Squeaky Cow

•February 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

What… might you ask… is a Squeaky Cow?

About thirteen and half years ago a small little furry black and white critter showed up at our deck door. His coloration looked almost like a cow. His voice was a high pitched, almost squeak sound. Thus the name, Squeaky Cow. We put out a bit of food for him but after eating it he disappeared back into our yard.

One week later he had returned to our yard and came up to our deck door once again. This time we put a bowl of food down, opened the door and he came in to eat. We closed the door after a brief freak out period he decided a warm house and three squares was much better than trying to survive in our yard with the coyotes, racoons and all sorts of other things much bigger than him.

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The little guy, small enough to fit in our cupped hands, soon grew and grew.

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Of course eating all sorts of goodies helped.

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While he liked most brands and flavors of cat food, things like Chicken on a Beer Can, canned sardines and ice cream (melted first) were definitely on his favorite list.

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For exercise his favorite game was “stringy”. Basically just a dangling string he’d swat at, or for variety, the same string dragged underneath a thick comforter or blanket. We have no idea how he could tell exactly where it was under there, but a focused stare, a quick tilt of the head to pinpoint and he would pounce right on it every time.

A few things would scare Squeaky (we normally just call him Squeaky). Aluminum foil torn off a roll would send him running as would the vaccuum cleaner. He showed his intelligent side too. He taught us to make a noise before we were going to vaccuum and he’d then make a determined march right to his favorite closet to hide in. It allowed us to warn him first and help to not stress him. Bring out a camera and most of the time he’d head the other way too. Perhaps not so much afraid as maybe just camera shy. Regardless we still got some good shots.

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Sometimes the timing was just right.

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Once he even played along as we slipped a miniature sweater from a teddy bear on to him. It actually fit just about perfectly. And no, we don’t normally dress our cats, this was a one time thing.

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He seemed to listen for the sound of the desk being opened or a computer starting up. To him that meant the opportunity to nap in a warm lap for hours at a time while we were working on whatever project we silly humans busy ourselves with.

Each morning he always hung around when either, or both, of us were leaving and we soon learned that he was expecting a good bye petting. Over time that turned into our little ritual of always telling him he is a good boy and other good sayings (they evolved over time) along with a bit of petting. He purred and purred each and every time.

In late December we noticed his shoulder looked a bit swollen. It didn’t seem to bother him and we thought perhaps he just hurt it. Over the next few weeks it wasn’t shrinking and in fact seemed to be growing. We took him to see Dr. Grover our favorite vet.

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No, not that Dr. Grover… although funny enough the real Dr. Grover has the same picture of the Muppets Dr. Grover on the back of his exam room door. He gave Squeaky a thorough exam, as he always does, and after running a couple of tests came back to tell us the bad news. Cancer. A sarcoma. The tumor was in his shoulder and chest muscles and a x-ray indictated spots in his lungs too. Without the lung issues we had surgery or radiation options. With it in his lungs the options were much less, as in none. Six to twelve months at best. The recommended treatment was to take him home and spoil him rotten.

Well, six months has turned into about eight weeks. The tumor, the size of half a golf ball back at the beginning of January is now the size of half a grape fruit and still growing. His front leg is being forced out of position making him limp when he walks. As many tumors do, it’s stealing all the nutrients he is taking in. We’re feeding him much more often and larger portions than normal and yet the weight keeps dropping. By the end of February he is mostly skin and bones and has all but stopped using one of his rear legs too. Turns out a minor case of arthirtis becomes severe when the tumor steals nutrients from the muscles and bones.

The time has come to say good bye to our Squeaky. On saturday morning at the end of February, Dr Grover helped our furry companion of 13+ years to cross the Rainbow Bridge. I’m sure Shmooshy and Sunday were waiting for him and are now showing him where all the good food can be found and where the forest of “stringy trees” grows.

Squeaky, you were and always will be loved.

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Sleep good our sweet angel. Be at rest and feel no more pain. One day we’ll be together again and you can have all the lap time you could ever want.

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Amaranth

•December 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This year we tried planting some new seeds in our gardens. Amaranth. Specifcally Golden Amaranth and Molten Fire Amaranth, both from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Sadly none of the Molten Fire grew, but happily one of the Golden seeds sprouted and grew. The seeds are very tiny. Smaller than poppy seeds and about a quarter teaspoon worth of seeds was planted. From the one seed that took, the resulting seed head gave us about 5-6 tablespoons of seeds. We’ll definitely be trying again next year.

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The seeds are not edible when raw, however cooked they are fine to eat. Given their small size it isn’t normally eaten on its own instead you find it usually baked into bread or popped and mixed with honey. The grain itself can also be pressed to extract amaranth oil.

We didn’t get enough yield to eat any, but hopefully next year will give us a number of plants and much more seed, some to save and some to cook with. A single seed head can yield up to a pound of seed.

Since the plants are quite attractive in appearance we also tried growing them in our front yard. With their foilage and seed heads they make a nice decorative plant that also gives us an edible yield. More and more we are looking for plants that not only look nice but also serve other roles. Perhaps food for us, perhaps critter (bees, humming birds, etc.) attractors.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

•November 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In mid September, over the course of just a few minutes I observered a number of insects preparing for winter. Bees gathering nectar and pollen. Spiders spinning webs in preparation of catching their next meal. Ants enjoying a watermelon rind we had left on the ground. And a grasshopper, well, just sitting there.

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The first thing that came to mind was the Aesop fable of the ant and the grasshopper.

Underground Bees

•November 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Underground Bees

A new band?

No. Some bees will make their home underground. The wasp, commonly called an eastern yellow jacket, of the genus Vespula is one that will take advanatge of an underground space if available.

The queen overwinters and starts the nest early in spring. At first the eggs laid become daughter workers, but later in summer the males and future queens are produced which then disperse and mate with the future queens then overwintering to repeat the process next spring.

One day I noticed these wasps flying in and out of some bushes right in front of our house. I observed and looked in the bushes and found they were going into a hole in the ground. It looked like a chipmunk sized hole. Pretty obviously they were living underground. A chipmunk nest, or more specifically the cache where it stores its food can be a sizeable cavity.

We left the nest alone and did nothing other than observe over the summer. One day in early September I noticed what looked like trash on the sidewalk in front of the bushes. A closer observation showed it was a bee’s nest.

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Getting down low I peeked under bushes and saw more pieces of the nest. Finally I pulled the bushes away from the house and found a basketball sized hole in the dirt.

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Taking a guess here, some predator (perhaps a skunk or raccoon), must have discovered the nest during the night, dug down and tore it apart. The roots of the bushes were completely cut or torn away so whatever attacked the nest must have been a good digger (I’m leaning towards a skunk). The nest, torn apart, probably resulted from the hungry predator looking for the grubs to eat.

Sadly, doing a search for “yellow jacket underground nest” yields many results all about how to get rid of the nest. I’m happy we did not try to get rid of the nest and that nature worked things out. But I also feel a bit bad for the wasps. It must be traumatic to have your home completely torn apart in the middle of the night.

Here’s a shot of the wasps that, for a time, had their home next to our home.

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Genetics Gone Wild – Revisited

•November 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Revisiting the topic of genetics we’ll examine a few other gene mutations. All the subjects here were seen over the course of a few days and were part of a large flock of birds stopping in our yard.

First we have the usual suspects. A common grackle, an european starling, a red wing black bird and a miniature bald eagle.

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A miniature what? No, that’s not an eagle. Based on the eye color and shape it appears to be a grackle, although in flight it does look a lot like a miniature bald eagle. This color variation is usually a leucistic variation. This is when the bird’s genetics determine that it is unable to make a color that is normally found in its plumage.

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The Sibley Guide, found online, describes this much better than I can. Another example of the color variation is seen below.

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One of these birds is not like the others. In this case all the center feathers on the tail are pure white while the outer feathers are still normally colored as is the rest of the bird.

 

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Finally here is one with a partial leucistic coloring just on the head.

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In all three cases the differently colored birds all had the yellow eye with the black pupil and the beaks all had a similar shape so we’re fairly confident all three are common grackles. What drew our attention to these was the flash of white in an otherwise predominantly dark color flock of birds. I wonder if predators also are able to more easily pick out a bird like this in a flock?

Unlike albinos, these birds do have most of their colors. In a true albino there would be a complete lack of all color.

 

Danger! Danger!

•September 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Gardens can be dangerous places.

First example, a crab spider (family Thomisidae) on a black eyed susan. The bee on this flower is tiny, perhaps a quarter of an inch long, so imagine how small the spider in front of the bee is. In this case the prey (the bee) was way to large for the spider to deal with so it did not attack.

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But what happens when the little crab spider grows up? A “normal” size bee is suddenly now just the right size for a meal.

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Crab spiders hunt by waiting in ambush. When the right size prey comes around the spider will grab with its front legs while quicking biting and injecting a paralytic venom. They prey quickly stops moving and the spider can then start on its meal.

Of course not all crab spiders match their chosen plant as closely as the previous one.

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In this case it’s a crab spider on a joe pye weed. The Misumena vatia spider, the white and yellow ones shown here, are also able to change their color over a number of days allowing a white one to assume a yellow coloration when on a yellow plant. Unfortunately for the one above it won’t be changing to red so it’s camouflage is less than ideal.

Not all ambush predators are spiders however. These next two shots are of the same incident, seen from above and below.

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The bee above was captured by an Ambush Bug, part of the Assassin bug group and one of the Phymata genus. Similar to a praying mantis, it has strong front legs that it uses to quickly grab and hold prey. The mottled green and brown colors along with its ability to sit motionless waiting for prey helps give it a chance at a meal.

So, how do you spot a bug having lunch? In the two examples here I actually found them by noticing the bee not moving as opposed to seeing the predator. When bees are swarming all over the flowers and constantly in motion gathering nectar and pollen a bee just sitting there becomes obvious and worthy of a second look.

Genetics Gone Wild

•September 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Genes control what an organism looks like. They control how it develops and grows. What happens when something goes wrong in those genes? Or instead of wrong, perhaps a recessive gene expresses itself?

In the case of plants you may see abnormal growth. In some cases, this is obvious, as in an albino species. In other cases it is even desired, for example when crossing two variants of a rose in an attempt to get a new variety.

Just observing any mass of plants and you’ll start to see the diversity that genes have imparted on each one. Some may be a little shorter or taller. Subtle color variants may be present. More or less flowers may be on display.

Two interesting examples were found in our bed of Black Eyed Susan flowers. First up is a curled leaf. This might be a result of outside influence (insect feeding on the plant causing the strange growth) or a result of genetics on this particular leaf growing wrong.

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Leaves are normally straight, not curled, as seen on the left and in the background. The next image is even more interesting.

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Petals normally grow around the head, not out of the middle.

Earlier this year we had a bee balm plant where after the flower head formed (normally at the top of the stem) the stalk continued growing right through the head, went up four more inches and then developed a second flower head.

 
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