Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the 12th of July, the 23rd day of summer, seventy-one days of summer are given to you. It is the day of the Cardinal.

Hang on. We are going from road kill to steroids today, on the wings of an imaginary cardinal.
I was about to declare today the day of the red winged blackbird, but then the cardinals took the cake. It must of have been a seed cake because cardinals have the beak for seed. I was walking up the Ross Park hill up from Mona Lake, and at the top of the hill, two small red cardinals were pecking in the grass, side of the road, looking for seeds. Cardinals love seeds and those seeds give them pigments to color their feathers. I am no chemist, and this is our first mention of chemistry today, but I believe the seeds give the cardinals cartenoids, and the digestion metabolizes them. You might have heard of beta carotene, that famous compound found in carrots. You can change the color of a cardinal by changing the seeds of its feed.
My small cardinals were both bright red, and we won't be able to tell gender until fall, when these young will molt and grow adult feathers. The female is more fawn in color, with grey wings. By then, mother and father will have had two to three more clutches, having built a nest for each brood. I saw that the two birds were smart enough to take to the tree branches when a car roared down the hill, so these cardinals might not become a hood ornament. One made the mistake of crossing the road for the branches on the east side, exposing its flight to windshield and grill.
I wanted to see what seeds were attracting these two, and I saw trash on the shoulder. The male cardinal will bring trash to the female cardinal, and the female cardinal will weave it into the base of her nest. A blue Trojan package, carefully ripped from corner to corner along the top, had been discarded, probably from a passing limousine? It worries me when even the odd used condom package in the roadside garbage can cause me to speculate. What male hand could tear it open so neatly?
I hate when a song bird with brilliant feathers ends up in the road kill collection. I see all the road kill as I bike on the side of the road. There's a turtle smashed flat on the north east footing of the Mona Lake bridge. I saw it first on Tuesday, and now the shell is shriveling up. I wonder if I can make tortoise shell glasses? Of course, I cringe at picking the shell up. If I advocate for protections for crossing turtles, which are granted for sea turtles on the island of Captiva, immediately I stand on the fine line between Tea Party Republican and almost everyone else. We have a turtle fence north of town on US-31, and it tries to prevent turtles from the Muskegon River flats from crossing the freeway there. A local troubadour has sung the pluses and minuses of that fence, which really just slows turtles down. Scott Sheldon has a hilarious chat before he launches into his song, and he tells how turtles can climb that fence! Remember that mother turtles can dig deep holes with those legs.
If I advocate for fines and tickets for drivers who drive over turtles and wild creatures, the difficulty is telling who hit the animal first. I have a nephew who hit a dead animal on a roadway in West Georgia, near Fort Benning, and an officer of the law pulled him over and issued a ticket for vehicular slaughter of an endangered species. When my nephew argued, asserting the deadness of the road kill, the officer didn't agree with him.
I am not sure the road kill issue will be solved until we have tractor beams to lift the natural wonders off the pavement and onto the shoulders. For heavens sakes, don't encourage anyone to stop the car and lift an animal to safety. A wonderful woman in Pacific Palisades, California, a retired actress, stopped to render aid to a possum and was struck fatally by a motorist. The possum had passed on before her arrival.
Let us return to our cardinals. Cardinals are passerine birds, which means they perch and sing. The Cardinal has a recognizable song, but it varies from location to location. The song is not entirely innate. Innately, the Cardinal inherits an instrument of throat, lungs and beak, but it must learn songs from the cardinal flock. One of the most amazing flocks of cardinals I have ever witnessed comes to feed on seed at sundowns in the summer, fed by the elderly caretaker of Sarett Nature Center on the bluffs on the Paw Paw River north of Benton Harbor. This might be dated information now, but I saw him draw a flock of more than twenty cardinals to feed, standing before the long picture window so everyone in the center could watch the spectacle. In my mind, I kept comparing him to St. Francis, who was known to preach to the birds. The caretaker even was striking the poses from the painting of St. Francis preaching to the birds, by Jusepe de Ribera. I hope the caretaker still has the strength to carry on feeding his flock. Maybe his tradition will be kept alive by a follower? I last saw the feeding in 2005. The bird had remarkably bright red feathers, probably from the quality seed given to them.  
The Sarrett Nature Center has two remarkable men named Sarrett who are honored at the center.  Lew Sarett the poet and naturalist taught at Northwestern University. Lewis Sarett the son took to chemistry, and began researching steroids for Merck. He might not have discovered cortisone, but he found a method for making it fast and inexpensively during World War II. The U.S. Military needed cortisone because it was believed German fighter pilots had injections to stay alert at high altitudes. We have flown from Cardinals to steroids, thank you, thank you very much!
I wonder if the Sarrett family spent time at the property near Benton Harbor. The property has an interesting chemical feature, a fen, an alkaline wetland.
Sarett Nature Center:

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