Monday, July 24, 2017

Bluebird versus Honda Mirror

This is a new thing for me: a male bluebird attacking the mirror of a car. I've seen other birds (especially male cardinals!) engaging in this territorial behavior, but not a bluebird. So this is a first.

(A quick internet search revealed that American robins often attack their reflections in mirrors and windows, too, and bluebirds and robins are pretty closely related--they're both thrushes, look at their body shapes, legs, and bills--so it shouldn't be a surprise that both do it.)

Look! Mr. Bluebird was so obsessed with fighting his perceived interloper (who absolutely refused to leave and was always there in the mirror each time he looked), he let me get close enough for some pictures:

Oh, it was so hot last week! Maybe the bird was feeling extra peevish, nervous, and out-of-sorts. I didn't notice the bluebird doing this yesterday, when it was cooler. But on Thursday, when I took these pictures, it got up into the high nineties by midday, and at midmorning he was panting from his exertions.

Here's a fun quiz: "How can you tell when a bird's been attacking your car's mirrors?" Two pictures provide the answer:

. . . And how do you keep the birds away from your mirrors (if not to protect the mirrors, then at least to prevent the bird from hurting his bill or from getting heatstroke)? In the past, my parents have slipped a big old sock over their mirrors: easy on, easy off.

My solution was to tie a ubiquitous white plastic grocery bag around each mirror. It looks ridiculous, and it's a bit of a pain to untie them in order to drive somewhere . . . but at least it saves the bird from wasting his precious energy attacking a mirage.

Silly thing. There's a reason why calling someone a "birdbrain" is an insult.

Of course, after I put bags over my mirrors, he moved on to our neighbor's car.

And one final thought: Wowsa! We have bluebirds in our neighborhood!

We have not had a great number of, well, interesting songbirds in our neighborhood recently (of course; see post on cats below). We have the usual: bluejays, grackles, cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, catbirds, Carolina wrens, and occasional flocks of waxwings that come through. There are also plenty of chimney swifts and mourning doves, and a few Eurasian collared doves, as well.

But this summer we have seen at least three bluebirds (the male plus a female plus a female or immature male), which clearly are living somewhere in the area; I love their songs, those mellow little comments. And last night at sunset, we watched a kingbird repeatedly fly out from the top of the pine trees across the street.

It's been a real treat. I hope they all stick around!

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Kittens

July 13, 2017

To whomever you are, the kind persons who adopt the kittens we’ve cared for since they were born, here is some information you will be glad to have about their first weeks of life.

This litter was born in late April 2017. We had known their mom was pregnant and had been keeping an eye on her—when she disappeared, we figured she’d given birth. It took us a few days to find out where she was hiding them. But I’m getting ahead of the story; you should learn more about mamma.

The mother of these kitties is a thin, polydactylic (extra-fingered) tan/brown tortoiseshell. She appeared in our Munichburg neighborhood about three years ago—apparently she had been the pet of one of the many renters on our block, who apparently moved away without notifying her—and taking her with them. We have a revolving door of abandoned cats on our block, thanks to plenty of low-income rentals, and people who don’t take responsibility for their pets. We feed the cats they leave behind and work with Wild Thing Feral Feline Fix to keep them from breeding. Unfortunately, we were unable to get “mamma” fixed “in time.”

So back when “mamma” first appeared in our backyard, as a young adult cat, she had to try to fit in with four or five other, interrelated cats, which was difficult for her. Compared to the semi-feral cats, she was rather outgoing and loved to be petted. As time has gone on, however, she has become more wary.

By the way, we often call her “Thumby” (Thummy) for the large thumbs on her front paws.

Last year, Thumby had a litter of kittens—her first—but some never-supervised neighbor children discovered them and carried them away when they were quite young, and we didn’t see them again. No wonder Thumby hid her second litter carefully!

So when Thumby had this litter, we kept an eye on her to see where she might be hiding her kittens. I found her nursery one morning when I was mowing our lawn—Thumby flashed away from my mower and ran up the steps by our driveway, hesitating halfway up to stare wildly at me and hiss. I immediately stopped the mower and investigated . . . she had emerged from a yucca plant near our driveway. I approached cautiously and peered into a sheltered hollow on the ground amid its base of bladelike leaves—the leaves, bending over, formed a perfect little chamber for the litter—and what I saw looked like Easter eggs. It was only about a week after Easter! The little calico looked like a pretty Easter egg, curled up with her gray and white spotted siblings. I didn’t reach in or touch or pester them—they were sleeping, and mamma was watching worriedly from the steps behind me.

We kept an eye on them, and when it looked like it was going to rain, we rigged up a shelter out of a cat carrier near the yucca plant . . . but when it finally rained that evening, mamma moved all her kittens into our backyard, under a potting bench that offered excellent shelter. This is also near where we regularly feed our the stray kitties. It wasn’t long after this, and after a continued stretch of rainy weather, that she moved the kittens into our downstairs sunporch.

She soon got into the pattern of staying indoors with the kittens, in our sunporch, during the night, then spending days nursing the kittens under the potting bench. We lured her and her kittens indoors each evening with canned food—ensuring they’d have a peaceful night, safe from raccoons, opossums, stray dogs, and other cats that roam our neighborhood at nights.

And so the kittens grew up more or less indoors, amid the miscellaneous extra furniture, lawn furniture, and boxes we store on our sunporch; it is basically a carpeted garage. They learned to use a litter box early; we rigged up a spare bonsai pot as a step for them to get in and out of the box.

We worked at socializing them with people, picking them up and petting them, holding them on our laps, being gentle overall, cooing and talking to them, and playing “string” and “milk jug ring” and then “string tied to milk jug ring.” They also loved the catnip mice we bought for them! They totally hid them somewhere; good thing we bought a three-pack!

As they’ve gotten older and the temperatures have grown hot, they spend less time indoors, as our sunporch is not air-conditioned. They all have acquired fleas pretty bad, but I have not felt confident about them being old enough to tolerate Cheristan or other topical flea treatments. Sorry; I hope that when they are settled in a “forever” home, you’ll rid them of fleas and they’ll receive all the veterinary care they deserve—and they do deserve the best.

I should talk about their individual personalities, which have emerged quite strongly.

First is “Lois,” whom we named for an older cousin whose personality is distinctly strong-willed, smart, and straightforward. Practical. Lois is the calico that looked so much like an Easter egg the first time I glimpsed her as she was curled up with her littermates. She has been the first to try anything.

The first to venture away from the nest (I think the first to open her eyes, too). The first to start nibbling at solid food. The first to play “string” with us. The first to start climbing on anything and everything. The first to clamber up the one step to our sunporch. The first to venture farthest out into the yard. You get the picture.

She has a no-nonsense personality yet at times rather sad eyes—a sort of gravitas far beyond her years—er, weeks of life. Her head, face, and build is a lot like her mom’s . . . although she is fluffy, I suppose, like her father (whoever he is).

Second is “Half-Gray” (sorry, we never came up with a name for him; I’m sure you will devise something clever and fitting)—“named” for the way his face is divided into gray and white sides (which is a quick way of distinguishing him from his similar-looking sister, whose coloration is more balanced-looking).

The gray and black markings on his back are something like his brother’s. He is a little athlete, with a chipper personality. He is the one that almost always mews when you pick him up. He was the first one to purr, and he is the one who purrs the easiest. He will be a good-time kitty, a cat’s cat, and a true friend to his humans. He likes to jump onto plants—I told you, he’s an athlete. Of all the cats in this litter, we think he would be a good kitty for someone with kids.

When Jennifer of Wild Things came to pick up mamma and the four kittens, the mamma was trapped in a cage on our lawn (she’d been there a few hours, and we’d put a sheet over the cage to keep her calm), and three of the kittens were fast asleep—making them relatively easy to pick up and put in a carrier. But “Half-Gray” was nowhere to be found. We discovered that he was sleeping under the extra folds of the sheet we’d put over mamma’s cage. I thought it was sweet that he, of all the four, had wanted to be near her. Indeed, as soon as she was trapped, he went over to her, and he must have stayed by her the whole time.

Third is “Dreamboat”—again, a non-name. We also call her “Sleepy.” I’ve played around with calling her “Doris” and “Debbie,” but I’m sure you’ll think of a pretty name for her—to match her prettiness. She’s fluffy, with marbled gray and black on her back, with white paws, a white face and shirt front, and pink nose.

Practically a show cat. Once, when we were letting the kittens explore some of our house, she found a floor-to-ceiling mirror at the end of a hallway—and actually saw her own reflection! She tried to play with it.

From Day One, she has been the sleepiest of the four. Her favorite “game” is “The Perfect Sleeper”! When we would enter the sunporch with delicious canned cat food, all the cats would get excited—but she would snooze on. She’s extremely easy-going, and she would be an excellent cat for an older person. I’ll bet she behaves very well in a home. She will probably have a tendency to put on weight; she’ll probably be one of those cats whose food you must ration.

And she will be someone’s dear little snugglepuss. Of the four, she is the one that seems to identify with people best—she looks deep into our eyes as if trying to read our thoughts. The day Jennifer picked her up, little Dreamboat was lying flat on her side on a flat rock in the shade next to a flower bed. It was a hot day, but she looked cool and comfortable. It was especially hard to put her into the carrier.

The fourth kitten is one we’ve called Arjuna, or Arjie, or Archie. He is the one that’s all gray tabby, the only one with truly short hair like his mamma (not fluffy), and the only one to have inherited his mother’s extra digits on his forepaws. I hope whoever adopts him looks well beyond the novelty of his unusual hands—for he is a complex cat. He’ll need someone who can tolerate some weirdness.

He’s the “runt”—always got pushed away from mamma’s teats by the other kittens, had a hard time nosing into the food bowl at dinner time. He kind of developed a Napoleon complex—out of nowhere, he jumps onto his siblings and picks “fights” with them (kitten sparring, rolling, tumbling). He loves to play with things—often, he would be last to the dinner bowl because he was distracted by something he had found on the floor to play with. He loves games that involve him swatting his big forepaws down onto something—like smacking at a string being dragged across the floor, or batting around a nugget of garden mulch.

But despite his apparent aggressiveness and fearlessness, he is the only one of the litter that has been fearful of us—he has habitually run away when we reach for him. We named him Arjuna for one of the main characters in the Bhagavad Gita, a famous, indomitable warrior who, at the beginning of the text, collapses in fear and worry as he surveys the opposing army. I could see little Arjie requiring a little extra patience, and an understanding of his extra energy and weird cat ideas. He is a complex character and will be a unique, unforgettable fur person.

If anyone’s thinking of getting two of the kittens together, I’d suggest Lois and Arjuna together, and the two gray and white ones together (Half-Gray and Dreamboat). Arjuna also gets along well with Half-Gray (the two boys).

But they all get along fine with each other.

Here’s another picture of their mother. We have several more photos of the kittens (including when they were younger) and of their mamma and would be glad to share them with the people who adopt these kittens. . . . I know I wish I had photos of my cats—which we adopted as full-grown adults—so I could see what they looked like as kittens, to see what their littermates looked like, to see pictures of their mamma.

Best wishes,
Jule Schroeder

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Now Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge

In January, the US Fish and Wildlife Service finally changed the name of Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge. This NWR, near St. Joseph, Missouri, is now aptly named for the spectacular hills lining the refuge on the east, which are made not of rock but of loess, a kind of compacted soil made of dusty, yellowish silt that was blown into great rolling dunes after the last glacial period.

Nearby Mound City is named for the large loess hills in the area.

I hope that people aren’t bent out of shape about the name change. Sure, there’s a Squaw Creek that runs through the area, and that name hasn’t changed, but the NWR’s name isn’t exactly historic, as it goes back only to 1935, when the NWR was created.

Back in 1935, almost every American understood the term squaw to be sort of a Native American equivalent of the German frau, the Spanish señora or mujer, or the French madame or femme. Obviously, no one meant it as a derogative term because they had no idea it had such connotations. People probably thought they were honoring Native American women by naming the creek and later the refuge after them. I hope that in the future, people don’t look back and think that people who used the word squaw were being disgusting, insensitive, insulting. They simply didn’t know about the original meaning of the term. In fact, through their longstanding, benign use of the word, you can argue that they gave it a new, non-insulting meaning.

But finally, Native Americans made it clear to us other Americans (immigrants and children of immigrants, all of us), that squaw was for them a deeply offensive term, used for part of a woman’s private anatomy, so ever since then, place-names of lakes, mountains, trails, and so on, that had long used the word, have been changing.

And it’s a good thing! Some people might grouch and moan about “political correctness,” but I’m convinced it’s simply about being gracious and respectful of others’ feelings. Why continue using a word, a name that essentially insults someone, when we can use a new name that is better, anyway?

So now it’s the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge. And who knows how to pronounce it? Ha-hahh! Hopefully the people in northwest Missouri have already picked out a pronunciation they can live with, whether it’s “luss,” “less,” or (definitely the weirdest choice) “low-ess.” These are Americanized pronunciations, however, of a German word with a vowel sound we don’t make in English, the German “umlaut o” (spelled ö or oe).

It’s a mix of the vowels “ee” (or “eh”) and “ohh.” In a nutshell, you say “ee” (or “eh”) with your tongue, inside of your mouth, and you say “ooh” with your lips. Try saying “oh” with your lips, rounding them, but position your tongue as if to say “ee” (or “eh”). (Here’s a fun explanation of German umlaut sounds.)

French coeur, German Goethe, and my own surname use the ö/oe sound.

So after listening to these examples, you might start saying it more like “lurse” or “loorse” (light on the r’s, in both cases). I have been trying to pronounce “loess” correctly for about as long as I’ve been able to talk, since my dad is a physical geographer who specializes in Missouri landscapes, and he always taught his students (and my brother and me) how to say loess the original German way. Loess! Loess! Loess!

So! On Saturday, we drove up to the northwest corner of the state not to see the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, particularly, but to see the birds taking refuge on it! And what a treat it was!

The big show, of course, was the snow geese, which were so numerous as to look like, yes, large areas of snow. Like, 28,000 of them. (In previous weeks, there’d been as many as 283,000 of them!) White and blue forms. I’ll bet there were some Ross’s geese among them, but picking them out would have distracted me from the main attraction: their multitudes.

Occasionally vast numbers of them would rise and fly off northward, an overwhelming chorus of their thousands of high voices. They were getting a nice brisk tailwind from the south!

They vanished into the whiteness of the northern sky. But there were still thousands left in the wetlands.

We saw lots of other birds, too, of course. There were plenty of Canada geese around; they seemed to love standing on top of the many muskrat homes that poked up out of the water. This one was all “honked off” at something—looking at it through our binoculars, we could see it hissing at something below it, then turning around and complaining the other direction.

Other birds that we saw (in the afternoon) included several trumpeter swans, American white pelicans, mallards, northern shovelers, blue-winged teal, gadwall, American coots, killdeer, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds (but unfortunately we didn’t see any yellow-headed blackbirds, but I certainly looked), and my favorite sight of the day, a female belted kingfisher that was hunting for fish. (Yes, in Squaw Creek itself, so see? It pays to take your eyes away from the vast wetlands and look all around.) Sorry, no pictures of her.

Sue, of course, was the one who first spied the kingfisher. As we watched, the kingfisher flew down to the water and captured a fish. (Judging by the shape, I’m betting it was a green sunfish or something similar.) She flew with it to a nearby wood duck nest box, perched atop the box, and started the process of swallowing it. True to form, she smacked it on the box a few times to subdue it, then got it flipped around so it would go down headfirst (the smooth way).

This was the weekend of Columbia’s True/False film festival, (or as some of my friends who work at restaurants and bars call it, “Hipster Christmas,” “Hipster Homecoming,” or the “Bunning Man” festival). Why would anyone want to be cooped up in a dark movie theater when they could be out watching these miracles of nature? Oh well. Maybe people don’t know you can see these amazing sights for free. Or maybe, because it’s free, they don’t value it as much as something you have to buy a ticket for?

Anyway, during one particularly large and raucous liftoff of zillions of snow geese, we noticed that a few non–snow geese were caught up in the excitement of the crowd. Amid the multitudes of basic sameness were a few different shapes, different wing-flapping patterns: One was a blue heron, and the other an adult bald eagle.

Well! That made our day! Can you pick out the eagle in this photo? (Remember you can click on these pictures to make them bigger.)

It was also great fun to watch some of the muskrats.

One sat on a completely muddy area amid dried cattails near a muskrat home and groomed itself for several minutes. I kept thinking, Dang, with all this mud, it must be a never-ending chore for them to try to keep clean!

As with so many other rodents, you can’t help thinking it’s really pretty cute-looking. Look at the little fist this one made with its left hand while it worked to clean its right arm.

Yeah, pretty cute, huh?

Well, it was a very memorable day. We need to keep going out and seeing these sights. What a beautiful and fantastic world we live in!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Healthy Tiffin: Frozen Meals Are Finally Delicious

Just a quick note today to tell you about something I really like: Healthy Tiffin frozen meals, made by Deep Foods, an Indian food company in New Jersey.

Unfortunately, you cannot buy these in just any grocery store, but hopefully someday you will. Meanwhile, do like us and stock up on them at an international grocery in the nearest large city. (We've been buying Healthy Tiffins at Global Foods Market in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis.)

Why frozen? Because it's extremely convenient, especially when you're freelancin' and you don't want to take time off to fix anything, and you want something you can eat at your desk while you get back to work! And all the Healthy Tiffins I've had have turned out fine, even in the dreaded microwave.

A tiffin, by the way, is basically "lunch," and a tiffin carrier is the standard lunchbox used in India. You might have seen these nifty stacking metal containers, which many people are using now to avoid plastics.

And why Indian food? Because at least in this case, it's vegetarian and delicious at the same time. Indians have been vegetarian for so long, their vegetarian cuisine is completely satisfying in terms of flavors, textures, and nutrition. My friends who eat meat, try Indian for your "meatless Mondays."

Although you can buy plenty of frozen Indian dishes at the international store, what makes the Healthy Tiffin line so nice is that each one is a complete three-part meal, with rice, a dal (beans), and a vegetable (usually a wet curry, one with lots of tasty "gravy" to have with your rice).

So here's four of 'em, and I think there are more:

  • Paneer makhani + rajma + onion Basmati rice (cubes of homemade cheese in a spicy tomato-based gravy; kidney bean dal; rice flavored with onion and cumin)
  • Kofta curry + chhole + spinach Basmati rice (kofta are vegetarian dumplings; chhole is garbanzo bean dal; the rice is fortified with spinach)
  • Palak paneer + dal makhani + turmeric Basmati rice (cubes of homemade cheese in pureed, nicely spiced spinach; a luxuriously creamy dal; beautifully yellow seasoned rice)
  • Mutter paneer + dal palak + cumin Basmati rice (cubes of homemade cheese in a gravy with green peas; a soft creamy moong dal preparation mixed with spinach; a relatively plain rice seasoned with cumin)

Finally, here's another reason to seek out Healthy Tiffin frozen meals: they really do make an effort to make these meals "healthy." They swap out or reduce the cream and butter for olive oil; they offer lots of fiber and protein; they have reduced the sodium from the "traditional" recipes. (I think they could do further with the last item, as each meal supplies about 25 percent of one's sodium for the day; I would rather they use less sodium in their preparations, so I can enjoy my salty Indian mango pickles without knowing I'm going overboard.)

Here's another thing: one of my friends can't get out much because of a disability, but she loves vegetarian food . . . but she's also missing a lot of teeth. These Healthy Tiffins are just the thing for her! Every time we get them, we buy extra for her!

Keep your eyes out for Healthy Tiffins! I'm sure you'll love them.