This is actually me in Venezuela, hangin' with one of Hugo's Vacas


CHAPTER 1
THE FIRST SIGN OF SPRING

Saturday, March 11th. 9 am. I’m hosting a field trip in northern central park, as part of my Greenteam initiative. Today, I have a pleasantly energetic, super-smart high school class from Lincoln High School, Coney Island.

Eight students show, some from Russia, the Caribbean, China (This is New York, right?) with their two chaperones, Yolanda and Christine. Plus a friend, Amy, who has just been hired to run the Nature Center at Crotona Park, in the Bronx. Not to forget my wife, Valerie, who shoots all the cool nature videos you see (and enjoy) on the nnyn website.

Today, we’re out looking for the first signs of spring. Phenomena, behaviors, smells…It’s a beautiful warm, precociously sunny day for New York and the Park is a good place to be, especially the northern section, a combination of lake (Harlem Meer), stream (the loch and ravine), and some seriously steep slopes leading up to a forested hill bristling with maple, elm, oak and beech trees and yes, even a small wildflower meadow.

The first signs of spring are obvious: it’s getting warm out, somewhere in the 60’s and there’s crowds of people in the Park. T-shirts and shorts abound. New Yorkers are warming up for the long hot summer ahead. Personally, I even feel like I’m beginning to get some sun.

But that’s human nature. What about that other ‘nature’ of New York ? The 3000 plant species, the 10000 animal species... As my friend and colleague Andy Bernick likes to quiz his students – “how do you think those other 99% live ?”

I use a telescope to show the students a raft of Ruddy Ducks floating on the Meer. “See, the males, they’re in full molt. They’re ‘turning color’. They’re trading in their grey winter feathers for something a tad sexier: a ‘ruddy’ plumage. A month from now, when their molt is complete, they’ll be flying north and west, back to their summer breeding grounds on the Plains. My last dollar the females will be looking for the ‘ruddiest’ males in town.”

“What do you mean ?” asks Dezshonna

 

 


Crocus.
Manhattan
 


Male Cardinal. Manhattan
 


Female
Cardinal. Manhattan
 


Male
Cardinal. Manhattan
 

Male Cardinal. Manhattan

“Well the brighter the plumage, the healthier and more fit the bird, right ? And the less parasites. Females invest a lot in their eggs and they want to make sure they get the right partner. That’s called ‘female choice’. Naturally, they want what’s best for their offspring. Now you can say that males compete for females, that’s one way of looking at it, or you could rationalize that females need the males to compete amongst themselves in order to make up their mind.”

“That’s just like at school!”, says Jimmy, triumphantly, who is from Hong Kong.

Pushing buttons. Dialogue. To teach and to learn.

We continue to scan the Meer: there are Buffleheads, too (another sort of  migrating duck). And the local Canada geese are plentiful as always, only this time some of the males seem stoned on testosterone. “This is a sure sign of spring ! I explain to the kids. You see, birds like to remain light, for the purpose of flight. So in winter, their gonads atrophy. Their “cojones” shrink. Then, come spring, increasing day light triggers the production of luteinizing hormone in the pituitary gland, which in turn prompts a prompt renaissance of last year’s testicles; enter the production of testosterone, which in turn turns many individual geese, ducks and grouse into irate, quasi paranoid bullies that yes, will even attack humans. So watch out!”

Just kidding.

Actually, one such goose IS pumping his head and hissing in our direction. “You know those little dogs that bark as if they could take you out ?” I ask the kids. This is the equivalent in the bird world !”

(Intermission: Before the students showed up, Val and I were privy to some avian sex. A pair of local, home grown mallards decided to fornicate in public (like Jesus, ducks perform miracles on water). Male and female swam around each other, in slow circles, facing each other, pumping their heads up and down alternately. Then the straw colored female swiveled and presented her hinder to the dapperly hued male, who then jumped her, sat on her – their cloacae touched- and held on by bighting her neck and nearly drowning her.)

I relate the episode to the students. Giggles all around. Some predictably obvious questions surface : “Doesn’t that hurt the female though ?” (I find kids to show more empathy than the average adult). “Well, luckily for female ducks, this avian whoopee-makin’ doesn’t last very long, a few seconds max. And that’s also a good thing for the males. What’s worse than a sitting duck? A copulating duck, right ! Too much time in bliss there little fellah and ZAP ! - along comes a Peregrine Falcon, out of nowhere, and nails you big time !’”

Quick sex is an adaptation, a survival strategy, prolonged intercourse a luxury - the stuff of cavemen in suits.

And lions.

We circle the Meer and contemplate another sign of spring. Red eared Sliders are out in droves, sunning themselves on rocks along the shore. They’ve spent long months in breathless hibernation at the bottom of the water. They compete for sunlight on the rocks so occasionally you get turtle traffic jams on some stones with smaller turtles seen squatting on top of larger ones. Females can be told by their longer claws.

The students learn how these cold blooded turtles will be out warming themselves through March and April until the water reaches a good 20 degrees or more (centigrade); then it will be warm enough for them to reproduce as well.

“Turtles are very sensitive to temperature, I add, so much so that their eggs, when incubated in the sand at cooler temperatures will produce mostly male offspring. Heat those eggs up 10 degrees Fahrenheit more and you get mostly females !”

“Wows!” all around. Eyes wide open. Faces alert. This is why we teach.

“Why are there so many turtles here in the Park?”, ventures Jimmy.

“A lot of them are released…by Buddhists actually. Its part of a religious ceremony. NY is cosmopolitan, and a lot of its nature ends up reflecting that.”

We enter the woods. There’s a stream, a waterfall, a slope. Up we walk. The water is gushing downhill, as if we were in a ravine in the Adirondacks (I’ve read that that is the intended effect, as planned by Olmstead and Vaux, the park’s creators). I explain how this stream bed is probably the only wild stream bed left over from the original Mannahatta, or “island of many hills” as the native Lenne Lenape used to call New York. Except that the builders of Central Park sealed off the original source of water and brought in a pipe with water from the NYC watershed, from the Catskills !

“This stream turns on with a tap, in order to keep the water always at a certain level.”

“But that’s not right !” complains Shaniqua

“Meaning?”

“Water should be left alone to do what it wants!”

Water rights, for water. The intrinsic right to exist, as water. Empathy, again. I figure we teach not to learn, but to remember. To be re-minded.

Here I’m reminded that as children we intuit words that later, after years of labor and ‘merit’, might resurface in exchange for a peace prize. Just maybe. Confer the work of Albert Schweitzer, his words on the inherent value of ALL nature: its right to life. Or confer the words of Shaniqua Green, one student from Lincoln HS, Coney Island.

We continue to walk up through the woods. Some early blossoming red maple trees have opened their delicate flowers to the world and for all their protruding stamens and pistils look like little red-orangey puffballs glued to the trees’ silver branches. I show the students how to eye the sexual parts of the tree microscopically, using my binoculars backwards.

“Sexual parts ?” stutters a shy, inquisitive voice.

“Well yeah, that’s what flowers are, sexual organs, right ? Ever smell a rose? It’s the male and female parts of the plant. And that scent is the sweet smell of botanic intercourse.”

For measure, I ask Chris, their chaperone, if its ok to be talking in these terms about plant ‘reproduction’. She and Yolanda have been teaching these students for years - an animal science class. They take care of rabbits, turtles, rats, mice…                 

“Sure, go ahead, she smiles, at least that way you’re sure they’ll listen.

So I continue to elaborate, exhausting both the subject and myself: “actually, when you’re older and handing out flowers on your first date, think about it – you will actually be giving your prospective mate the ultimate, sweetest smelling symbol of reproduction there is.”

A delightful effusion of high-pitched enthusiasm ensues as we continue to walk up the hill, through the woods, inspecting the understory for more signs of the “the unfolding sexual orgy of spring.” Meanwhile a tiny chickadee is following us around furiously, landing on branches a feet above our heads and checking our hands for sunflower seeds - the bird has obviously been hand-tamed before and keeps buzzing around like a disgruntled tax-collector wearing a doo rag. Or a bandana from the Corsican Liberation Front.

We find elm flowers, too. And the squirrels are busy eating the new blossoms, i.e.: the plants’ sexual parts. And cardinals are singing, blue jays ranting, crocuses crocusing…even an insect flies by. Yes, spring is early this year. Not only that, the sun is shining hard and I have a feeling my face is beginning to take on the first stages of periwinkle pink.

“How do the flowers have sex ? I mean.. reproduce?, comes one nutty voice from the back. With themselves?”

“Sometimes they’ll self-pollinate, yes, I reply (feigning some sincerity), but mostly… here… look at the colors we have here (I reach to show them another red maple blossom).. this red color, it’s an attractant ! It says ‘look! I’m over here!’.”

Generally speaking, plants want insects and birds to come along and drink their flowers’ nectar. The nectar (like fruit) is actually a bribe, a way of getting animals to unknowingly take the plants sperm (pollen) and cross fertilize with another flower of another tree of the same species. “That’s pollination. I explain, and it’s a co-evolution, a form of mutualism, a partnership between showy, flowering plants and animals that’s been going on for 120 million years. In the Amazon, you’ve even got bats that specialize in nectar and have become important pollinators of rainforest trees. And as we said before, flowers will also use smell, like the sweet-smelling perfume of a rose…as an attractant!”

Flowering plants are also called angiosperms, which basically translates as “plants that have seeds in their ovaries.”

Further along the path, another fascinating flower: A witch-hazel. I’m pointing at the spider-shaped, saffron-colored petals peppered across the shrub’s bare, brown branches: “These guys start flowering even earlier, in like, early February, when its still cold out. Anybody want to tell me why ?”

“Because they’re retarded!”, mumbles Kevon.

“Well, no, (stifling my own laughter), ‘retarded’ would imply that they’re slow, late. I’m saying these guys are quick to flower, they’re the first to flower, in late winter, or early spring, in one species even, the previous fall ! Why would that be?”

Dead silence. Interrupted by the barely audible snap, crackle, pop of brain cells firing off.

Then the girl in the front row : “oh yeah I know, its one of those, wait, yeah (she adds a little dance for emphasis,) its one of them ‘early biiiiird gets the early worm things!”

“Dead on! Dezshonna, you’re right ! It’s the result of competition… and natural selection. You see some plants (I ramble on, ever the nerd), in order to avoid competition have evolved a means of blooming at different times of the year in order to take advantage of different pollinators, in this case, a winter moth. By flowering when other plants don’t, or can’t, the witch hazel ensures it will be the only flower in sight (and range of smell) to be pollinated. In this case, it’s ‘the early flower gets the early insect’.”

“That’s hot!”

We stumble on two mallards, a male and a female, dabbling in the waters of the stream, a few feet away: “now, why would the male and female have different colors, the female be all dull brown and the male all bright green and chocolate brown?”

“Competition !” they all shout.

“Think again!,” comes the authoritative voice (mine, again). Give me some nuance, please.”

“The female is dull for camouflage”, spurt two of the boys, in sync.

“yeah…because…”

“Because she take care of eggs!” asserts young Jimmy, his cheeks bursting with pride.

“And so then the male is colorful because…”

 “yeah, we know, so they can s-h-o-w-o-f-f-t-o-t-h-e-f-e-m-a-l-e-s…”sighs Shaniqua.

When people speak their minds. Most of my female students end up truly disenchanted by the evolutionarily entrenched realities of the opposite gender. Spoken like a biologist.

“Now why, I wonder, would a male do something like that…?” I ask out loud.

 “To advertise he has right genetic material” comes the educated reply of Vlad, the tall, young Russian, a senior just recently accepted into Cornell

“Ok Vlad, I argue, but if you’re a colorful bird and you’re attracting females, who else are you attracting ?”

A slight pause, as brain cells continue to connect...click, snap…         

“..Predators ?” he queries.

“Bingo! But do you honestly think that’s a smart thing, to also attract predators, is it really worth it ?”

Silence. Redefined. An audience nonplussed.  

“It’s called the Handicap hypothesis. Sure a male is using color to communicate, he’s communicating that he can be a very colorful sitting duck and still get away with it. If he can impose a handicap on himself and still survive, then he’s got good genes, right? Like a peacock sporting a long heavy tail in lion country – not smart, right? - when you’re actually supposed to be quick to fly away from predators! Or, say, take an antelope flashing a lion on the Serengeti plane - as in ‘eat me!’ or ‘eat at Joe’s!’. You see, these traits evolve because they enable males to convey their worth, as in ‘Look, says the male mallard with his bright feathers, I can be a total ass and still get away with it ! I’m totally the man !’”.

Laughter all around.

We finish climbing the hill. We reach the old stone fort on top, the one left over from the war of 1812, overlooking most of Harlem. It’s a small structure capped by an American Flag and looks like its tattering on the brink of a cliff. It is.

Without thinking I begin to walk (or rather rock-climb) around the edifice, holding on tight to the stone wall and avoiding the precipice (and the fall!) on my right. Jason, Aarif, Kevon, Vlad, Jimmy - all 5 boys are right behind me. Watch out ! Don’t fall!

We make it around the other side. All young woman are waiting for us...eyes wide open… Playful shrieks of delight.

“Handicap hypothesis!” I suddenly realize. “You see boys, we’ve have just played out the handicap hypothesis ! We’ve taken a risk and survived. We’ve also been caught in the act!”

Hilarity, all round. The girls are teasing the boys, having a field day. Aarif, who is wearing a bright yellow hoody, denies he has anything to do with us.

Braincells connecting, braincells laughing, braincells having a party. Context.

I dig when kids get the chance to learn outdoors. They’re using their bodies to understand the world. Better yet, they’re using the world around them to understand their bodies, themselves, their emotions, their own behaviors. How they fit on the planet. Another reason why I teach, outside, on field trips. Another reason, if not the reason, for the Greenteams (1).

I return home. I do not see myself but a very ripe tomato in the mirror. Sunburn, the first sign of spring*.

See you next week !

Dave Rosane
Chief naturalist NNYN
Fellow IVE

*And a major handicap, but with absolutely no reproductive advantages what so ever.

1. Brief, honest, disclaimer: I don’t really like the word “Greenteams” but when I suggested ‘Greenclan’, or ‘Greentribe’ to my colleagues at NNF and IVE, I was promptly reminded that this was not California but New York and that a name with a little more edge was requisite. Oh dear.


me, Val and Don Riepe on his boat in Jamaica Bay




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