Ask Dr. Salvo
August 23, 1994
Since you and Mrs. Salvo are busy packing for a week's vacation I'd better hasten to send you some hasty notes on my recent researches.
Just the other day I noticed an anomaly: The Christmas pelicans in a dazzling upward spiral above Sea Cliffs were doing what they do every year, but a couple of months early. As you and I know, the white pelican winters on the Bay, and summers on northern lakes and sounds. Thus far my office has received no news of other sightings, and no letters offering to explain this phenomenon.
Even stranger was a ground or rug level observation I recently made in your boudoir. I was making a routine check of our flea traps, noting that as usual a small number of ticks, flies, and mosquitoes had also been dispatched by this deadly device. Suddenly my eyes registered a black heap lying motionless in one corner of no particular shape. A closer inspection revealed the body of a small black bat. "Prey what is the meaning of this?" as the son inquired of Father William. How did it get in the house? Is it a sign? Is it/was it dangerous?
Also, I've been finding yellow wing feathers from the Yellowhammer, blue ones from the Bluejay, and a large fluffy one that must have come from one of our Barred Owls (and they've been rather loud recently, both day and night). What do they signify, if anything?
My library research revealed little: The Yellowhammer is Alabama's state bird, it belong to the Woodpecker family and shows the undulating flight of such birds. It is large, and looks a little awkward on the ground eating ants. In recent years its numbers have diminished (possibly due to eating poisoned ants, says our local paper). This time of years it is probably moulting, as are the owl and the jaybird. Why do birds moult? I suspect, since birds are in fact small dinosaurs, that moulting is a leftover reptilian habit, useful for allowing further growth. Also, as the bird's body grows it will require new and larger feathers. Unlike hair, feathers once grown remain the same size till they fall out. Baldness in birds is uncommon, except in the case of vultures and turkey cocks. (I just thought you'd like to know that.)
By the way, Boss, I recently overheard your conversation with an eminent ornithologist and photographer. He brought up a strange behavior trait of the Yellowhammer called "anting." Never heard of it, and could not find it in our bird books. What is it? What about that bat?
Your Faithful Research Assistant,
First, the bat. It was a great relief when it turned up in the flea trap. Up to that point I'd been convinced it was a hallucination. Of thy hypnogogic or hypnopompic type. Normal, I repeat normal people can see or hear things that aren't there, when falling asleep or when beginning to awaken. But this bat was too real to be unreal. One night about mid-night I was reading in bed and a small, swift black shadow made a soundless circle of the bedroom. I swung at it with a pillow as it headed for the bed. Then it disappeared, and I noticed I had gooseflesh. I got up and checked all the doors and windows, as well as fireplace to see if he had flown down a chimney. I found no way this bat had gotten in and that part remained unsolved. The bat's exit from this world was at least understandable: When I turned off my reading lamp, the only light left in that part of the house was the small bulb whose dim glow attracted fleas onto the poisoned surface of the flea trap. I suspect the bat made a pass at that light (the way they do), came too close and broke his neck. Why his sonar system did not protect him from this fatal collision, I can't say. Anyway it was just as well -- the bat would have starved with no flying prey in the house.
Why the gooseflesh? I think human beings are born with an anxious or phobic aversion to bats, rats, snakes, and large cats such as panthers and larger. There are of course reasons to be addressed, but with no necessary validity. My reason about the bat is an article in the New Yorker about forty years ago. It recounted how a man in Pennsylvania was bitten by a bat while having a beer (the man, not the bat) in a dimly lit tavern on the Susquchanna. It turned out the bat had rabies and worse still, further study of bats' revealed that they were a major reservoir of the rabies virus. I believe the raccoon had already been fingered as the other chief carrier of rabies in the wild.
The conversation you partly overheard was about flickers or yellowhammers, and how they like to eat ants. My birdy friend volunteered another peculiarity of this handsome bird: anting. I gathered that the flicker dustbathes like other birds to rid itself of parasites. But in addition it will go through some other antics (no pun intended) such as gathering a beakload of ants and rubbing them all over its plumage, or all the feathers it can reach. Then it does or does not conclude its ablution by eating the ants. I should have taken notes.
Nobody knows why the flicker does this, but some speculate that the ants' formic acid has a discouraging effect on mites, fleas, parasites in general. I myself believe he does it for the same reason people use perfume or shaving lotion: He imagines it makes him fatally attractive!
Tim, on that happy note I will conclude. Two questions are enough. Besides, you know as much as I do about those white pelicans.
I'm off to a 53rd reunion. Pray for me.
August 23, 1994