Friday, December 29, 2006

Cloaca and Dagger

Various avian ceceum examples.

It was on the day after Christmas that the new owners of 391 16th Street gave the Armory Plaza Gang permission to cut down what remained of the 40’ tall White Mulberry (Morus alba L.) tree, growing just inside the fence line of their back yard. Well, maybe not all of the tree. They left an 8’ tall stump to use as an anchoring pin to tie off the old “antique” metal laundry pole that in the past week had started to drastically tilt and sink simultaneously.

Earlier last summer, the developer had aggressively exercized his legal rights to prune away every living bit of organic matter that extended out and over the mutual property line, regardless of the aesthetic aftermath. When the chainsaws stopped buzzing, what remained of that Mulberry tree was little more than an asymmetrical embarrassment.

Imagine three decades ago, some anonymous bird stopped to perch by chance and, in that exact spot along the fence where the stump now sits, vacated his bowels. It was in this selfless, humble gesture, that a tiny undigested seed was deposited, and in time growing into our previously mentioned White Mulberry… capable of feeding generations of his future offspring in perpetuity... Or that on this particular black day, the day after Christmas, his legacy would meet with such an inconvenient truth as the builders of the Armory Plaza.

Where you’d get that haircut?

As kids, my father gave out free haircuts to anyone in the neighborhood. He’d set up shop on the backyard patio, his barber seat a folding aluminum lawn chair, a bath towel would suffice as a smock. My two brothers and I were his usual, if only, willing customers. My father learned, as I believe, his barber skills in the Marine Corps, specializing in what he professionally referred to as ”the brush” . My friends, who never took up my father’s offer, would not miss out, however, on the opportunity to stand by and watch. They called it, "getting the buzz cut”, no doubt in reference to the noise the electric razor made while we were being sheared. My mother says that my father lost all his hair when he was still in his twenties…never leave your hair in the hands of a bald barber, or for that matter, never leave your tree pruning up to a bunch of foundation contractors.

Problems getting rid of that lingering holiday spirit?
Did you know that Mistletoe is considered a parasitic plant, and, like our eradicated Mulberry tree, is considered an invasive “weed species”? Of course, everyone is aware of the holiday tradition of kissing under the Mistletoe, yet do you know that mistletoe is actually an opportunistic evergreen that spreads from deciduous tree to tree, living in the canopy of it’s host, extracting moisture and nutrients from the sapwood of it’s victims by boring its roots through the unwilling tree's bark? Mistletoe doesn’t kill the infested tree outright. It does cause branch deformities, however.

In Australia there is actually a Mistletoe Bird, (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), that in eating the juicy red berries, aids in the dispersal of the Mistletoe’s seeds. Mistletoe seeds are covered with a glue-like substance called viscin that sticks to the bird’s beak. When birds try to clean their beaks, the seeds adhere to the limbs of other trees and shrubs. Mistletoe birds are said to perch along branches, rather than across them like most other birds, so that when the seed is passed, it falls onto the branch upon which the bird is perched. Mistletoe Bird droppings consists of three to five Mistletoe seeds with enough of the sticky flesh still attached so they stick to branches. In fact, this probably explains the derivation of the word Mistletoe, from two Germanic words: mista (dung) and tan (twig); referring to bird droppings on a branch or stem.

I'm dreaming of a...
Why are bird feces white? Unlike mammals, birds don't urinate. Their kidneys extract nitrogenous wastes from the bloodstream, but instead of excreting it as urea dissolved in urine as we do, they excrete it in the form of uric acid. Uric acid has a very low solubility in water, so it emerges as a white paste. This material, as well as the output of the intestines, emerges from the bird's cloaca.
Birds in general need to keep their weight as low as possible. This means that, except perhaps prior to migration, there is a limit to the amount of fat a bird can store.
Birds have an incredibly efficient digestive system in that they need to consume large amounts of food, yet maintain a low body weight in order to be able to get off the ground and fly. 'Efficient' means that birds must locate, ingest, & digest food as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Mistletoe Bird has a specially modified simple, tubular gut so the Mistletoe seed is not destroyed during digestion. Mistletoe seeds may remain inside the bird for as little as 25 minutes. For me the irony lies burried somewhere in the belief that kissing under the mistletoe was thought to ensure conception and childbearing. Gastro intestinally speaking, these days with two kids under 3 years of age, I’m lucky if I can get 25 minutes alone in my private “office” to skim the New York Times before my talents are needed else where. It's a good thing my familiy's survival doesn't depend on my ability to propagate future fruit bearing trees n' shrubs.

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