Despite living in a major urban center (New York), I love nature! Don’t know much about it, but I’m eager to learn more, though quite frankly, this should not involve any activities such as sleeping on thin mats on the ground, or being less than 20 meters from full-service indoor plumbing.
That being said, I feel I’ve got more nature-smarts than, say, The Hub, who once pointed out a group of domesticated farm animals while on a trip to Colorado, where I was introducing him to my backwoodsy family early in our marriage. Upon catching sight, Al exclaimed “Horsies!”
“No, sweetie. Cows.”
Later, Uncle Butch was showing us around the ranch by jeep. Butch pointed to a similar grouping on a hill, and said something like “yup…ol’ Clive’s grazin’ a-heada twenty-er-so
cattle up yonder.” Al turned towards me, accusatorily. “Cattle? You said those were cows!” Fortunately, Uncle Butch was trying to ease the jeep across the slippery rocks of Crystal Crik, and didn’t hear this exchange. Anyway, I’ll chalk that one up to language nuance and idiom usage, and not gross ignorance of other species.
In a mission to help would-be nature lovers here in New York and elsewhere, I’m starting my “What’s That?” column of Q/A about all things wild.
Q: I saw a few birds yesterday. They definitely aren’t pigeons. What are they?
A: From your description, I’d say they were starlings.
Q: While in the Bronx, I stopped by Van Courtlandt Park. There was a whole bunch of trees near a fence. Draped over both the trees AND the fence was something that wasn’t a tree, and it wasn’t a bush. What was it?
A: You saw something called a “vine”. Vines come in two types: good and bad. Good vines include grape vines, the kind of ivy Harvard has, and anything with nice flowers
growing up a trellis. Bad vines include poison ivy and stuff that completely takes over a whole forest and eats your house. I don’t think we have that in the Northeast, but we have something like it. I forgot what it is, but anyway, I think it’s unlikely that what you saw is a grape vine.
Q: This isn’t strictly a nature question, but it’s been bothering me. Last month, the back of my left hand turned a dark brick-red color and was painful to the touch. After a few days, the skin developed odd white patches that flaked off. Underneath was normal skin, but the color had changed. It’s now a nice shade of coffee-toffee. By itself, this is a very pleasant skin tone — but it looks out of place on my arm, which has always been a translucent icy pink. What happened?
A: This is a medical condition called Erythema Solare. It is an acute inflammatory response caused by exposure to high levels of ultraviolet radiation. This most likely
happened when you lost your left glove and stood for over half an hour in Van Cortlandt Park. It’s quite common in parts of the U.S. among people of northern European ancestry, where it’s called “sunburn”. Although “sunburn” can lead to dangerous complications, it sounds like you dodged a bullet this time.
Q: How can I tell the difference between mosquito bites, bed bug bites, and spider bites?
A: Eww, can we talk about something else?
Q: I know that cicadas are big bugs that look like waterbugs, but cicadas are bigger and have nice lacy wings and they can’t bite you and have no desire to live inside my kitchen. So, basically harmless. They make a loud clacking sound every August. My upstairs neighbor’s air conditioner also makes a loud clacking sound every August. My question is….how can I tell them apart?
A: You have already demonstrated advanced knowledge of cicadas, and the fact that you know they are insects rather than stationary metal boxes puts you ahead of many city
dwellers. Here’s some quick tips: cicadas take a break sometimes, but your neighbor’s a/c never does. Also, cicadas don’t drip large droplets of moisture onto YOUR air conditioner every 8 to 23 seconds until you want to scream. September usually quiets everything down a bit, so hang in there. You could also try moving your air conditioner to another window.
Q: I swear I saw a Great Snowy Owl in Central Park. It was amazing!
A: Question back at you: did the owl have the word “Zabar’s” printed in orange on its side? Unless this sighting happened in the dead of winter after a 2-foot snowfall, and the owl was pointed out to you by a professional bird watcher with binoculars, what you saw was a plastic bag caught in a tree.
Q: I was growing basil on my kitchen windowsill. It died. Why?
A: Growing plants indoors is notoriously difficult. There are businesses in New York filled with experts dedicated just to this enterprise. The usual suspect could be that basil does not thrive in complete darkness (since your kitchen window is 2 feet from the wall of the building next door). Plus, when you baked cookies that one time, the resulting temperature in your kitchen was 350 degrees, just like the inside of your oven. Basil doesn’t like that. Even if you get something else in a pot, it’s so easy to water it too much or not enough. I suggest you get a vase and start with some cut flowers from the corner superette, and work up from there.
Q: Is that a cricket?