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Posted in Birds, Historical articles, History, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Thursday, 6 March 2014
This edited article about Alfred Russel Wallace first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 581 published on 3 March 1973.
Loaded with their exotic catches, Bates and Wallace trudged home while their neighbours relaxed in their hammocks by Severino Baraldi
He was a thin, bespectacled, diffident young man, a land survey or by profession, and a botanist by inclination, who was most happy when he was pottering around the English hedgerows and country lanes, looking for specimens. Looking at him, you would never have thought of him as being a robust man, capable of enduring all sorts of hardships. If anything, you would have put him down as being rather a weakling. Which makes the story of Alfred Russel Wallace, all the more incredible.
It is quite possible that Wallace might well have led an obscure and uneventful life if he had not had the good fortune to meet and become the friend of a well known naturalist of the time, known as H. W. Bates. Wallace had an abrupt manner and a withdrawn nature, but there was something about Bates that broke down all his reserve. More than that, the friendship seems to have changed him overnight from an earnest but dull naturalist, into an adventurer who was to risk his life daily in a distant primeval jungle.
His imagination suddenly fired by some books of South American travel he had been reading, Wallace decided that he would like to go there in order to search for specimens. He approached his friend Bates, and put the proposition to him. Would he like to accompany Wallace on a scientific expedition along the banks of the Amazon? Bates agreed to accompany him, and in the April of 1848, the two friends set off on their journey.
Reaching the town of Para, at the mouth of the river Amazon, they rented themselves a house which they used as a base for their early expeditions into the forest. At first Wallace was only conscious of the luxuriant foliage and the immense size of the trees, which often rose to more than eighty feet before they spread out their branches like a vast canopy over everything below. The reckless extravagance of colour that Nature used for her plant life also astonished him as he trod daily along jungle paths bordered by rare orchids and mimosa growing as plentifully as weeds.
But this, as he was soon to learn, was only one aspect of the jungle. The other was ugly and cruel. In holes, only a little way off from the footpaths, great bird-catching spiders lurked. Snakes were everywhere, ready to strike out at the intruder’s legs. Hornets and wasps abounded, and crocodiles lurked on the river banks.
In the night the air was filled with venomous insects which penetrated the muslin sleeping nets and inflicted bites which turned into ugly sores. Most loathsome of all were the vampire bats, which settled on the horses and fed on their blood.
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Posted in Animals, Birds, Fish, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 24 February 2014
This edited article about wildlife first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 563 published on 28 October 1972.
Salmon leaping torrents and waterfalls
In the hilly and mountainous parts of the country the streams are torrents which come tumbling downhill, splashing over rocks and pouring over waterfalls. The movement of the water is eye-catching in what is often an otherwise desolate scene. Over the years, the streams have carved gullies and ravines in the hillsides for small trees and bushes to find shelter from the wind. Waterfalls are especially spectacular, where a wall of foaming water crashes in to a pool at the bottom.
These streams and waterfalls may look pretty but they do not appear at first sight to be good places for animals to live. A paddle in the water shows up the disadvantages. The water is icy cold and quickly numbs the feet, while the current is often strong enough to make standing difficult. In the fiercest mountain streams the boulders may be dislodged and hurled down-stream.
Yet, as in other inhospitable places, from hot volcanic springs to the ocean bed, there are certain animals which make a living in torrents. There are some advantages for small animals. The foaming water is full of oxygen for breathing and the water carries food which only needs to be picked up as it goes past. Two things are needed, however. Torrent animals must be able to withstand cold and they must be able to cling tightly to the rocks by means of claws or suckers so that they do not get swept away.
In the British Isles there are several small animals which live in fast-flowing streams. They are mostly the larvae of insects. The adults do not live in the streams but they come there to lay their eggs.
Mayflies are common insects which can be seen flying near water. They lay their eggs in the water and these hatch into larvae called nymphs. The nymphs have three “tails” at the tip of the abdomen, as do the adults, and there are two rows of feathery gills on the sides of the body. Mayfly nymphs can be found in many ponds and streams. Some burrow in mud near the bank, others creep amongst the water weed, but a few can be seen in fast streams. Nymphs of the mayfly called Ecdyonurus have broad, flat bodies and cling to stones so that the water rushes past them. The legs are also flattened and are held at an angle so that the force of the water pushes them against the stone. A relative of Ecdyonurus, called Rhithrogena, has turned one of its pairs of gills into a sucker to help it cling to stones.
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Posted in Africa, Animals, Birds, Farming, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 21 February 2014
This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 561 published on 14 October 1972.
The Quelea among other creatures by A Oxenham
Large areas of Africa are covered by savannah country. They reach from Senegal and the Sudan in the north, through East Africa to South Africa. Savannahs are grasslands with scattered woods and solitary trees. For most of the year savannahs are dry, except around lakes and swamps and in river valleys. They form the most familiar African countryside because they are the home of the big game animals – the antelope, zebra, giraffe and elephants.
The mixture of grass and trees reminds one of an English park, especially after the rainy season when the vegetation is green and fresh, but the last 20 or 30 years have seen a great change come over much of the African savannah. Large areas have been ploughed up so that crops can be grown to support the rapidly increasing human population. Millet, rice and wheat have replaced the natural grasses.
The disappearance of the original plants has also led to the disappearance of many of the native animals. Antelope and elephants are not appreciated in agricultural regions, but there is one small bird that readily eats the ears of cultivated grasses and descends on the crops in such vast numbers that it is a major pest. This is the black-faced dioch, or quelea, as it is now generally called from its scientific name Quelea quelea.
The quelea is a relative of our common house sparrow. It is the same size as a house sparrow and has similar, generally dull, plumage but the conical bill is red. Queleas are nomads; it is possible to travel many miles through the savannahs without seeing a single specimen. Then a flock is encountered, feeding on grass seeds, drinking at a waterhole or roosting in a clump of trees. A couple of weeks later, the flock disappears; it has eaten all the grass seeds and has flown off in search of new feeding grounds.
The quelea flocks are so large it is impossible to count the birds in them. When feeding, a flock is continually on the move. As the birds find themselves at the back of the flock, they fly over the heads of their comrades and land at the front. The effect has been described as looking like “a great black cloud rolling steadily forward across the plain.” When the flock goes to roost in the evening, it may need several acres of trees to provide perching space for the tens of thousands of birds, and stout branches may break under their weight.
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Posted in America, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 14 February 2014
This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 552 published on 12 August 1972.
King-Bird, and Bienteveo Tyrant-Flycatcher
Sitting straight-backed on its favourite perch on the top of a telegraph wire, the kingbird keeps a sharp look-out for any insect which may be unfortunate enough to fly past it. For with one sharp, loud snap of the bird’s bill an insect can be promptly devoured.
Found throughout the American continent, from Canada to the southernmost tip of South America, the kingbird belongs to the family Tyrannus, and of the 400 species of this family the kingbird is the largest and certainly the most fierce.
It is even called “Little Chief” by the American Indians because of the ferocity with which it attacks any intruders entering its territory. Although it is only nine inches long the kingbird is surprisingly fearless and aggressive and will attack crows, hawks, and even eagles if they dare to venture near its nest. Many of these large birds dread an attack, from this fierce little bird and will try desperately to escape rather than face its fury. Even if these intruders show no interest in its nest or brood, the kingbird will pursue them until they are well away from its nest. Even human beings do not escape its indignation.
Although the kingbird is a ruthless defender of its own home it will think nothing of raiding the hives of honey bees and inflicting terrible damage on them. Even the bees buzzing frantically round their impudent attacker in a desperate effort to sting it and make it go away, cannot stop the kingbird from carrying out its wicked deed of destruction.
If the kingbird has had little success with catching insects while sitting on its perch, it will make a more strenuous effort to search for food. It flies through the air with its mouth wide open, forming an excellent trap for an unsuspecting insect flying by. The kingbird can catch insects on the wing with ease because of its ability to manoeuvre and attack swiftly.
The kingbird’s nest is a rough and ragged structure of sticks and straws lined with grass and other plant materials which it builds on the upper branches of a tree. It will sometimes take over the hole of a woodpecker or usurp the mud nest of an oven bird.
It has a plumage of grey feathers on its back and white ones on its breast, and an orange crest concealed by upright feathers on its crown. When the kingbird becomes angry these feathers stand erect, revealing the orange crest which gives it the appearance of a flashing light. Perhaps this is a danger signal to warn other birds that the kingbird is in a very ferocious mood!
Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 12 February 2014
This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 550 published on 29 July 1972.
Peregrine Falcon in a power dive
Soaring swiftly through the sky high above its hunting ground, the Peregrine Falcon watches out for its prey.
Once it has singled out its quarry, this king of falcons manoeuvres itself above the victim, sometimes as high as 600 feet, and then, at an amazing speed of over 100 miles per hour, power-dives in one breathtaking spectacular “swoop.”
Its wickedly sharp talons plunge deep into the victim with such shattering force that the peregrine can split open its victim, or break off its head at the moment of impact so that it is killed instantly.
In this way, the peregrine kills ducks, game birds, rooks, crows and any other type of large prey.
With small birds, the peregrine will employ a different method of attack. The victim is overtaken in level flight, seized by the talons, and despatched with one bite of the peregrine’s powerful beak.
If a victim somehow manages to escape, the peregrine will swoop again and again until it has made a successful kill. This happens very rarely, though, because the victim is usually rendered helpless immediately. The lapwing is perhaps the only bird which can outmanoeuvre the peregrine. Its erratic, dodging flight gives it an advantage over the falcon’s superior speed.
It is certainly true that the peregrine falcon is one of the most ruthless killers in the animal world and strikes terror into the hearts of other birds, but it is perhaps the least cruel of Nature’s killers because it despatches its victims with such skill and efficiency that death comes to them almost instantly.
For this reason, the peregrine was a great favourite of the European monarchs in the Middle Ages, especially in England where it was used in royal hunting expeditions.
Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 10 February 2014
This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 548 published on 15 July 1972.
As well as other birds’ eggs, the jay likes seeds and nuts to eat, especially acorns which it collects and buries as food for winter
A beam of light filters through the trees of a forest glade and lights up the magnificent colours of the jay as it flashes past in its flickering, faltering flight.
Only rarely does anyone see this wonderful masterpiece of colour with its hues of cinnamon, vivid patches of blue, and stripes of black and white, because the jay is such a shrewd and cunning bird that it is more often heard than it is seen. Its harsh screech echoes through the woods all over Great Britain except in the breeding season when it is almost completely silent.
It is in spring that the true character of this elusive creature is revealed. As a plunderer of other birds’ nests, it has made many enemies. It will perch on a branch of a tree and look round for an occupied nest to raid. Instead of swooping down instantly and driving out the parent bird from its nest, it will remain on its perch and wait patiently for the parent bird to leave its nest of its own accord. Then the jaunty jay sneaks down slyly and steals an egg or a young chick and flies off before the parent bird returns. Even if the owner of the nest is six times smaller than itself, the jay will always avoid a confrontation with it.
This lively, colourful bird has an insatiable curiosity and although it is a priceless ally against slugs and harmful insects, it is remorselessly persecuted by gamekeepers because of its fondness for pheasant eggs. Gardeners have often waged war on it too, because of its irritating habit of visiting vegetable plots in the early hours of the morning to strip the pods from a whole row of peas!
Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 6 February 2014
This edited article about jackdaws first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 546 published on 1 July 1972.
When the jackdaw starts off on its search for prey, a good meal is not the only thing it will be looking for. This black-feathered resident of Great Britain has another weakness apart from its love of insects.
On one of its many scavenging hunts it will keep a sharp look-out for bright, glittering objects which it loves to collect and take back to its untidy nest. They will then be stored in the jackdaw’s pile of ‘trinkets’.
So cheeky is this petty pilferer of the bird world, that there have even been cases of stolen jewellery being traced to its activities!
Not long ago, it was found that the jackdaw had yet another, more dangerous ‘criminal’ hobby, which has given it an extremely bad reputation as a fire-raiser. The fire brigade has often been called out to extinguish fires in large trees which have left firemen very puzzled.
Once when this happened, they did find out how the fire was started. Some years ago, when a man was walking through a wood he ducked his head to pass under the low branches of a yew tree and felt a burning on the back of his neck. He found that it was a charred ember and looked up to see a fire half-way up the tree. The fire service was called immediately and they found that the fire had started in the sticks of a jackdaw’s nest. The impudent creature had carried a lighted cigarette end up to its nest after one of its many ‘treasure hunts’.
The jackdaw is not very fussy about the state of its nest or, indeed, where its nest is actually situated. It will often live, together with other daws, along low cliffs, nesting in holes and recesses which have been formed by weathering. It will be just as happy bringing up its young in a disused rabbit’s hole as in the belfry of a church.
The jackdaw is quite a remarkable architect in the building of its nest. In some cases the stack of loose sticks piled up by jackdaws in a church tower has been known to form a structure 12 feet high!
The boldness of this cunning daw is hardly surpassed among birds. Its pilferings cannot be denied, but at the same time, its services to the agriculturist are great. Its destruction of harmful insects and its useful habit of ridding sheep of parasites makes it a very welcome visitor on any farm!
Posted in Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 5 February 2014
This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 544 published on 17 June 1972.
Perched on a branch at the top of a tree, carefully concealed behind a clump of green leaves, the female cuckoo casts her eyes about looking for her first victim of the spring. At last she sees what she has been waiting for. A female hedge sparrow is busily building a nest in which to lay her eggs. The cuckoo stays lurking amongst the leaves until the hedge sparrow has laid her eggs and left her carefully prepared nest. As soon as she is out of sight, the cuckoo glides down to the nest, picks up one of the newly-laid eggs in her bill, and settles on the nest for about six seconds to lay one of her own eggs. Then she backs out of the nest and flies away, taking the hedge sparrow egg with her. Later she can enjoy a good meal of it in peace. Should the hedge sparrow return unexpectedly before the deed is done, the cuckoo will simply ignore her.
Once the hedge sparrow returns to her nest she does not notice that one of her eggs has been replaced by the cuckoo’s eggs because they are the same colour. This, however, is no matter of chance, for the cuckoo which lays blue eggs will only lay them in the nest of a bird which lays blue eggs, as in the case of a hedge sparrow, or, if it lays brown eggs, will only lay them in the nest of a bird which lays brownish eggs. It certainly seems as though this arch-criminal of the bird world has everything carefully planned before she carries out her act of deception!
Meanwhile, the egg which she has left in the hedge-sparrow’s nest will start to hatch after 12 days, often before the other eggs do. The cuckoo, blind and naked, with its long fore-limbs with which it feels its way, does not rest until it has worked itself underneath its foster brothers and backing to the edge of the nest, hoists them over the rim one by one.
Then the most curious thing takes place. The foster parent, far from being outraged at the cuckoo’s wicked deed, shows no concern for her dead and dying young, and merely redoubles her efforts to satisfy the insatiable hunger of her foster child, who is the terrible usurper of her nest. Another most unusual aspect of this foster family, is that the hedge sparrow does not appear to notice that she has given birth to a giant – the young cuckoo is about three times the size of an adult hedge sparrow! After about three weeks the cuckoo has outgrown its nest and perches on a branch near the nest still demanding to be fed by its foster parent who is still unaware that she has been cruelly deceived by the cunning cuckoo. As soon as the cuckoo is strong enough to fend for itself it flies off to spend the winter months in Africa.
Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 29 January 2014
This edited article about animals first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 531 published on 18 March 1972.
Red deer rutting
Several years ago a film was shown in London to an audience of scientists. It was taken in East Africa and showed the start of the breeding season of the Uganda kob, a kind of antelope. At first we saw, in the film, several males. Each had marked out for himself a circle of ground, his territory. He patrolled the boundary of this from time to time. All was quiet until another male happened to trespass on the territory. Then a fight broke out.
After a while a female kob walked over to one of the territories. The male took no notice of her as she walked to the centre of the territory and crouched to the ground, chewing the cud. Soon another female joined her and the two crouched side-by-side, the male meanwhile patrolling the boundary. The females had come in for mating. The buck had no need to fetch them, they came of their own accord.
The importance of this film was that it drove home, to the scientists present, that the Uganda kob bucks do not fight over the females. They fight over possession of a territory. It crystallized ideas that had already been growing among those studying animal behaviour, that with the possible exception of man, males do not fight for the females. They fight over territory.
A short while after seeing this film I wrote about this in a newspaper article. One reader wrote a scathing letter saying that only that day he had watched two blackbirds fighting and beside them was the hen, so they must have been fighting over the hen. Certainly it must have looked to him as if the two males were fighting for the female, and that also was how it had appeared to naturalists until about twenty years ago. When a male animal, whether antelope or blackbird, has acquired a territory a female is likely soon to come in and join him. So when a fight breaks out she is present and it looks as if the squabble is over her. In fact, males will fight over territory before any female has come in, and fighting can break out also after she has raised a family and departed.
Although we speak of these boundary squabbles as fights it would be more true to speak of them as trials of strength, with a lot bluff. In the wild they usually end without bloodshed or any serious injury. When we consider how many fights there are between male animals each year, if only 20 per cent of them ended in death or serious injury parts of the animal kingdom would have ground to a halt long ago – for lack of males.
Occasionally a stag may be mortally wounded in a fight with another stag in the breeding season. People seeing such things, or hearing about them, are influenced in thinking this is the aim of the combat. They are the exception. A stag hurt in such a contest has almost certainly been accidentally injured, just as in boxing one of the contestants occasionally, but very rarely, dies of injury received in the ring.
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Posted in Animals, Birds, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Sport on Wednesday, 29 January 2014
This edited article about falconry first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 530 published on 11 March 1972.
It was six o’clock in the morning and Simon the falconer was already hard at work in the royal mews. He had risen at dawn, broken his fast and begun immediately the routine which he had been following every day for the last two of his eighteen years.
He was in the dark loft beside the screen perch. This was a long rail bracketed to the wall, from which a canvas screen stretched taut to the ground. Here perched the majestic gerfalcons – the long-winged hawks which age-old tradition assigned to kings.
They were killers. They gave no mercy and expected none. In return for food, they consented to become man’s partners in the hunt, but never his servants. Yet they wore the outward symbols of bondage. Around the legs of each falcon were leather straps or jesses; above each strap was a bell and from a swivel-joint attached to each strap a leather thong tethered them to the perch.
Simon’s first task was to lift each ger on to his gloved fist, speaking lovingly to her, coaxing and teasing her. Then he would slip a hood over her head to quieten her and would carefully examine her castings for any signs of sickness. Afterwards he would clean the perch and replace the ger gently on the rail. He had just replaced the last ger when he heard a familiar voice outside and quietly came down from the loft.
Robert de Bavent, falconer to King Edward I, and Simon’s master, stood there, talking to a royal messenger, travel-stained and weary. Robert, it transpired, had received an order from the king which closely concerned Simon. It was dated July 1304 and had been despatched three days before from Stirling, where Edward was besieging the Scottish army. The king needed more falcons urgently. Robert was ordered to buy some from St. Botolph’s Abbey Colchester, which regularly supplied the mews; meanwhile he was to send on the gerfalcon he had been training. Perkin the huntsman had been sent to carry it back immediately. Perkin, added the messenger, was lodging in a tavern by the harbour twenty miles away.
Simon grinned. That was just like the king. In the middle of a crucial siege he still went hawking and took time to send urgent instructions to his falconer, when he might have been holding councils of war. In Simon’s opinion he was a king who had his priorities right.
But to Robert it was no grinning matter. His under-falconers were all hard-pressed and he had been forced to entrust the training of the ger to Simon, the youngest and least experienced of his men. He was not at all sure that the ger was ready. The king would clearly brook no delay but still less would he tolerate an ill-trained hawk on his fist. And Robert would bear the brunt of his anger. A good falconer but a timid man, he took an easy way out. He ordered Simon to ride with his ger and show her to Perkin the huntsman. Let Perkin decide if she were ready or not. Simon nodded, saddled up and went to collect the ger, Princess, from the perch in the loft.
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