A Mysterious Encounter: The Owl on the Bench

by David Greer

Two weeks after my wife died this past October, she briefly returned. Or so it seemed to me.

Not in the flesh, of course. Instead, I received a visit from a creature whose behavior was so unexpected, so unnerving, so uplifting, that it seemed to defy rational explanation, and I felt the presence of my wife as strongly as if she were beside me.

The visitor was a barred owl. I’m familiar with barred owls, though not with barred owls as familiars. At night, I’ve often heard from the forest the signature barred owl query, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Less often, I’ve been jolted awake by a bloodcurdling scream–is someone’s throat being cut?—and my heart pounds until reason clears the fog from my brain: it’s only an owl. I’ve also on occasion gone into the forest to investigate strange querulous whistles that become less strange when I spot a trio of juvenile barred owls begging a parent for food—a freshly killed fieldmouse or flycatcher—and counting on persistent whistling to do the trick.

But the owl that visited me after my wife’s death was silent. She sat outside the door, perched on the back of the garden bench on which my wife had loved to sit after walking unaided became too difficult for her. (I say ‘she’ because female barred owls are up to a third larger than males, and this was a very large owl.) There was no missing her. Barred owls are not unobtrusive. They’re smaller than a great horned owl but considerably larger than the northern spotted owl, whose habitat they have been taking over since first being observed in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s. Their gradual spread west from their native habitat in eastern North America may have been enabled by the reforestation of parts of the prairie after the age-old indigenous practice of burning grasslands was prohibited. Read more »

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Frog, the Frog, and the Lizard—Native and Invasive Species on the Salish Sea

by David S. Greer

1And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.

2And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.

And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs.

And the frogs shall come up both on thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants.

King James Bible, Exodus 8

The American bullfrog—a face that only a mother could love? Bruce Tuck photo.

The negative reputation suffered by frogs during Biblical times hasn’t improved much since.  Macbeth’s three witches made a point of tossing into their bubbling cauldron not only toe of frog but also an entire venomous toad (a frog by another name).  In later fairy tales, princesses kissed frogs with reluctance, and only when required to break a spell.  Even today, the ickiness factor of frogs remains high for anyone leery of creepy-crawlies, even though more frogs means fewer spiders.  And most people still wouldn’t welcome a clammy frog in their bed, let alone in their kneading trough.

The American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), to name but one of the planet’s 5,000-plus frog species, has a face no one but a mother could love.  And when that face originates from just one of 20,000 eggs, the mother can hardly be blamed for failing to even recognize her offspring’s features, a fact that might go a long way towards explaining why American bullfrogs have a fondness for eating their progeny, whether at tadpole stage or in froggy maturity. Life as a carnivorous frog usually means no exceptions for children or cousins or aunts.  Eat or be eaten is the watchword of the frog and not a bad rule to remember for species hoping to survive and evolve to some more advanced form of life.  It has always been thus. Read more »

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Great Urination Event and other tales of the Nitrogen Cycle (with a note on why Earth Needs More Mulch)

by Liam Heneghan

Several years into my first large-scale field experiment, I noticed one of the technicians urinating on my experimental plot. It was a significantly worse event than when a cow inserted a hoof into one of my mesocosms in an adjacent part of the Co Kilkenny spruce plantation where I was working. The bovine mesocosm disaster was relatively inconsequential. The mesocosm was an isolated fragment of soil surrounded by PVC walls, open on top and with a collecting vessel below; it allowed me to examine the flow of nutrients through the earth. The hoof merely took one hoof-sized replicate of many out of play. The urination event was more significant; we might have to consider bottling his nitrogen-rich fluid for later analysis and factor it into the work. The technician and his urine had become an experimental treatment, quite an anomalous state of affairs. Gents

The field experiment was a long-term evaluation of the effects of chemical additions, including nitrogen, on soils in a Kilkenny spruce plantation. After a brief interrogation about the technician’s en plein air habits, we were confident that, though several patches of the forest had enjoyed the benefits of his impromptu fertilization treatments, it seemed unlikely that the experimental plots had done so more than on this one occasion. A back-of-the envelope calculation confirmed that this small nitrogen addition was insignificant compared with the 150 kgs of nitrogen per hectare that we were adding to these plots annually.

Although the minor urination event, it turned out, was rather non-calamitous, my fieldwork was related to an investigation of a larger nitrogen calamity: a global experiment that I will call here the Great Urination Event (GUE), which has significant effects on biological diversity, on soil and water quality, and on human health.

Read more »