Bob Henke column: On woofer warriors, birds and squirrels – The Post Star


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There are a few immutable laws of the universe. Things like, you can never exactly calculate the area contained in a circle because the constant is not exact. You can measure it exactly. You can come close enough in a calculation to go ahead and build your yurt, but the math will never be exact. Other laws are more down to earth, like if you have bald spots on your head, do not affect a technicolor Mohawk haircut.
I would suggest another, something along the lines of, if people find your music obnoxious it may not be that they are too old (whatever that is). It may be that your taste in music is puerile and that sort of atonal dross has no redeeming attributes. Interestingly, one of the questions this time involves these sub-woofer warriors.
I have two questions: First, I did not notice a lot of the super-loud car stereos this year. I seem to remember you wrote about this several years ago — something to do with mating rituals — but I always wondered if it wasn’t a huge driving distraction. Any evolutionary explanation why they quit this summer. Second, and probably the only one you will answer, I just saw a listing of the cities that were most dangerous for migrating birds. I never thought of an urban area as posing a migration hazard. What is behind this?
How can you think I would ignore a question? The loud music is about display, not music. If it were about music, the noise would be at a volume where you could differentiate the tone, pitch and meter. This summer was particularly hot and muggy. In order to display, you have to have all the car windows down and, while it is particularly silly to have the air conditioner on with the windows down, this summer the heat coming in the windows overcame the AC and apparently personal comfort overcame the urge to have people notice. The practice of leaving the car running, windows down and music blasting at the gas pumps while you went inside to buy cigarettes seemed unabated but when the driver returned, the windows went up to cool things down.
Interestingly, your question on migration is somewhat analogous to your woofer warrior comment. Urban areas in general, and some cities like Chicago and New York in particular, see many thousands of migrating birds killed every year, mostly from flying into the side of buildings. This is not like the bird hitting your window. These bird strikes seem to take place primarily at night and they hit solid walls as well as windows and sometimes seem to simply plummet to the ground. A recent study conducted in two major cities has shed some light on the subject (this is a GREAT pun, as you will see in a moment).

Squirrels are the subject of this week’s Sightings feature.
Distracted driving claims many human lives every year. Loud music, garrulous friends in the vehicle, eating, applying make-up, phone calls and Tweeting (another magnificent pun) are among the most common causes. The study utilized 40 years of data from Chicago, Illinois, as well as one year of scrupulous data collection in Cleveland, Ohio. This latter used information from 70,000 birds of 93 different species to give you some idea of the magnitude of the data. The conclusion was not only interesting but very unexpected.
The cause appeared to be the huge amount of ambient light coming from urban areas, which confused the birds. Species most impacted (also not a bad pun) were those that migrated at night using celestial cues to navigate. Although this ambient light messed with the travel of many species, those most likely to be actually killed were those that used flight calls. These short, high-pitched, low-volume vocalizations help the birds remain together in a flock. A bird that becomes disoriented emits a flight call, several others in the group return it, and the errant bird can move back toward the group. In flocks with many juveniles, persistent calling causes the group to move in the direction of the wanderer and, when it is reunited, the flock returns to the flight plan.
The research determined those birds most likely to be killed by an urban building strike were those who tweeted to each other most frequently. It appears birds on the perimeter of the flocks become disoriented by the huge amount of urban light and gravitate towards it, calling incessantly as they begin to lose touch with the flock. This in turn causes the main flock to divert to gather up their lost members but instead they wind up following them into the brightly lit canyons of the city. Trying to head into the darkness brings them smack up against the side of the skyscrapers and yields the piles of birds street cleaners face every morning in the fall and spring.
Why do black squirrels seem to be found only in a few areas but there are usually several together?
We think of black squirrels as a rarity, yet at the time of European contact, most of the squirrels were dark colored. The British, one of the most prolific vectors for hauling non-native species around the world, took only gray squirrels back to England because they were felt to be rare, therefore more precious. The fact is, the dominant tree on the continent at that time was the American Chestnut. Chestnut bark is quite dark and a gray squirrel foraging was outlined quite nicely.
When the British brought Chinese chestnut here, wiping out the native trees in a very few years, the dominant mast crop for quite a while was beech nuts. A gray squirrel on the gray bark of a beech was quite well hidden while the black squirrels might as well have had a “Free Lunch” placard on their back. In populated areas, where the primary predator is not broadwing hawks but rather automobiles, color matters little so melanism in the local gene pool may remain in somewhat higher frequency. The same is true of leucistic (white) squirrels.
It appears I have twittered my way through yet another column without finishing the backlog of questions. I promise to catch up later this month and not spend so much time punning — maybe.
Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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