Wild in the City — Shamrock, early June

JUNE – early

Shamrock

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

Nobody can say with absolute certainty which specific plant is the “dear little shamrock” and perhaps it was a name given to several plants. The most widely accepted candidates are the species Trifolium dubium (Irish: Seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (White Clover; Irish: Seamair bhán). The yellow-flowering one, a native plant to Ireland and the European mainland, goes by a number of common names in English: Lesser Trefoil, Suckling Clover, Little Hop Clover and Lesser Hop Trefoil.

Close-up yellow flowers of shamrock (Trefolium dubium).
(Image sourced: Internet)

Right now, the yellow is flowering. Once established, this plant thrives on lawns that are regularly mowed and it has little competition for light or alimentation (though it may not grow as lushly as in damper places) and there it establishes colonies, shamrock patches among the mown grass. Now, in early June, the lawn is dotted with patches of yellow flowers, to be visited by insect pollinators, soon to produce seeds. The plant, like the rest of its family, produces pods but in this case, the pods are tiny and contain only a single seed. Pods protect the development of seeds until they are ready to shed (or in some cases, like the gorse or furze, to explode).

Colonies of shamrock among lawn grasses (Photo: D.Breatnach)

People who like their lawns smooth and well-tended may resent clover patches since they tend not to wear as well as the mixed grasses with which lawns are seeded. Nevertheless, the plant is benefiting the soil and indeed the nearby grasses. It belongs to the clovers, belonging in turn to a very large group of plants in as different in appearance from one another as peas and beans on the one hand and furze (also known as gorse) on the other (but many bearing fruit pods). They are the legume group, plants that concentrate nitrogen in nodules around their roots, making many of them good crops with which to precede plants that require a lot of nitrogen, such as the cabbage family or cereals.

Shamrock flowering in short grass.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Amateur botanist and zoologist Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) once asked people from around Ireland to send him specimens of what they believed to be an Irish shamrock and identified the five most common plant species, of which the two most common were the yellow (flowering) clover followed by the white. A hundred years later, Dr Charles Nelson repeated the experiment in 1988 and found that yellow clover was still the most commonly chosen. According to Wikipedia, yellow clover is also the species cultivated for sale in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day and is the one nominated by the Department of Agriculture as the “official” shamrock of Ireland.

Once flowering is over, probably in August, one can dig up a small section and transplant to flower box or pot in order to harvest sprigs of it for St. Patrick’s day on March 17th (a tradition that is nothing as old as people might think).

But nobody planted the yellow in the lawn – it got there by its own natural methods, possibly by wind or in animal excreta. Unlike the lawn on which it has set up its colonies, which was seeded on raked earth or, more likely, laid in grass turf rolls, it is in fact a part of wildlife in the city.

end

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SPRING IN TREE, FLOWER AND SONG

Diarmuid Breatnach

As we have been shown this year, if we did not already know, Spring comes in its own time. Roughly around the calendar yes, but not exactly. It’s not like the clothing merchants, who withdrew the gloves in March and left people like me, who regularly lose them, with frozen hands unable to buy cheap replacements while the models stood in windows in shorts and bikinis.

But spring wild flowers are already out and have been for weeks, though the city is not a great place to see them. However in gardens, parks, canal banks and on empty sites, the dandelion, much disregarded as a decorative flower has been flaunting its bright yellow flower for weeks and will continue to do so for quite a while yet.

Some variety of Speedwell and Cat’s Ear (Photo D.Breatnach)

Furze (Aiteann) in bloom (photo: D.Breatnach)

In early April I spent a few days in Wicklow by the Dartry river. In a very short walk to Ashford I encountered eight types of wild flowers in bloom, including furze (or gorse), daisies,

Fumitory maybe (pink), mystery white flower on stalk and Groundsel on a bit of waste ground.
(photo: D.Breatnach)

The humble daisy (Nóinín) looking splendid on some waste ground.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

groundsel, cat’s ear, speedwell, and of course dandelion. On a longer walk heading away from the river I came upon primrose, lesser celandine and wild or barren strawberry (not knowing how to tell the two apart at this time of year). And a mystery plant also (see photo). Swathes of wild garlic (creamh), grew both sides of the country road; I had long thought this plant a foreign import but it seems I was wrong. It certainly spreads when established however, as witnessed by this Wicklow road and wooded areas of Dalkey Hill where I have also seen large patches of it. My father transplanted some to our garden but rarely used it in cooking – or if he did, not often enough, for it soon took over large areas of the smallish garden.

Wild Garlic (Creamh).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Blue Tits even upside down on bird feeder (note that the tree is the Cherry Laurel, an invasive tree species).   (Photo: D.Breatnach)

 

 

At a Wicklow hotel garden’s bird feeder, blue tit, chaffinch and some other species flicked in to take a snack and flicked out again, making it very difficult to photograph them but which of course did not bother them at all.

Returning through Ashford (Áth na Fuinseoige) I came across one of our

Chaffinch (Rí rua) picking up some of the spillage from the feeder on the ground. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

feathered anglers, the smaller grey heron. Patience personified, this species stands in the water waiting for the appropriate moment to strike, apparently not feeling the cold. But perhaps this one did feel it, for it stood on the bank.

Grey Heron (Corr réisc) on the Vartry riverbank.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Gael reckoned the start of Spring with the feast of St. Brigid (and probably the Goddess Brig before her), February 1st, when the ewes come into milk, with their expected birth of lambs. As Brigid/ Brig was associated with butter in some traditions it is possible that some early butter was made from sheep’s milk, though that is not recorded in records, as far as I know. The lambs and many other animals born in Spring had no choice regarding when to appear – that had been decided in the Autumn or Summer of the year before when their mothers mated. Birds, on the other hand, who are more vulnerable, mate in the Spring itself.

In Dublin city until perhaps a week ago, there was very little sign of Spring apart from the lengthening of the day. The blind wandering poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (1779-1835), writing in the month of January, was already anticipating spring in one of his better-known poems:

Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá dúl chun síneadh, 


Is tar éis na féil’ Bríde ardóigh mé mo sheol;


Ó chur mé ‘mo cheann é, ní stopfaidh mé choíche 


Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.

He’s thinking of heading home to County Mayo, he feels Spring coming but will wait until Bridget’s feast day to “hoist his sail” and since it’s in his head now won’t stop till he gets there. We might have been anticipating Spring ourselves in January this year and into February — though cold and wet enough — but if so we were in for a shock towards the end of the month and into March with “snow dumps”.

The birds have to set up their territory even so and in fact the robin (Spideog) was marking its territory in song sporadically through December and January, often enough even at night in the city and particularly near street or train station lighting. The polygamous wren (Dreoilín), if not already at it followed in February. The seagulls at their nesting sites on roofs were calling and mating in mid-March but may have been delayed a little by the snow; however they are hardy birds. Some blackbird males have been singing since March and now are all in full throaty song. In March also we heard the high-pitched “peeps” of those acrobats, the tits as they foraged for invertebrates through the branches of tree and bush and at the end of April, also the bursts of chaffinch song which remind us often of caged canaries — and why not, when the canaries are often taught that very bird’s song to sing.

The Lesser Celandine, I think (Grán arcáin)
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

January was the time to hear adult foxes in the city, the somewhat frightening scream of the vixen and the two or three-times bark in quick succession of the dog fox. This month the cubs, born a month earlier, will venture out of their den and may be heard sometimes by night at play too, though this is more likely in the months to come.

The mystery plant with flower or hood bud (going by the leaves, not ‘Lords and Ladies’).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Primrose (Sabhaircín) leaf, bud and flower.(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Wild (or perhaps Barren) Strawberry (Sú talún or bréige) in blossom.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The trees and ground plants apparently respond more to length and angle of sunlight to tell them it is time to grow from seed or to burst open into bud and some of them are doing so now in late April, for example the birch (Beith). Others delay and the ash trees (source of our camáin or hurley sticks and much else) are still in their black hard bud stage in late April and the oak waits along too. Trees that flower tend to do so first and put out leaf later, as the blackthorn (Draighneán donn) did in February with its little white blossoms which will develop into sloes (airne) later in the year. In March hawthorn (Sceach geal), willow (Sail, from which we get “The Sally Gardens”) and elder (Ceireachán), all of which may be seen in gardens or parks (and the elder growing even on empty sites) were already green-misting in tiny leaf and are now well advanced. The “candles” of the horse chestnut (Crann Cnó capaill), to be seen in parks and in some leafy suburb streets, are however forming alongside the tree’s large leaves right now at the end of April (Aibreán) and the rowan (Caorthann) and sycamore (Seiceamar) of the whirling seeds are also in stages of leaf.

Slender Speedwell perhaps (there are a number of different species). (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Spring is really coming for us but for many plants, mammals and birds, it is already here.

end

PS: When checking The Tree Council of Ireland for tree species names in Irish, I was shocked to find that they do not supply them. Nor reference the huge number of places across the land whose names in English are corruptions of the original Irish place names derived from the names of trees.

Links for more information:

Identifying wildflowers by month through the year: http://www.irishwildflowers.ie/this-month/april.html

Wildflower information, photo and names in Irish, English and Latin: http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/plant_detail.php?id_flower=220

Song of the Chaffinch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVyW9t5wX3U

Native trees in leaf throughout the year: http://www.thegardenshop.ie/native-trees

COLOURFUL PIONEERS, STRANGE PARTNERS

Diarmuid Breatnach

They are all around us; they live but they are not animals. Nor are they micro-organisms – we see them clearly all in many places. They can grow on organic and none-organic surfaces. We might think they are plants – algae, moss or fungus but they are none of those — they are lichens. There are about 20,000 known species1 and they cover an estimated 6% of the Earth’s surface, able to exist in environments as different as beneath Artic snow, on salt spray-showered seashores and windswept mountain rocks and in tropical rainforest. An estimated 6% of the Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen species.2 Some are long-lived and include the longest-living things on Earth. There are species that require nothing to cling to while others can live inside rock, in the spaces between grains.3 In Ireland, 1,134 separate species of lichen have been recognised, according to the National Biodiversity Data Centre – i.e over 5% of Earth’s estimated total species right here on this little island.4

When we look at some growing on tree bark or rock, we are tempted to think of them as fungus, algae or even moss. Mosses are ancient enough life-forms and are plants, which algae are too and almost certainly much older. Fungi used to be considered plants but are so no longer and in their structure and digestion and also genes, are more akin and more closely related to animals. This will not be good news to vegetarians or vegans but the evidence is difficult to deny.5 Indeed there are some feoilséantóirí (word in Irish for a vegetarian and more apt in the context of this sentence) who already dislike eating many fungi because the texture reminds them of meat.

But lichens are neither fungi nor plants.

White and Map Lichen on rock, Old Kenmare: Killarney Rd Kerry. (Photo source: WikiIreland)

 

Lobaria Pulmonoria lichen, a leafy type, Killarney National Park (photo sourced from Internet)

So if lichens are not plant or fungus, what are they? Another kind of life-form? Well yes … and no. They are a combination of both, fungus and plant. At some point in the evolution of life on earth, logically after plants and after fungi had evolved, somehow some species of fungi combined with some species of alga and/or cyanobacteria6 and produced a symbiont or biont: lichen. Scientists maintain that the 20,000 estimated species did not evolve from one common ancestor but that different species appeared separately at different times during the history of the Earth.

Teloschistes chrysophthalmus on branches (image sourced from Internet)

Another map algae (Geographicus) on rock, a species that in a test has survived exposure to space vacuum and radiation, apparently unharmed. (Image sourced Internet)

Plants draw their nutrients from sun and elements in the soil (or in some cases, in the water). Fungi, like animals, cannot get their nutrients straight from sun or soil and need to break down their alimentation materials, whether flesh or plant, in order to feed on them. In doing so, fungi are important decomposing agents – in fact, the principal ones.

Vascular plants need roots not just to cling to soil but even more importantly, to draw up water and nutrients but algae don’t; when they have any kind of roots, it is to cling to a surface and that is exactly what the lichen needs too. Fungi extend and feed through root-like growths usually under the surface of what they are feeding upon, extending from the tips; they are not roots, however and break off easily. What we see of fungi is usually the spore-bearing parts above the surface, often much the smaller part of the organism.

Plants seem to grow above ground also by elongating their tips but in fact are extending from further back, adding cells to cells to lengthen the body. All plants need a constant supply of water (cacti and succulents store water but still need to draw on the supply to live). Fungi need damp conditions. But when combined into lichens, the new species can live without water for a considerable time. So, a marriage, as they say, “made in Heaven” … or perhaps in a Hell, an environment of very dry and hot conditions alternating with the very wet and cold , where the newly-wedded ancient algae and fungi set out to build their homes.

Some lichens contain not only algae combined with a fungus but also a cyanobacterium; this partner is capable of fixing nitrogen extracted from the air and is a valuable addition to the menage-a-trois.

It has been remarked by some that the marriage of plant and fungus is not an equal one, is not true symbiosis, since the fungal partner or symbiote benefits more than does the algal. The algal symbiote produces sugar through photosynthesis and the fungus only chitin, or hard structure, it is argued. However, if both partners (or three) are content with the arrangement, is that not a happy marriage? More seriously, the fungal partner may contribute other factors to the symbiosis of which scientists are only just becoming aware – for example, chemicals to repel organisms attempting to graze on them and protection from the sun.

And scientists do not treat them equally either, since the species of lichen is always determined and named by them according to the species of fungus, not of the alga or bacterium.

COLOURS IN THE RAIN

Xantheria parietina (image sourced on Internet)

So, if the claim is that we see them all around us, where are they? They may be seen on slate roof-tops, in patches of roughly circular white (not to be confused with pigeon or seagull excrement, which may also be in evidence). Yellow or orange patches are typically seen on stone, as is a black or dark brown one by the seaside. A bright yellow-green one may be seen on fallen twigs or on tree-bark, as may also a tufted-form green one growing on rock or tree.

Alga and lichen on plane tree during rain, Drumcondra, Dublin. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The colours tend to be particularly vivid during or soon after rain when the cortex becomes translucent and, if there were no other reason to be grateful for the precipitation levels usual in Ireland, that would be reason enough, perhaps, should we take the time to admire the little things of beauty. Of course there are other reasons and as a Basque once said to me about the green of his native country and could perhaps even more accurately said about colour associated with the “Emerald Isle” — “It’s not green because we paint it.”

Some of the bright colours in lichens, produced by the fungus, are thought to be of use in protection from the rays of the sun and become more vivid after rain due to rapid absorption of water by the chlorophyl-holding part of the symbiont (or biont).

PIONEERS AND SURVIVORS

Lichina pygmaea – a black marine littoral species, this one photographed near the high-water mark. (Image sourced on Internet)

Lichens are considered “pioneer organisms” by botanists and geologists, i.e organisms that set out to colonise new territories. These maybe new territories in the sense that a geological change has exposed them to air, e.g from the seabed or from under ice, or from inside the earth by volcanic action or by tectonic plate collision.

Pioneer organisms need to be tough and adaptable and they often create footholds for other species, not quite so tough or adaptable, to follow after. However, given that logic dictates that algae and fungi existed before some of them combined to form lichens, the latter could not have been among the earliest colonisers of the Earth’s crust. On Earth then, they are later pioneers of newly-created inhospitable terrain.

May they be used to help create habitable environments elsewhere? It’s perhaps worth quoting these two paragraphs from Wikipedia in their entirety:

In tests, lichen survived and showed remarkable results on the adaptation capacity of photosynthetic activity with the simulation time of 34 days under Martian conditions in the Mars Simulation Laboratory (MSL) maintained by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The European Space Agency has discovered that lichens can survive unprotected in space. In an experiment led by Leopoldo Sancho from the Complutense University of Madrid, two species of lichen — Rhizocarpon geographicum7 and Xanthoria elegans — were sealed in a capsule and launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket 31 May 2005. Once in orbit, the capsules were opened and the lichens were directly exposed to the vacuum of space with its widely fluctuating temperatures and cosmic radiation. After 15 days, the lichens were brought back to earth and were found to be in full health with no discernible damage from their time in orbit.

Hieroglyphics lichen (Graphis scripta) on rock, Castle Coole, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, October

Cladonia coccifera and Cladonia diversa or Pyxidata on branch in Ireland (also known as Pixy Cup and Devi’s Matchstick but “Pixy” sounds unlikely for a name in Ireland, more likely from Cornwall or elsewhere in south-west Britain).

In some areas, soil lichens help to bind the sand-crust or soil-crust together but lichens have also been shown to chemically attack stone, thereby helping to create soil. Lichens can also help create little environments where soil may be retained and seeds of plants germinate. However, like all species, lichens are out to help themselves and some produce chemicals to restrict the march of mosses (another pioneer species but more water-reliant), with which lichens would have to compete in many areas).

When growing on tree bark, lichens do not parasitise on the tree nor harm it in any way, merely using it as a secure base. Older trees are often covered with lichen and dead trees or branches more so, associating in some people’s minds the ill-health in a tree with the growth of lichen upon it. Circumstantial evidence may suggest the guilt of the lichen but it is completely a case of coincidence: lichen is slow-growing and the older the tree, the more time lichen has had to grow and extend upon it; the tree dies because it grows old.

Green Beard lichen, Usnea species, Cornwall (photographer: Jonathan Billingsworth). Usnea is very vulnerable to polution, particularly sulphur dioxide and will only grow like this when well away from such pollutants.

Lichen-covered apple tree (sourced: Irish Image Collection)

The lichen will survive the dead tree for a period but it is not the killer. Now come decomposers: insects, snails, slugs and especially, distant relatives of the lichens: fungi. Without concern for their relatives, the fungi, along with the other decomposers, will reduce the tree to soil ingredients and thereby deprive the lichens of their base but, in time, providing more soil for more trees to grow and for new generation of lichens to attach themselves to the bark.

The fungus is not too discriminating and a particular species may combine with different algae species; the resultant lichens may appear to be different species but (since 2014) will be classified as the same lichen species, i.e containing the same species of fungus.8

The alga can also exist independently in nature but the fungi cannot. Two species in two genera of green algae are found in over 35% of all lichens, but can only rarely be found living on their own outside of a lichen.9

A green frond-lichen, Evernia prunastri
(Image sourced at Internet)

Sex and Reproduction

It is only the fungal part of the symbiote that reproduces sexually. When doing so, it produces spores (as do ferns and mosses) which must find a compatible alga in order to produce a new lichen, a symbiote of the fungus of the parent fungus and a new alga.

Some lichens reproduce or extend asexually, advancing across a surface and merging with another of the same species.

Uses of lichens:

When we discuss “the use” of some thing we generally mean its use for humans; lichens no doubt have many uses for other organisms, whether as food for reindeer during non-growing seasons or as micro-environments for tiny creatures. But for humans, the uses are mostly in the areas of

  • dyes

  • drugs

  • environmental indicators

  • geological age indicators

Dyes and Pigments:

Dyes were made from the orange Xanthoria Parietina and the grey-green branched Parmelia Saxitillis to dye wools used in traditional tweed (Harris) weaving in the Scottish Highlands10 and I myself have had the second of the two pointed out to me by an Aran Islander woman as the source for the rarely-used green wool knitted into a geansaí (pullover or jumper). Material for other natural dyes exist for example in Ireland but the issues are how easily they are obtained, how true they dye and how long they remain the desired colour and shade.

“There are reports dating almost 2000 years old of lichens being used to make purple and red dyes. Of great historical and commercial significance are lichens belonging to the family Roccellaceae, commonly called “orchella weed” or “orchil”. Orcein and other lichen dyes have largely been replaced by synthetic versions.”11

We know that red and purple dyes were much sought after and in some medieval civilisations the wearing of those colours was restricted to certain social classes and even to one individual (e.g the purple for the Emperor). Once Europeans had gained familiarity with indigenous civilisations of Central and South America, the red dye obtained from the parasitic cochineal insect Dactylopius coccus became an important export product to Europe until the late 19th Century, when synthetic pigments and dyes were invented. Despite this development, traditional hand-made textile producers, for example in regions of Mexico, continued to use cochineal dyeing. However, health concerns associated with some or all of those synthetic colourings in food have once again created a demand for cochineal and cultivation of the insect is once again economically viable, with Peru being currently the main exporter.12

Drugs and Medicine:

There is reason to believe that metabolites produced by lichens may have antibiotic effects and usnic acid, the most commonly-studied metabolite produced by lichens, is being investigated as a possible bactericide, in particular against Staphylococcus and E.coli.13

Lichens were also used in European traditional medicine, in particular based on the theory that plants that resembled human organs would be efficacious in treatment of illness of those organs. Some American Indigenous people also used them in traditional medicine treatment.

Lichens as Indicators of Geological Age and of Pollution Levels:

The science of lichenometry is a relatively new one in which measuring the type and size of lichen is used to indicate the age of exposed rock. It takes the known slow growth-rate of different lichens to arrive at an estimate of how long the rock in question has been exposed. This can be used on rock formations, landslides, stone buildings and statuary.

The tolerance (or lack of tolerance) of different species of lichen to certain types of air and rain pollutant can be used as bio-indicators. In general the “frond” or “bushy” types are less resistant to some air pollutants and the flat or “crusty” types more so. Lichens take their water from the surfaces to which they are attached and from the air and are therefore quickly affected by the water quality in rain and air.

In Conclusion:

Readers may find it worthwhile to take some time to examine the lichens growing around us, to think about their unusual ‘domestic arrangements’ and their pioneering habits. Or to inventory them as indicators of the level and content of pollution in a specific area.

And in particular, to put on rainproof or resistant clothing and to view lichens during rainfall or at least very soon afterwards.

End.

 

Links:

http://www.irishlichens.ie/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichen

http://www.biodiversityireland.ie/projects/biodiversity-inventory/taxonomic-groups/lichens/

http://www.habitas.org.uk/lichenireland/

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/gardens/loving-lichen-1.1970168

Fungi closer to animals than plants (very short articles):

https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/how-are-mushrooms-more-similar-to-humans-than-plants.html

https://www.naturalnews.com/044200_fungi_animals_plants.html

http://www.brighthubeducation.com/science-homework-help/8061-relationship-between-animal-plant-and-fungi-phylogeny/

About Algae and Cyanobacteria:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microalgae

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyanobacteria

About Cochineal and Social Rank by colour:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/clothing-and-social-status

http://renaissanceclothing.blogspot.ie/2011/02/meaning-of-renaissance-and-medieval.html

http://www.libraryireland.com/Brehon-Laws/Classification-Society.php (last paragraph in this section)

About Drugs from Lichens:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usnic_acid

About Lichens as Environmental and Geological Age Indicators:

See the Wikipedia article on lichens, also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichenometry

https://staff.concord.org/~btinker/gaiamatters/investigations/lichens/lichens.html

http://www.air-quality.org.uk/19.php

https://myscienceblast.com/myscienceblast/dating-landslides-with-lichen/

 

Footnotes:

1See Wikepedia link to article on Lichens.

2Ibid (as above).

3Ibid.

4See link to Biodiversity Data Centre website.

5See Science ABC link for example.

6A primitive plant form that used to be called blue-green algae; they are believed to have been their first mass oxygenator of the planet Earth.

7This species, also known as “the map lichen” is common enough on rocks in upland areas of Ireland and Britain (see articles on Lichens).

8See Wikipedia article on Lichens (link below).

9Ibid

10Ibid

11Ibid

12See Wikipedia link on Cochineal

13See Wikipedia link on Lichens, Medicinal use and the Wiki link on Usnic acid.

RIVAL MANDARINS FIGHTING IN DUBLIN

Cycling through Griffith Park off the Mobhi Road, after a walk in the nearby Botanic Gardens, a flurry of wings and a flash of colours attracted my attention.  Three birds came down with a splash into the Tolka.

Rival males and female on a rock in the Tolka.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

You don’t need to be any kind of expert to identify the Mandarin Duck, especially the males and that’s what two of those birds were.  The dowdier third one was the female.

I have often noted two male mallard ducks peacefully accompanying one female and wondered whether they had a menage-a-trois going or what the arrangement was.  But there was nothing like that going on with the Mandarins as the males made clear quite quickly.  After briefly circling around one another they were quickly into fisticuffs (or beak-and-wing-cuffs), scuffle-splashing, clucking insult or challenge, until the rival to the established male would take to the wing either for a break or to get next to the female.  In the latter case, the male would take to the air also, in pursuit.

The female?  She swam demurely apart waiting for the victor.

The female Mandarin Duck in the Tolka.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

There was clearly one established male who for the moment was the dominant one but the rival kept coming back while I was watching and they were still at it when I left.  The established one has the psychological dominance factor on his side, which is a strong advantage but it is by no means a guarantee of success.  The rival might wear him down.  Or the established one might become injured.  Being a male and keeping one’s bird is not easy.

Rivals circling briefly in mid-water prior to another scuffle on the river.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

According to Charles Darwin, genders of many species but many birds in particular have become colour-differentiated through part of the evolutionary process described as sexual selection (The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871).  This has reached amazing and one might say even bizarre though beautiful extremes with such birds as the peacock and the bird of paradise.

Darwin’s ideas make more sense than other explanations being proposed but it is nevertheless hard to credit that a female’s appreciation of colour, shape and behaviour would so impress upon the male the need to flaunt gaudy colour and shape in direct contravention of the need to survive predators by NOT calling such attention to himself.  Still, there is no other viable contender explanation around (as distinct from the Mandarin contender, who may still be biding his time or pressing his suit, which if the established male has anything to say about it, is all he is going to press).

Established male with female on rock and the rival that won’t give up. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Aix galericulata is the Latin species name and the only other species in the Aix genus is the North American Wood duck.  A chromosome in the Mandarin makes hybridisation between the two impossible.

Mandarin Ducks originate in East Asia but have been kept in Europe in aviaries and in ponds and lakes.  Stephens Green used to have some, along with many other kinds of wildfowl, until the OPW allowed the Herring Gulls to take over to the extent that they have.  I have not seen them do it but would not be in the least surprised if the gulls ate the chicks of many of the waterfowl species until they died out or took off somewhere else.

However, there have been feral Mandarin populations in Ireland for some time, notably in Co. Down and in Wexford and pairs may be establishing themselves in other places, including in the Glasnevin/ Drumcondra area, based around the Tolka (and perhaps the Royal Canal).

The Mandarin is a perching duck and this kind have feet capable of grasping a branch.  They build their nests in hollows in trees which is good for the safety of the nesting female and the eggs.  But what of the chicks or ducklings?  As we know, ducklings take to the water long before they can fly.  So what can these ducklings in tree hollows, many feet from the ground, do?  They simply jump.  A veritable leap into the unknown.

When they hit the ground, which at first sight seems to ensure they have broken practically every bone in their little bodies or a least concussed themselves and messed up their insides, they bounce a little, get up and waddle to their mother.  Yes, she called them out, which is why they came.

One needs to see the process to believe and I have included some Youtube links.  It would seem at first that they need soft leaf litter or water in which to land but one of the links I have posted shows Mandarin ducklings jumping from a nestbox on to bare stone — and getting up, apparently unhurt.  It is difficult to understand, even with accounting for the relationship of weight to surviving a fall.  We probably know that we can drop lots of insect species on to the ground and they don’t get hurt but the principle goes farther — apparently a mouse can survive a fall from a great height (unless a hawk gets it on the way down, or a cat is waiting below); conversely a fall of four foot on to its feet can kill an elephant (so it is said — I have not actually tried this with elephants but I have inadvertently confirmed the mouse theory).

Often invasive species should not be welcomed as they upset the natural ecological balance.  The grey squirrel in the nearby Botanic Gardens, originally from the USA, may be cute but it is helping to wipe out the native red species.  And that’s just one of the invasive species of animal and plant that are causing problems in Ireland (see https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/the-scent-of-intruders/).  On the other hand, the widely-distributed Red Valerian (also with white and pink varieties) does not seem to be causing any problems and it is difficult to see how the Mandarin can become a serious problem either.  But of course, one does not know for sure.  It can be stated that the populations so far established in Britain and in Ireland do not seem to have caused any ecological problems.  And it is true that we don’t have many dense woods in Ireland anywhere (thanks to certain human invaders in our history), least of all close to slow-flowing water, although some species have shown remarkable adaptability, witness in these climes the rat, fox, pigeon, herring gull and, of course, homo sapiens.

One of the curious things about the Mandarin is the name we have for it.  Apparently, it is a Portuguese word for the Chinese government bureaucrats in existence when the Portuguese first began to trade with them (before they and other Europeans decided to invade China and confiscate areas, in particular ports and islands).  How they became associated with the duck was not revealed in my short internet search.

However, in China and in Korea the mandarin duck is associated with fertility, good fortune and constancy in monogamy, so that it is often presented as a wedding gift, either as living pairs or symbolically in an ornament.  It is not currently considered an extermination-threatened species.

End.

 

Video links (second one is of merganser ducklings and is even more impressive):

https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php

Other information sources:

Mandarin duck unlikely invader | Irish Examiner

21 Facts on Mandarin Duck – Tweetapedia – Living with Bird

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_duck

 

 

 

I ONCE KNEW A CAT

Diarmuid Breatnach

I once knew a cat but, what is more to the point, the cat knew me.

pair-magpies-tree-branches

A pair of European Magpies on branches

I knew the cat not well, but as a kind of nearby resident I had helped a little once and made friendly overtures to. He or she (I suspect she and will refer to it so from now on) first came into contact with me when a racket of magpies not far from my home attracted my attention. I found magpies harassing a marmalade (orange tabby) cat in a tree and the cat seemed trapped there.

Since there was no nest in the tree for the magpies to be protecting, I chased them off some distance with the aid of shouts and stones, then tried to persuade the cat to come down but she just looked at me – afraid of me too, I thought. Some days later, I came across a marmalade cat outside some nearby houses and called to her and, when she came, stroked her and then went on my way. She made as if to follow me but then gave up.

A few weeks later, I was coming up the road when I saw a marmalade cat about 50 yards away and wondered if it was her. She however looked up, saw me and hurried over, then began rubbing her body against my leg.

So how did she recognise me? Cats have very good hearing but I very much doubt she could identify my footsteps on a concrete footpath amidst all the traffic noise from so far away. Cats also have a good sense of smell but I don’t think it’s good over distance. They are not good at recognising human faces, according to tests. So, she probably recognised my shape and gait (like those recognition software programmes the secret services have developed and with which they monitor a lot of CCTV coverage — reassuring, huh? Not so much!).

(Photo source: Internet)

(Photo source: Internet)

It is true I have a somewhat identifiable gait, so I am told – a swagger learned as protective colouring in my teens but about which I am nearly always unconscious and when I am, try to control. Once doing that in New Cross in SE London, a black youth I knew from my work in a local youth club shouted from across the street: “Walk like a white man!” Apparently my attempt to control the Dublin swagger was resulting in the kind of walk adopted by many Afro-Caribbean youth.

But, back to the cat. Anyway, it was an amazing feat of recognition of an individual of a different species and of minimal acquaintance and I think she would have recognised me no matter how subdued my usual type of walk. I wonder how many individuals considered friendly or otherwise a cat can identify by sight at a distance – just how big is their database?

Another time I came upon this cat, she was stretched out on a warm sunny pavement but being persecuted by a pair of magpies (probably the same ones as before). The cat saw me and so did the magpies but I stopped at a distance to observe what was happening.

One magpie distracted her attention by strutting up and down in front of her head, but out of reach of swipe or sudden rush, while the other waited its chance and pecked at the cat’s tail. She lay there suffering this persecution, only twitching her tail from time to time in a futile attempt to keep it away from the bird or perhaps out of tension.

“But why don’t you move, Cat?” I asked her, half in amusement and half in sympathy.

She looked at me and seemed to say:

“Why should I? This is MY pavement and I am harming no-one! I am not going to let two BIRDS chase me off!”

“Well, you could spring at them …”

“What’s the point? They keep just out of range and I’d miss, giving them a reason to mock me.”

The Magpies, in turn, might have been saying:

“This has nothing to do with you, Mister. This is a Cat, ancestral predator on birds and fair game for us at any time. Keep out of it!”

“Yeah, we remember you butting in before!”

And magpies probably can identify human faces – at least tests with their close relatives, crows and jackdaws, show that they can. And magpies are the only bird so far shown able to identify themselves in a mirror.

I did keep out of it. I had things to do and left them to it – the cat after all had the option to leave and even were I to chase them off, the birds would only fly a little distance and then come back. I’ve seen magpies do this “torment-the-cat” thing before. And cats will kill a magpie, if they can.

The cat’s refusal to move or to make a lunge she knew the birds would easily evade, the provocative tormenting by the magpies and the way they worked in unison, all seemed to me so very human, even allowing for anthropomorphism.

But thinking about it later, I came to a different conclusion: it is not the animal behaviour that is human-like – it is OUR behaviour that is animal-like! After all, are we not descended from a common ancestor, albeit nearly 300 million years ago?

In total, I saw that Marmalade Miss maybe four or five times and then no more. Perhaps her owner(s) moved – I hope so and that she was not killed by traffic.

I had nothing I could gain from the cat, other than a kind of feeling of kinship perhaps. Other than a stroke now and again, she had nothing to gain from me. It was an uncomplicated friendship and not, like with some dogs, a dependency by either of us. I know she is gone but years later, as I pass near that street, sometimes still look out for her.

 

end.  

CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER – Part 2

Diarmuid Breatnach

(NB: This may be read on its own or following CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER PART 1 https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/conversation-with-a-spider/ to which it is related)

You again!

“What do you mean ‘you again’ ?

“I put you out the window the other day.

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider in Bathroom (Flash Photo: D.Breatnach)

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider in Bathroom, flash shadow giving double effect (Photo: D.Breatnach)

“Wasn’t me. Nope. Might’ve been my brother – looks a lot like me. Or my sister.

“It was definitely a male.

“You can tell, can you?

“Yes. I’ve done some reading about spiders.

“Well, I had lots of brothers.

“You’re building one of those crazy, haphazard webs all over my bathroom wall again.

“This is a beautiful web. Made of beautiful fine silk – but also very strong. It is a tribute to our ancestral goddess, Arachne.

“Arachne was an accomplished weaver of beautiful rugs.

“Exactly.

“This, however, is a haphazard mess.

“To your two human eyes. You have to see it through our eyes – all eight of them. You have to feel its vibrations …. the air currents flowing through it like music …. the vibrations of a trapped fly …. like …. like …

“Like a dinner gong.

“Crude …. but, well, yes.

“You remember catching a fly, do you?

“Of course.

“When?

“Recently. Quite recently. You don’t think I’m starving, do you?

“No but I know spiders can live a lonnnnng time without eating.

“And you know this how?

“ Reading. In particular, Compton’s The Life of the Spider.

“ A voyeur.

“ What did you call me?

“Not you – him. And it was John CRompton, not Compton.

“Oh, right. You told me that before.

“Not me – maybe one of my brothers. And it was just The Spider, without The Life of, which was the title of Jean Henri Fabre’s book.

“Ok. But why did you call Crompton a voyeur?

“He watched the mating of spiders …. watched the goings-on for HOURS.

“He was a naturalist – he watched it so he could write about it.

“A voyeur and a pornographer.

“Writing about animals mating isn’t pornography! David Attenborough did a whole series on animal mating.

“He’s another one! And he did it with hidden cameras!

“Pornographic filming or writing is depicting sexual acts with the intention of sexually arousing and titillating the watcher or reader.

“And?

“Humans are not going to get sexually aroused watching or reading about animals mating.

“Are you sure? Really? ‘Her heart beat faster … she could smell the stallion …. he looked so strong, his coat so shiny …. she couldn’t help herself, she was firing off pheromones ….. he moved powerfully, muscles rippling …. he was sniffing her right there! …. she could feel his breath there! …. Oh! right where she was aching …. she felt herself melting …. he was going to mount her … yes! Yes! …

“Ok, ok. You’ve made your point. Cough! But going back to the issue of your web …

“My beautiful, complex web.

“Your haphazard, wandering, dust-collecting web.

“My efficient, fly-catching web.

“You’re not catching any flies.

“Not yet … but I will. If you leave my web alone.

“No. You’re going out the window.

“You’re angry and you’re projecting again.

“What did you say?

“Er … I said ‘You’re projecting’. It means …..

“I know what it means, thanks. You said ‘again’.

“Did I?

“Yes, you did. You said ‘You’re projecting again’. As though we had this conversation before.

“You’re building a whole web from a thread.

“I knew it was you again. You’re going back out the window.

“I’ll bite you!

“Ooooh, I’m scared.

“You should be. Our species has the most potent venom of any spider in these islands and many abroad. That’s why we have a skull design on our back.

“Says who? The Web?

“No need to be sarcastic. It is a well-known fact. You can read about it in newspapers if you don’t trust the Internet.

“I have read about it and it says that your fangs are not long enough to penetrate human skin.

“Do you want to take that chance? DO you? MAKE MY DAY!

“I’ve thrown you and lots of your relations out the window and never been bitten. I think that story about powerful venom is one you and yours have been spreading yourselves. Probably on the Web, ha, ha, ha. Not one record of even a hospital admission for poisonous bite by the Short-Bodied Cellar Spider!

“The venom works so fast they don’t make it to hospital. And the deaths are put down to heart attack and other causes.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m really scared. OUT you go.

“Leave me alone! No! Uuff rmmm fff!

‘Bye now.

I’LL BE Baaaaack….!

End

CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER — Part 1

Diarmuid Breatnach

Eh, what do you think you’re doing?

What does it look like I’m doing?

It looks to me very much like you’re destroying my home and my livelihood.

It looks to me like I’m destroying a dust-collecting web right beside my bathroom mirror. Which is why I’m destroying it. And I might just catch you and throw you out the window too.

“You are in a nasty mood, aren’t you? Anyway, I’d only come right back in again.

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider without web (Photo source: internet)

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider without web (Photo source: internet)

If a bird didn’t gobble you up. Or a bigger spider ….

Oooh, you ARE in a nasty mood!

Not really – just mildly irritated. You had to build it right beside my mirror, didn’t you!

Well, that’s where the light is.

And you need the light …. what for? To read your paper? To thread your needle?

“No need to be sarcastic. I don’t need it for anything except to catch flies – they’re attracted by the light.

Catch flies, is it? I haven’t seen you or any other spider here catch a fly in years.

Well, if you keep destroying our webs …

I’ve left some for months. Just how long does it take to catch a fly?

It’s an art …. you can’t rush it.

Yeah, right! I’ve killed hundreds of them in a month.

Yes, well, with chemical warfare ….

“Not at all! I mean with my hands or a damp cloth. Swipe, bam! One less fruit fly, or house fly, or bluebottle.

“Well, aren’t you the matador!

“What I mean is, I’ve killed hundreds of flies in the same time that you have killed none – and it’s supposed to be your defining characteristic: killing flies!

Who says?

Everyone.

Every human, is it?

Yes.

You’ve never asked the arachnids, have you though?

I try not to get into conversations with them. I’m having this one with you because a) I’m shaving near you and b) you’re bending my ear.

“Bending your ear? I haven’t touched you!

It’s an expression, a turn of phrase, for speaking a lot or complaining to me.

What’s that got to do with your ear?

“That’s what I hear with!

Really? You mean you don’t hear with your legs and body, like we do?

Of course not!

Wow! Peculiar!

You’re trying to change the subject. Spiders are supposed to catch flies – isn’t that the purpose of the web? Or are you going to claim it’s a work of art?

You don’t think my web’s artistic?

“Honestly? No. The orb-weavers’ webs now, they are artistic. But most others, including your species, the Short-Bodied Cellar Spider? No, not at all.”

“Well, we go more for function than artistic appeal.

“What function?

“Catching fli ….. er …

Yes, you see the problem? Your webs are supposedly for catching flies but all yours are catching is dust. Which is why I’m destroying them.

You’re projecting.

What?

Projecting. You have your failures, you feel angry about them so you project them on to me so you can express your anger more safely.

Where did you get hold of that shit?

On the Web.

Oh, very, very funny! Projection or not, it happens to be the truth. Your webs are not catching flies but they are collecting dust, so destroyed they will be.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave ….

“Funny! But that quote from Walter Scott is about deception. Since you are not an ant-mimicking spider, or a crab spider, or any other kind of deceiving spider, what are you talking about?

I’m referring to your self-deception. Anyway, how do you know about those other kinds of spiders?

I read Compton’s The Life of the Spider when I was a boy.

“It was John CRompton, not Compton.

“Oh, right.

“And it was just The Spider, without The Life of, which was the title of Jean Henri Fabre’s book.

“Whatever.  I read other stuff about spiders from time to time .. and watch them.  I’ve had Zebra Spiders jump from one finger to another in my hand.

“Humph! Zebra Spiders!  They don’t even build webs.

No, they don’t …. but here’s the thing ….

What?

They DO catch FLIES! And now, out the window you go.

No! Uuff rmmm fff!

‘Bye now.

I’LL BE Baaaaack….!

End.