Friday, December 13, 2013
By KEN ALLEN
While bicycling one recent morning, I stopped at a convenience store to buy more Vitaminwater to get me home, and a quick conversation with three men in the parking lot started me thinking -- once again -- about the long road to becoming a know-ledgeable amateur naturalist.
The three men were chatting about the Red Sox, and one fellow, an acquaintance, drew me into the conversation. During a pause in the dialogue, one guy noticed a backlit American robin perched near us, and in the harsh morning light, the bird looked absolutely huge.
"What a big robin," he said.
"It's a good-sized male all right," I agreed, just to be sociable, but in truth, backlighting distorts size. Like all male American robins, it would weigh about 2¾ ounces and sport about a 17-inch wingspan.
The man must have thought robins were homomorphous -- say, like blue jays, house wrens, Eastern kingbirds or ruffed grouse -- and asked how I knew it was a male. My brief explanation covered two key points:
A male robin's head looks almost black in comparison to its gray back, and the breast leans toward brighter orange-red. In females, both head and back are the same light gray and the chest faded rufous.
This part of the conversation started me thinking about transcendentalism for about the thousandth time in life, a philosophy that has survived well in rural Maine. Distinguishing robin genders offered a perfect example of book learning vs. life experience and intuition, the latter favored by transcendentalists.
In my younger years, the distinction between male and female robins would have eluded me just by experiences from observation, but somewhere along the way, I read in a book on how to tell gender differences in robins. It stuck in my mind -- good, old-fashioned book knowledge.
Folks who haven't thought the transcendental equation through espouse that true knowledge comes from experience -- not books. Transcendentalists may feel that we learn best from intuition, but they never intended for us to think it was the sole way, as my robin anecdote shows.
This topic of book learning always reminds me of Leonard Lee Rue's wonderful work, "The Deer of North America." I had hunted whitetails for 27 years before reading this book, and the information wowed me.
In my first quarter-century of wandering the deer woods, many observations about deer puzzled me. Rue answered most of my questions and also touched upon fascinating topics that hadn't entered my brain yet.
No one can gather it all from strict observations. Books give us the accumulated wisdom through the ages, and that advantage teaches us stuff like the differences between male and female robins.
Along gender lines, astute observers can also determine the sex of most snakes at a glance, which brings up a second point. A biologist learned this sex distinction from a book, and he taught me. The male's tail ends more bluntly than does the slender taper on a female. With Northern water snakes, this difference really catches the eye, because the male's tail ends so abruptly that it looks sort of freaky.
A somewhat recent book purchase, "Naturally Curious" by Mary Holland (Trafalgar Square, 2010), furnished me with a huge amount of information about nature, including sexing green frogs.
Like any kid, I caught frogs in my youth, and one species, a green frog, had a circular, dried-skin-looking organ behind each eye, a puzzling curiosity to me. Holland's meticulous work explained that the brownish-gray circle was an eardrum, technically called a "tympanum." In males, this eardrum has a larger diameter than the eye, and in females it's smaller. Similar jewels of wisdom fill Holland's extremely clever book.
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