Too hot to handle?

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Although echidnas are pretty common, I’ve rarely seen seen them in Berowra.  So when I saw this one flopped out in the neighbours’ front yard on my sweaty walk home from work yesterday – ambient temperature in the mid 20s even at 7pm – I was worried.  Were echidnas, like fruit bats and stingless bees, troubled by temperature extremes?  Had this one been driven from its usual secluded haunts by this horrid heat wave?  Should I be on the blower to WIRES?

A cursory google did not inspire confidence.  Wikipedia notes that echidnas don’t sweat (in fact, they don’t pant, lick, or even wee on themselves and flap their wings to cool off either) and suggests that they “cannot deal with heat well“.  WIRES agrees that echidnas “cannot tolerate temperatures above 30 degrees“.

Notwithstanding, this seemed to be a very sprightly monotreme.  Most of the echidnas I’ve met have more or less fixed this position:

This beastie, however, was very busy, ignoring me and rummaging around in the flowerbeds.  Could it really be in trouble?  I decided, for the moment, that human intervention wasn’t necessary and then went home to check whether I’d just made a stupid decision.  Should I trust Wikipedia or my instincts?

I hit pay dirt when I found “Thermoregulation by Monotremes” by Queensland’s “Mr Hot Echidna”, Peter Brice.  As a researcher who has devoted time to  inserting “calibrated temperature sensitive radio-transmitters … coated with a smooth layer of inert wax… into the abdominal cavities of echidnas” (Brice et al 2002), he’s your go-to guy on this topic.

Niche subject as it might seem, the way echidnas and platypuses manage their body temperature has played an interesting role in propping up a hierarchical, human-centred view of evolution.  You’ve heard the story before, I’m sure. From this viewpoint, animals whose bodies are set up differently to us fancy-pants “classic mammals” are viewed as “primitive”.  Early twentieth century researchers decided that, for instance, that playpus had “an inadequate regulating mechanism” when after only 17 minutes at 35 degree temperatures, their research subject  “turned onto its back and fainted” (Brice, 2009, 260).  A poignant tale and the sort of thing that led one early twentieth century researcher to conclude that monotremes were “‘the lowest in the scale of warm-blooded animals’” (Brice, 2009, 256)

Don’t get me wrong, echidnas are very weird animals.  And that’s leaving aside the egg laying mammal business and the once-venomous spurs in their backwards facing hind legs.

Echidnas are cool. 31 degrees counts as a “normal” body temperature for them, though only females incubating eggs really keep their temperatures steady for long.  They seem to occupy a half-way house between warm blooded and “cold blooded” animals.  Echidnas don’t entirely rely on their surrounding environment to warm themselves as reptiles – ectotherms – do.  But unlike us humans – homeothermic endotherms – with our tedious need for a stable and predictable body temperature – echidnas can run hot or cold.

Just when you thought we were all “thermed”-out, you find that echidnas are also constitutional eurytherms – they can handle wide range of temperatures – and facultative endotherms – they warm their bodies up, in part, by doing stuff.

Echidnas also hibernate – well, some of them do, if they’ve eaten enough by the time the cold weather rolls in. But their hibernation, or its timing at least is, according to Brice (2009, 257) “distinctly odd”.  They often kip out during the late summer and then wake up to mate at coldest part of the year.  And they can deal with fluctuating temperatures in a way I can only envy – for instance, after a chilly night, they can dig their way out of shelter with their blood temperature of only twenty degrees.  With no bedsocks.

And they can also deal with a day spent in a hollow log at 40 degrees C without expiring from the heat, though no one knows exactly how.

We shouldn’t seeing echidnas and their wildly fluctuating temperatures as primitive, I reckon. Instead we should admire the way these critters harbour resources with their furry but weirdly chilly bodies, helping them live above the snowline in the Alps, in the desert and even on the sizzling streets of deepest surburbia.

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Echidna, close up and personal

References

Brice, Peter H. (2009) “Thermoregulation in monotremes: riddles in a mosaic” Australian Journal of Zoology, 2009, 57, 255–263

Brice, Peter H., Gordon C. Grigg, Lyn A. Beard, Janette A. Donovan (2002) “Heat tolerance of short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) in the field” Journal of Thermal Biology 27(6), 449-57

Thinking like a bird

One of the things I love about my regular walk to the the train station is the chance to check out the critters’ daily routines while I’m in the midst of mine.  I’m an everyday intruder, just passing through.  Through the carpark behind the panel beaters’ shed where the glossy black cockatoos do their acrobatics.   Over the slimy patch on the footpath that used to lure eastern waterdragons out to play chicken in the traffic (I stress “used to”. Sad face). Past the carefully tended brush turkey mound in the scrub by the library and round the the blind corner where butcherbirds find their roadkill.  So far I’ve never seen them pecking at the flattened remains of kids on skateboards but I worry.

I was trudging home a few months ago, when there was a kerfuffle in the shrubbery that even the most self-absorbed commuter couldn’t ignore. An aggravated bird was repeatedly hurling herself at an invisible enemy, and making a tremendous din.  I spotted a tail sliding behind the trunk of a halfway up a tree – was it a goanna? a snake?  No, a brush-tailed possum, having a late afternoon snack in a grey butcherbird’s nest. Mum was willing to fight for her eggs to her last breath.  I don’t have any pictures of the stramash, unfortunately, despite roaming around Berowra most days like some bumbling stalker, a chunky camera swinging around my neck.

However, I feel a bit less sheepish about my amateur-hour suburban birdwatching – and a little less clueless about butcherbirds – after  reading Gisela Kaplan’s fascinating book Bird Minds (CSIRO, 2015) this week.

Butcherbird in near silhouette crop

Grey butcherbird makes a rare appearance in the backyard

Bird Minds considers most aspects of avian cognition – social learning, mimicry, tool use, play, abstract thought and emotion  – with a particular focus on the locals.  This, as Kaplan points out, is no mean feat.  Aussie natives are under-discussed in the world of scholarly ornithology, it seems.  She tells (with secret delight, I reckon) how the international community were forced to reluctantly accept that songbirds evolved in the part of Gondwanaland that came to be Australia, overturning 200 years of northern hemisphere prejudice.  The oldest songbird fossil ever found came from here, and recently the discovery of heron footprints from the Cretaceous Era in southern Victoria showed that birds and those other, non-avian dinosaurs cohabited this part of the world, at least, for millions of years.

So, as well as summarising the work of researchers from around the globe, to fill the gap in the published research on Australian natives, Kaplan draws on anecdotes from bird watchers (like the amazing tales of fire-starting black kites that have done the rounds in the papers lately) and her own experience of studying, observing and hand-rearing birds over the decades.  My particular favourite is her story of the adopted 75 year old galah who liked to summon all four household dogs by name in a passable impression of Kaplan’s voice just for the fun of bossing them around.  Every week.  It’s this kind of jolly jape that keeps a bird young.

Galahs in the rain crop

Pair of galahs

Butcherbirds are just the type of birds that Kaplan is interested in, although her own research for the last 25 years has been on another member of the Artamidae family, the Australian magpie.  Currawongs, butcherbirds and magpies, like many other Australian natives, don’t fit a northern hemisphere perspective on avian lives.  Grey butcherbirds are wonderful mellifluous singers, for example (though their tunes are less feted than the improvisational outpourings of the pied butcherbird).  But their carolling doesn’t fit the familiar songbird story.

Kaplan points out, for instance, that while northern hemisphere songbirds are most vocal during the breeding season, the Australian bush is often quietest at that time.  Amongst the much studied birds of high latitudes, males sing as part of a courting display.  In comparison, she observes, “Australian species often seem rather ‘egalitarian’ “.  For many Aussie birds, including butcherbirds “there is often no difference in the song between male and female, no marked difference in plumage or size, brooding and feeding of youngsters and defence” (Kaplan 2015 114).  I have to confess, this whole line of argument really appeals to me.

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Magpie in spring

I also get sneaky pleasure at Kaplan’s observations about the cleverness of Australian birds.  Smarts, she suggests, are one strategy for coping with harsh environments and unreliable climatic conditions.  The humble budgie, a desert dweller, for instance, has one of the largest bird brains for its size, along with Cape York’s palm cockatoo, a formidable tool user.  These clever cockies select, shape and stash particularly excellent sticks, some to use as percussion instruments and others to improve nest-hole drainage.  Behavioural flexibility is a sign of sophisticated thinking: I guess musician cum plumber fits that bill quite nicely.  Birds like this, Kaplan thinks, playful, inquisitive and social, fill the ecological niche of monkeys in an Antipodean environment.

Australian birds often live much longer lives than their northern hemisphere equivalents. Permanent pair bonding means that galahs, for instance, or sulphur crested cockatoos may end up in a 60 year partnership.  Kaplan suggests that these long-term pairings require social nous and a sophisticated communication repertoire.  Forget relationship counselling, it could be time to take advice from the local cockies!

Young Australian birds are also likely to spend a long time hanging around with their parents learning the ropes – an extra year for grey butcherbirds, as much as four for white-winged choughs. Which explains the whiny teenagers I’ve been hearing everywhere lately.

It’s hilarious watching great hulking juvenile wattlebirds, indistinguishable from adults to my untrained eye, sitting in the Japanese maple tree out back, calling plaintively and endlessly for parental attention until someone hops up and gives them a lerp.  And last week on the way home, as I passed Butcherbird Corner, I heard the sounds of a youngster calling out that all-too-familiar refrain: “Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum!”.  It drives me mad when my kids do it, but on this occasion, pester-power put a smile on my face.  The lumbering youngster was a survivor of the Possum Bloodbath of 2015, demanding quality time (and a take-away) from its weary parent.

The youngbloods may hang around with mum and dad for ages, but they do get off the couch and help with the housework.  Raising your chicks with the help of older siblings and even unrelated adults – “cooperative breeding” – is surprisingly common in Australia, in comparison to elsewhere. If refraining from tearing your life-partner limb from limb with your own beak during the course of 60 years together is a challenge to a bird’s emotional control, how much more so is long-term living with the extended family?

This is an idea that Kaplan toys with throughout the book – that “negotiated living” might  “require… changes in powers of perception: a watchful eye, powers of observation and careful scrutiny of others… watching others means awareness of others and such habits can change from behaviour reading into mind reading” (Kaplan 2015 122).  Complex social lives go along with complex minds.

I rather enjoyed the sly dig at northern hemisphere birds (they sound nice, but could well be dim) that runs alongside Kaplan’s argument for the evolutionary value of cooperation.

in the competitive mode, learning (in males) is for a well-rehearsed performance: an Eistedfodd of dance or song. In the cooperative model, learning is for communication (Kaplan 2015 119)

Old leftie that I am, I can’t help liking the idea that cooperation, “egalitarianism” of the sexes and general smarts go along together.

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Long billed corellas giving me a funny look

I can’t vouch for the rigor of Kaplan’s science, but I loved reading her stories of the cleverness of Australian birds – their “versatility, resourcefulness, complex social and individual problem solving abilities” (Kaplan, 2015, 193).  Reading Bird Minds has given me plenty to look out for as I make my workaday way through the suburban territory we share.

My little herders

We have egg-quilibrium! After a long six months, the eggs produced by the household finally balance out the eggs consumed. At last we can egg-xit the dodgy “free range” aisle of the supermarket (okay, I’ll stop now).
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If we were serious survivalists this would be a tremendous day.  There’s nothing like a sorrel quiche to ring the changes from sorrel soup; sorrel and jerusalem artichoke stirfry and sorrel, mustard and parsley salad.  And lemons.  Lots and lots of lemons.  We’d be hungry but we certainly wouldn’t get scurvy.
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To what do we owe this embarrassment of eggs?  The days are getting longer and chickens do have that proto-third eye (okay pineal gland, but it has photoreceptors) inside their noggins to detect that kind of thing.  But with snow at the Queensland border and  the coldest spell of weather in Sydney for the better part of twenty years, it’s not like spring has convincingly sprung.

My theory is that the egg-drought has come to an end because we’ve gone from being ranchers to herders.
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“Too few and too busy with other endeavours, early colonists lacked the labor force and the time necessary to supervise livestock closely or to contain them adequately within fenced perimeters; livestock were turned out to fend for themselves… ranchers deliberately neglected their livestock and let them roam at will” (La Rocque, 2014, 76)

Sounds like us, alright!  Except we don’t grab a gun and ride out on the range to kill the varmints, which is what LaRocque reckons was was the inevitable outcome of roaming-animal-neglect in the US West.  Although, I’ll admit, when the population of brush turkeys in the chookyard was triple the number of chooks, the temptation was certainly there.

Legal protection for top predators has meant the “git-ma-gun” strategy won’t wash these days, so instead LaRocque advises US ranchers to follow the path of African herders who “have exquisite control over the whereabouts of their animals…[taking them] on daily treks and bring them back at day’s end to a safe haven where animals and humans mingle in a common area.” (LaRocque, 2014, 77).

I wouldn’t say we have exquisite control over Abby (skittish) or Snowball (faster than fluffy greased lightning), but I guess the kids scaring off peckish brush turkeys by leaping around on the trampoline while the chickens have their breakfast might count as “animals and humans mingling in a common area”: “all parties find[ing] satisfaction in a mutualistic interaction of sorts” (LaRocque, 2014, 77).

Has hanging around to watch the chooks eat entirely “resolved [the] ecological contradictions” (LaRocque, 2014, 73) in our backyard? I don’t think so.  The magpies and the brushturkeys still mooch about waiting for me to be so distracted by chicken portraiture that I don’t notice them sneaking in for a mouthful of bean sprouts (Chickens love them.  Who would have thunk it?  Or maybe it’s just our hippie chicks).
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That said, our new herder lifestyle has given us the opportunity to get to know the girls’ table manners a lot better.
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Breeders are feeders it seems – just as poor old Andy Ninja’s lost her spot as Top Chook once she stopped pumping out the eggs, now hen-pecked Abby is back on the lay, she’s shoving the other girls out of the way to get to her tucker.
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And how’s this for a before and after shot?

Treasure – pre and post egg laying.  If you’re ever wondering whether to serve omelette at your next dinner party, take a Dulux colour swatch to your chook’s comb.  Is she Pastel Barren or Fiery and Fecund?

As I’m idling at the bottom of the garden waiting for the girls to finish their meal, I’ve started to think we herders need a new term for talking about our animal friends.  From the wonderful Mildly Extreme blog I’ve learned that evocative word koremorebi for light filtering through the leaves.  I wonder if Japanese can offer me a word to describe the exquisite glow of sunlight filtering through a flushed and fertile comb?

LaRocque, Olivier (2014) “Revisiting distinctions between ranching and pastoralism: A matter of interspecies relations between livestock, people, and predators Critique of Anthropology 2014, Vol. 34(1) 73–93

Lust for the laundry

It seems Andy Ninja is not the only member of our flock to be inextorably drawn to the laundry. Unless you have a passion for turps, detergent or window spiders, there’s nothing appealing in there.  But when I arrived home today, look what I found on the bench, gazing longingly through the murky window at the unreachable garden:

For a few minutes, I watched the brush turkey babe desperately pacing the length of the windowsill, hoping against hope that, somehow, against the odds, the glass that had proved impervious for the last four hours would miraculously dissolve so it could fly to freedom.  RB had noticed the chick in the laundry in the late morning and tried to shoo it out the open door with a mop but it freaked out so much that he gave up, assuming that with a floor area of 4 square metres and one wall occupied almost entirely by a door, the exit would be obvious.  Not so.

I’ve noticed this specific learning difficulty in brush turkeys before.  The chicks are so bold and resilient, the adults so quick to locate food of any type and so brazen around humans, that you kind of assume they have the smarts.

Yet I have regularly seen a brush turkey “trapped” inside the veggie garden by my laughably poorly constructed bamboo and chicken wire fence.  The fence is a metre high: Snowball the silky bantam could probably jump over it.  The brush turkey obviously flew there in the first place.  But in a moment of stress, none of these minor details seem to matter.  The turkey will run up and down the fence line in a frenzy, as if my flimsy excuse for a fence was the perimeter wall of Alcatraz.

By the time I arrived, the brush turkey chick had exhausted itself and was a doddle to grab.  Given the complete parental neglect that characterises the early childhood of these birds, at least I didn’t have to feel guilty about mum or dad abandoning it after a whiff of the garlic-and-epoxy glue stench of my hands.

The chick looks calm enough in the photo RB took, but the shot from our 8 year old’s perspective shows a wild “what the hell are the predators going to do with me?” look in its eye.  I don’t think we’ll find it in the laundry again. But then again, thinking about those brush turkey problem solving and short term memory issues, we just might.

All-conquering kale and its frenemies

Good friends describe me as “herbal”.  I’ve been a lentil eater for 27 years and my shelves groan with organic gardening and vegetarian recipe books.  And I’m not averse to dabbling in a spot of ancient-learned-women’s-plant-knowedge-as-yet-unverified-by-modern-experimental-science.  But I have to say that companion planting has taken a body blow in our household in recent weeks.  Here’s why:

 Two kale plants, from the same punnet, planted less than a metre apart.  On your left, the kale that enjoyed the companionship of a cheerful red and orange flowered marigold, “Naughty Marietta”.  On your right, the kale out in the cold with no date  (though giant mustard, baby leeks and daikon radish are hanging around in a kind of unstructured way).

It turns out that the vague story I heard about marigolds, with their pungent foliage, as a nifty companion plant is true enough if you have a problem with nematodes, but dead wrong on the aphid front.  It seems that all-female parthenogenic parasites love the cheery flowers of marigolds even more than I do. But not enough to turn down the opportunity for a feast on a superfood.

In fact, I read recently that if you rub some vaseline on a yellow sticky label and stick it in amongst your veggies, the aphids will be lured in and get stuck on the lube so you can dispose of them thoughtfully.  But I’d advise you not to get too carried away with this approach, for a number of reasons: (a) if left long enough your post-it might attract aphids from further afield  (b) striding out back with a bundle of stationery in one hand and a tube of vaseline in the other will raise eyebrows amongst your neighbours and (c) the veracity of this story is no more guaranteed than the one about the marigolds and the aphids.

I’m not dissing the power of the herb entirely though.  It seems the smell of granny’s hanky does distract possums and bandicoots (and perhaps singing mice and super rats) from sniffing out newly sprouted peas and beans.  My broadies and sugar snaps are looking good under a vegenet liberally sprinkled with lavender flowers and leaves. I hold out hopes that this continue to work, significantly reassured by the fact that absolutely no one, as far as I know, recommends these as companion plants.

Things that go clang in the night

Tiptoeing down to the bottom of the garden through the midwinter gloom (or, to be precise the astronomical twilight) for some last-minute salad greens, I hear a sudden clang in the chook yard.

It’s grandpa. Well, Grandpa’s patented galvanised iron chicken feeder, slamming shut.  Something’s been chowing down on the chooks’ supper, and it isn’t Andy Ninja.

Andy at the feeder cropped 2

According to the manufacturers, Grandpa’s are vermin proof, requiring the heft of a chook to access the munchies inside.  And we carefully checked the skies before training our girls, since apparently cockies, despite being lightweights, comparatively speaking, have be known to figure out to jump mob-handed on the foot-pedal to get to the goodies.  And it’s not a brush turkey, for all their proprietorial air.  It’s after their bedtime.

In my fantasy life, my garden, as well as being effortlessly fecund with nature’s edible bounty, is an ideal habitat for rare and exciting native creatures.  The clang, in this universe, would be a shy and endangered Long-Nosed bandicoot, taking a detour from its usual diet of grubs and tubers to snatch a mouthful of scratch mix, as if to assure me, through this moment of dietary eccentricity, that I am walking lightly on this earth.

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In fact, I’m pretty sure we do have bandicoots in the back yard, but I’ve only once had a fleeting glimpse a white bum disappearing into a disorderly pile of prunings (or “habitat” as I like to think of it).  If they are attempting to communicate with me through the medium of conical nose-holes disturbingly close to my seedlings, I’m not quite sure what the message might be.

In my nightmares, on the other hand, the visitor at dusk is a Liverpudlian Super Rat, that somehow sneaked into the shipping crate when we left the UK seven years ago and has been loitering in the bottom of the garden ever since, disembowelling cats and swallowing brush turkey eggs whole. Okay, the Super Rat may be not all bad.

A giant rat caught in Liverpool.

There’s a more endearing rodent possibility: perhaps it’s a hard working and cooperative clan of mice, like the very cute singing ones in Bagpuss.

Mice in bagpuss 2

I could hide behind the generous leaves of the custard apple and try to catch the interloper in the act.  But since there’s a sharp westerly blowing and further research is bound to disappoint, one way or another, I think I’ll allow the Clanger to remain a mystery.

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Reflections of a ground predator

Drawing of Andy bigger

What noise does a chicken make?

Some people might go for the classic “cockadoodle dooo!” of an rooster at the crack of dawn.

But many people probably come up with something like this: “Buck buck buck buck” (here’s a video example).  That’s what chickens sound like to most of us.

In fact, this is a specific type of chicken alarm call.  It means “Ground predator! Watch out!“.   In this video, there’s a cat on the prowl.  However, this call sounds so familiar to us humans, even those of us who are not chicken obsessives, because we are ground predators.  So what we think of as “normal chicken sounds” say less about what chickens normally do, and more about the fact that we’re there, and they’re keeping an eye on us.

Chickens make at more than twenty four different calls (check out some of them on this very interesting video), which are not only referential (“aerial predator” “food” and so on) but are uttered differently depending on who’s listening and what’s going on.  In fact, they can be quite machiavellian, deliberately “lying” (for instance, some males make a food call to attract females when there’s no food to be had – though since chickens can recognise and remember up to 100 individuals, this is not a good long term strategy!)  They are pretty cunning too.  In a recent article in Scientific American K-Lynn Smith and Sarah Zielinski explain how researchers resolved a problem: why do roosters frequently call out a warning about a passing hawk even when this might attract the hawk’s attention and put the rooster himself at risk.  They found that roosters are very strategic.  For instance, they observe that “a male calls more often if he is safe under a bush and his rival is out in the open, at risk of being picked off by a swooping predator. If the rooster is lucky, he will protect his girl, and another guy will suffer the consequences”.

To sum up, chickens are smarter than humans usually think (if not always nice), and humans… well, humans are ground predators.