearing shoes? Who is this? Is this some sort of edgy and topical sociopolitical commentary of the mid 1600s? Or… are we to believe that war cats were a thing in the Sengoku Era? Did some warrior of that time have a cat… theme… going on? If so, who? Did Japan’s fascination with cat people start way earlier than anime would have us believe??!? So many questions. Almost no answers.

Teddy Bear Cholla

Sometimes, names are abject liars, and something that sounds harmless, or actually cute can be horrible. Probably the mascot of all things so much worse than they sound is the downright adorably-named Teddy Bear Cholla ( Cylindropuntia bigelovii ). Even the scientific name of this vegetable horror sounds cute: bigelovii. D’awwww.

Here’s a patch of them:

a patch of teddy bear cholla looking chubby and cute.

By Homer Edward Price (Teddy-Bear-Chollas-c Uploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I mean, they even look sort of cute. Nubby and chubby and maybe plush and fuzzy. But it’s not fuzz. It gets worse.

It’s wicked sharp needles.

Closeup of teddy bear cholla needles. Sharp.

Stan Shebs [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ouch. But wait, it gets even worse. The needles have tiny serrated edges, so that like a harpoon head, once they stick, they’re hard to pull out. By which I mean an entire chunk of cactus is now stuck to you by its spines. Cholla segments are very weakly attached to the rest of the cactus and they break off at the slightest touch.

Teddy Bear Chollas reproduce primarily through this process of harpooning and hitching rides on unfortunate animals, who transport the chunks to new locations until they can finally work the spines out. The cactus chunks can take root where they land, and a new Teddy Bear Cholla is born. They also flower and produce fruit with seeds in it though.

cup-shaped teddy bear cholla blooms.

Quite pretty flowers, actually.

Teddy Bear Chollas, like many plants, can reproduce either sexually (with flowers and pollination) or asexually (cloning via pieces of the plant taking root). Cloning is much faster and more effective, but all the plants that root from pieces of a mother plant are genetically the same, and so all of them share the same vulnerabilities. That’s why genetic diversity in a species is so important. The more different versions of genes are available, the more chances there are to resist any one disease or other threat.

Like So:

A drawing of a patch of cholla, where most are one type, but there's two that don't match the rest.

A Wild Cholla Patch Appears! Most are clones of the mother plant, but a few are from seeds, and have other genes mixed in.

the mother and clones are killed, leaving the different two cholla.

Although the parasite kills the mother plant and the clones, which were vulnerable to it, it doesn’t get the others.

Cholla patch with a mix of the two surviving cholla plants.

And the cholla keep on spreading mostly by cloning, but sometimes by seeds.

Teddy Bear Cholla are very good at spearing and spreading.

Cholla patch spreading out into the far distance.

By Jack Dykinga [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a (mostly) clone army, stretching out to the far horizon. They feel no remorse or compassion. They know no mercy. Their numberless children are bred on blood and agony… Dang.

Teddy Bear Cholla are METAL.

Fortunately, we live outside their natural range. But, anyway, if you go to the desert Southwest of North America, keep an eye on the Cholla.

Look at the Sky

Seriously, look up once in a while. The sky can tell you all about what the weather is doing, or even WILL do, later that day or tomorrow. Here’s some tips!

Clear Blue Sky (No Haze or Clouds)

Is really rare in Louisville, KY. We swelter in a humid continental climate, on a large river. Enjoy this nice picture of a cloudless desert landscape, instead.

A teddy bear cholla patch. And now you have a hint at an upcoming post!

By Ciar (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A totally clear sky like this means that there’s so little moisture in the atmosphere that clouds can’t form. It probably won’t rain for a while, since water vapor has to move in before that can happen.

 

Cirrus Clouds

Indicate that a mass of moist air is moving back in, and rain or snow might be possible soon.

Wispy thin cirrus clouds.

By Ron Clausen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61703893

Remember: “Mare’s tails and mackerel scales mean rain in three days.”

 

Haze

City haze on main street, Louisville, KY.

There we go. That’s weather we’re all familiar with.

When it’s hazy, it means that there’s a layer of warmer air trapping air pollution and humidity close to the ground. If this inversion is strong, it will prevent clouds from developing. If clouds manage to punch through it, storms could be strong. If you see haze, it probably won’t rain, but if it does, it will storm.

 

Fair Weather Cumulus

Fair weather cumulus clouds - fluffy and flattened, as if confined by invisible panes of glass on top and bottom.

By Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA (Prairie Walk (2)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These clouds in an otherwise clear sky mean that there’s convection going on, and enough water vapor in the air to form clouds. However, the air pressure is too high, or the convection too weak to really build up. If you see these early in the morning, it might rain later, but if they’re about in the afternoon, it’s going to continue to be nice for a while.

 

Cumulus Congestus

And now the clouds are starting to pile up.

Big, intimidating cumulus congestus clouds, towering above the trees.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101225

If you see these before noon, someone’s in for a soggy evening.

 

Thunderstorm (Cumulonimbus)

A big thunderstorm cloud with a characteristic flat anvil-like top.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100357

A column of convection so strong that it piles up high enough to splash flat against into layer of hot stable air of the stratosphere is certainly a thunderstorm. Always be aware of clouds like this with flat “anvil” tops: they’re the towering monsters of the sky, multiple times bigger than other cumulus clouds, and capable of producing severe weather like hail, tornadoes, and flooding.

And now you know some of what the sky can tell you about the upcoming weather. Keep an eye out, and it might just come in handy!

 

Weird and Rare Clouds

Although the following clouds are unusual or rare where we live, they are really cool, and that’s worth something by itself.

 

Fallstreak Hole

Fallstreak hole in a cloud with ice crystals raining out.

By Pfranson – Taken by Paul Franson in Warr Acres, Oklahoma with a Casio EZ-Z1050 Previously published: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pfranson365/4238892215/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27741283

This can happen when clouds made of water vapor are just on the point of freezing into ice crystals. When some of the water vapor freezes and clumps together, it snows out of the cloud layer, leaving a hole in the cloud.

 

Lenticular Clouds

When air pressure drops abruptly (as when wind flows around mountains), layered, lens-shaped clouds like these can form.

Lenticular clouds looking like a stack of pancakes over a mountain range.

By Alpsdake – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16399555

 

Roll Clouds

Are clouds that occur when a wave propagates in otherwise still air on the verge of being able to make clouds. The low-pressure pocket travels through the air, made visible as a cloud that seems to slowly roll through the air. Gliders and birds can “surf” the atmospheric wave for long distances. There’s a very reliable roll cloud called the Morning Glory that propagates on the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia. No pictures, because pictures really don’t do it justice.

3 of the Coolest Names on Earth

Beyoncé’s Horsefly

Beyonce's horsefly specimen.

By Erick (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific name – Scaptia beyonceae – is an excellent example of how species can be discovered after lurking in archives or museum collections for decades or even centuries. Although it was collected in 1981, this Australian horsefly specimen was discovered in 2012 on closer inspection to be unique enough to warrant its own brand new species, and the researcher decided to honor pop icon Beyoncé with the name of this shiny gold diva among horseflies. After some media buzz, the rare fly is now famous enough to bear her name as a common name as well: Beyoncé’s Horsefly.

 

The Destroying Angel

Destroying Angel mushroom.

Destroying Angel mushroom.

Anything whose name has a “The” before it has got to be pretty boss, and this mushroom has just about the most intimidating name of any living thing – and with good reason. If you’ve ever been told (and you ARE being told right now) to NEVER eat wild mushrooms, the Destroying Angel and its relatives are the reason why. Insidiously, at some stages of growth, they are look-alikes for perfectly edible mushrooms. Even worse, if you eat them, symptoms don’t show up for hours afterwards, and then you might feel better the next day – only to die from liver failure. The only hope is prompt medical treatment, which can involve a liver transplant. Even so, most people poisoned by the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) and its relatives die of it. Read these case summaries of a poisoning outbreak in California in 2016. And that’s successful treatment. Yikes. (By the way, if you’re struggling with medical jargon, “cerebral edema and permanent neurological impairment” means “skull filled up with fluid squeezing the brain so hard it caused permanent damage.”) For safety’s sake, leave wild mushrooms alone.

Javan Chevrotain

Javan Chevrotain, or mouse deer, male with fangs.

By Sakurai Midori (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

On a much lighter note, this is one of my favorite creatures, purely because its name is so much fun to say. Chevrotain. Shev-ro-tayn. Shev-ro-tayn.  Javan Chevrotain. Sssheeeeevrotayn. It’s the best thing. Chevrotains are also known as mouse-deer, although they’re not mice at all, and are much closer to very small deer, like the size of your cat. None of them have horns or antlers. Oh, and some of them have fangs. Mouse-deer also have some of the best names in general. The Javan Chevrotain’s scientific name is Tragulus javanicus, which sounds like a spell in Harry Potter, but is actual latin. Chevrotains comprise the Family Tragulidae, and are artiodactyl (even-numbered-hooves on each foot) ungulates (mammals with hooves).

The Javan Chevrotain, Tragulus javanicus, an artiodactyl ungulate in the Family Tragulinae. Here’s one browsing in the forest, competing with quail, and at least one junglefowl: the ancestor of chickens. Tiny, fanged jungle deer.

Duck Duck Goose

The ducks and geese have paired up for the spring, and you know that this means! Goose attacks are going to be pretty likely. Don’t get Tyrannosaurus rek’d by a goose. They can be very aggressive, especially when nesting.

goslings

If you can see these, the parents aren’t far behind…

An adult goose can weigh 15 lbs, so be careful.

As for the ducks, here’s a fun experiment to try. Go look at some mallard ducks. You can find them in parks with ponds, or other places near water. Usually, the males have green heads. Compare the number of males (drakes) to the females (ducks). Notice anything unusual? I’ll hide what you’ll probably find out in this bracket, in white text. Click and drag between the brackets to reveal the spoilers. [ There will probably be more drakes than ducks, by a pretty large margin. ] Weird, huh. Why do you think that is? Click and drag for the answer.

[ Females sit on the nest and are more vulnerable to predators, which probably leads to to the sex imbalance. Birds have a similar sex determination system to us mammals, so you can assume that there’s an even number of male and female ducklings hatched. ]

And that’s not all the duck weirdness going on. If you saw the ducks at just the right time, in mid-summer, you might not have noticed any drakes at all. Ducks moult completely, losing all their feathers, and, while they grow back in, they’re flightless, and very shy. Right after this, and before growing in their breeding plumage for the fall, the drakes’ feathers come in looking just like a duck. This brief, non-breeding plumage is called eclipse plumage. The only way to tell while the males are in eclipse is that male mallard ducks’ bills are yellowy or olive, not orange-y black.

drake/duck pair

This is a drake/duck pair of ducks. The drake is the one with the green head.

drake in eclipse

This is actually a drake mallard, disguised as a ladytypes duck, which are supposed to be camouflaged against predators anyway.

If you want to take your bird-observing to the next level, check out the Bird Guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or, check out a handy, portable, and comprehensive identification key from the library. Ducks are really odd, actually. If you want to do more than dabble in a different sort of dabblers, read this book for a deep dive into the wood ducks, the most fabulous of all ducks. Ducks and geese hatch ready to follow the parents around, and start life out with a leap from the nest. Watch hooded merganser ducklings take the plunge.

Happy duck-watching!