Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tick and Young

This tick had in many ways an ideal life. She was one of the lucky ones clinging to a blade of grass that managed to latch on to a passing mammal. Secreted in the thick fur of a terrier, she gorged on blood. She was probably a few millimetres across when she began feeding. But when she was discovered by the dog's owner she had swollen to nearly an inch, engorged with the blood that she needed in order to give birth to thousands of live young.
So far, so good, Tick. But this tick was also the catalyst for one of the best practical jokes I've ever seen. My entomologist pal Wes Hunting worked in the Strickland Museum of Entomology while writing his Masters Thesis. Sometimes people would drop into the museum with weird bugs that they were distraught about, seeking information and reassurance from the experts. This tick was brought in by a worried woman who had found it on her pooch. Wes assured the lady that everything was fine, that her dog had been playing host to a blood-sucking parasite for a while and no, the tick hadn't yet hatched thousands of live young in her home. No big deal.
So Wes took the tick home with him that night. He showed it to our roommate Chris and told him in worried tones that he'd found it in his bedroom. Wes suggested that maybe Chris should check his bedroom too, y'know, just in case. When Chris found a blood-swollen tick beneath his pillow he lost control of himself in revulsion and terror. He made high strangled sounds in his throat. He started feeling phantom biting under his clothes. Wes did his best to calm him down, of course, and took the offending insect and 'flushed it down the toilet.' Chris had already starting tearing apart his bedroom, looking furtively in nooks, baring his teeth at shadows. Wes, ever the helpful friend, helped look for any other ticks. And, wouldn't you know it, he found one between Chris' sheets. And another, beneath his bed. This is about when I came home. Chris was wild-eyed and sweaty, carrying all of his belongings to the front lawn, throwing them in heaps, yelling curses. He blamed everyone for his disgusting misfortune; the landlord, our roommate John, our friend's dog, God, the Devil and even, for a brief moment, himself. It was only a case of beer later that he calmed down enough to learn who he should have been blaming all along.
The tick survived the entire ordeal with less damage than Chris did. She even lived long enough to birth a few thousand progeny. Then her and the little ones were dumped into a jar of alcohol so that they could one day decorate my apartment.

Word to the wise: Entomologists are devious and will play upon your fears for sport.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pigeon Skeleton

I found over a dozen of these well preserved pigeon skeletons in the downy insulation of an old CPR rail station. There were adults, juveniles and even a calcified unhatched egg up there in the attic. While I was very happy to have stumbled upon this trove of Things That Will Make Me More Attractive To Women (TTWMMMATW), the skeletons brought up some questions. Why did all these pigeons in various stages of their development die here in peaceful poses? What contributed to their remarkable preservation? Why does it all make me so sad?
Well, I didn't get all CSI about it, but I did ponder a bit. I think it's likely that this group of pigeons fell victim to parasites. Predators seem to be out of the question, as none of the skeletons were ripped apart. There are a number of mites that prey on birds, for example, and while I think healthy adults can withstand external parasites pretty well, juveniles often don't make it out of the nest if there are too many blood-suckers growing fat on them. As for the preservation (often the ligaments are still attached) it might be attributed to the even temperature and dryness up in the attic. And the sadness was just an Internet pose of mine. I have never felt sad about these pigeons.
So: Pigeons have died, I am not sad about it, I don't know why they died and I don't know how many pigeon ambitions died with them. But I am glad that I own more pigeon skeletons than my Dad did at my age.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I call this little darling a Bug-Sucker. Most people call it a "pooter." I was introduced to it by Wes Hunting, an entomologist and friend. (I recognized the basic design from my homemade bong days.) The concept is simple; you suck one end, create a vacuum in the chamber, bugs are sucked into the chamber through the other tube. This machine is easily made in the home and is a great way to collect bugs that are less than pleasant to handle.
It is not without its drawbacks, though. If you fail to put some screen on the inside of the suction end you are liable to be chewing on some insects. And since so many insects have chemical defenses, you are almost assured a whiff of some of the following: steroids, alkaloids, cantharidin, hydrogen cyanide, histamine, or acetylcholine. Wes Hunting actually likes the smell of many defensive chemicals, and he taught me to enjoy most of them, too. The bug-sucker design has actually helped me to catch ants by using their panic pheromones against them. I collect a bunch of ants into the chamber, totally stirred up and positively reeking of panic and aggression.Then I blow gently, aiming the tube at another entrance to the anthill. The pheromones travel and lure more and more ants straight to the business end of the bug-sucker.
There are documented cases of entomologists using bug-suckers and inadvertently allowing their mucous membranes to host eggs to a larval state.
Wait. Was I unclear about that? Let me try again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tree Fungus

This fungus can be found anywhere there is sufficient moisture and shade to encourage rot in deciduous trees. It goes by a number of names including Artist's Bracket, Artist's Conk, and this is surely my favourite; Flacher Lackporling.
Apparently there are artists that enjoy using the Flacher Lackporling and related fungi as their drawing medium. They mark the bracket fungus with something sharp, establishing lines and shading on the surface. This strikes me as being presumptuous. Is this another example of artists refusing to let beauty exist for itself?
What could their scratchings present to the world that this fungus hasn't already unobtrusively shown? It has graceful lines, careful tones and beautiful textures. It has a perfect visual harmony with the context in which it exists. This fungus is a masterpiece. It requires no intervention to make its beauty known.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wasp Nest

Wasps create these nests by chewing bark, mixing it with saliva and excreting the resulting paste. What I would really like to do is harness all of this wasp-power into making nests of my own design. Will wasps chew up any bark provided for them? If all the bark available to them was soaked in various colours of paint, would they still chew it? And if so, would the resulting paste retain any of the colour? Most importantly:
These are very important Scientific Questions. And the only way to really satisfy the legions of people that have been asking them is to trap a bunch of wasps and bend them to my will. OK. So the plan is to trap a newly emerged queen in the spring. I will attend to her needs. I will be nice. I'll let her build a nest in my apartment. Hell, I won't even be fussy about the placement of the nest. If it is God's Will that a wasp nest be built inside of my pillow, so be it. I will endure the frequent stings.
But if the TECHNICOLOUR WASP NEST ends up being a GREY HOUSE OF HURT, I will throw those yellow-jacketed motherfuckers to the curb.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Great Horned Owl

If you want to own a slightly abused owl head follow these steps:
Go on a beer-soaked drive through the valleys around Hardisty with a coworker. Knock over willow trees and smell the boggy lowlands of the Battle River. Lock up the hubs. Trace the path of a bull moose through the muddy grass. Watch a beaver in the dusk, hear his teeth at work. Talk about the languid switchbacks of the Battle, of the quiet. Go back to the farmhouse. Investigate a lifetime of hunting seasons arranged in no particular order staring down at you. Drink and cuss about The Work. And when your host explains that his dogs tore apart the rest of the stuffed owl but offers you the head, accept gratefully.