Posts Tagged 'mammals'

Winter Sounds

Sciurus carolinensisOver all, the wind in the trees, like an overtone. Cardinals chipping. Blue Jays screeching. Two trees, or perhaps trunks of the same, rubbing together. The tapping of a woodpecker. White-thoated Sparrows scratching in the leaves. The gnawing of a squirrel on a nut.

The Whiteness of the Squirrel

Sciurus carolinensisThis Gray Squirrel obviously isn’t very gray. It has been seen out and about in Prospect Park lately. Several “white” — or ivory — squirrels have been noted in the park and Park Slope in recent years, but they’re not all that uncommon here.Sciurus carolinensisLike the black squirrels also seen, these are all variations on the basic Sciurus carolinensis.

Bärenfähigkeit

bear1On the liturgical calendar, today is St. Martin’s Day. In the late Middle Ages, “Martin” was often the name given to bears abused and belittled in circuses and other equivalents of side-shows. This is not coincidental, Michel Pastoureau shows in his fascinating The Bear: History of a Fallen King. bear3The Church waged a long war against bears, which in Europe were already being represented in Neanderthal and Cro-Magon painted caves, the very caves bears may have lived in. (These would have been cave bears, now extinct; Pastoureau is most concerned with the brown bear, now pushed to remote parts of Europe and threatened everywhere there.) The Germanic tribes who butted against Roman expansion were bear-worshippers. The Viking Berserkers wore bear shirts, which is what “berserker” means. Kings and other heroes once proved themselves by battling bears man-to-bear. The nurturing she-bear raised various Greek and other mythological heroes. The hyper-sexualized male bear threatened female humans, as did the quasi-bearish Wild Man, whose hairiness was akin to the bear’s. Bärenfähigkeit means the capacity to become a bear. Half-bear/half-human figures populated the old tales.

This all enraged the Church, who promoted the (foreign) lion as the true king of the beasts and painted the bear as a tool of, if not actually, Satan, in its efforts to stamp out old forms of non-Christian worship. St. Martin’s Day was laid over older celebrations of the beginning of bear hibernation, a sure sign of the coming winter.

Rich in cultural references, Pastoureau’s book reminded me of a couple of things. I’ve only dipped into Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, where giant bears play a critical role, an interesting comparison with the Christianology of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s character, Beorn, a sort of werebear. The name Beorn — and Bjorn, Bern, Ursula, Arthur, and many others — all come from various languages for “bear.”

Pastoureau has also written three books on the history of colors. I’ve read Blue and Black and and recommend them.

“In killing the bear, his kinsman, his fellow creature, his first god, man long ago killed his own memory and more or less symbolically killed himself.”bear2Bear ceramics at Cortlandt St. R train station by Margie Hughto. “Trade, Treasure and Travel” originally placed in 1997, survived the World Trade Center bombing and was reinstalled in 2011.

Squirrels

Sciurus carolinensisSciurus carolinensis.Sciurus carolinensis

Drey

dreyA large clump of leaves in the branches of a tree is often mistaken for a bird nest. It’s actually a drey, or squirrel nest. More specifically, it’s a summer nest. Winter will find them squirreled away in warmer, sturdier spots, like your attic.
Quiscalus quisculaThis Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), helping to perpetuate the impression that this is a bird’s nest, was rooting around in the leaves, which had no doubt attracted various invertebrates over the months.

My Shorter OED and Webster’s 3rd both throw up their hands on the origins of “drey,” which may also be spelled “dray.” The OED has it going back to the early 17th century. Also, it should be noted that, given English’s often multipurpose flexibility, there are no other definitions for the word.

Update: I am in error. See comments. THere is another definition for dray.

Chestnuts

Castanea dentataAmerican Chestnuts (Castanea dentata). Be careful handling these burrs, or pods: the spines are v. sharp! Castanea dentataMost of the nuts produced by these young trees are scrawny, undeveloped things, quite fibrous inside, but they still seem to disappear into the maws of the squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).Sciurus carolinensisThis one was vocally displeased with my poaching of the two plumpest nuts.

Woodchuck

Marmota monaxWho doesn’t need some whistlepig every once and a while? Marmota monaxOld-ivory yellow teeth and all: a defining characteristic of the Rodentia are their pairs of continuously growing upper and lower incisors.Marmota monaxGnaw, gnaw!


Share

Bookmark and Share

Join 320 other followers

Twitter

Nature Blog Network

Archives


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 320 other followers