A Mind Controlling Egret

IMG_7960This spring I acted as a chaperone for a second grade class visiting a park to learn about the beach ecosystem. The 7 and 8 year olds learned about Florida alligators, peered through a telescope to view a nesting osprey in the top of a dead tree, and encountered the Snowy Egret.

When I first saw the Egret, I saw nothing particularly interesting about him. He was small, an apparently young wading bird doing what Egrets do, stilting into shallow water looking for minnows.

We had just learned how tiny the brain of an alligator was, and I thought the brain of this little bird couldn’t be much larger. But what I didn’t know was that it was capable of controlling the minds of eight year old humans.

Park Rangers, never passing up a chance to educate children, wanted to show the students how fish start off life in shallow water estuaries, like that surrounding St. Andrews Park located between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Small fish grow up to be big fish, or else get eaten by bigger fish, which grow up to be eaten by us. It’s all part of the oftentimes short circle of life for fish species.

IMG_7977With education in mind, two rangers took a seine net into the water and scooped up a bounty of small fish, placing them into shallow plastic pans for the children to observe.


The children were then asked to identify as many of the small fish as they could using Ranger-provided identification charts.


In the meanwhile, I noticed that the bird was no longer looking towards the water for fish. The Egret started sizing up the children, and apparently decided upon a different plan of action; a mind-control plan of action. The children had a lot more fish in front of them than the bird did. How could he turn that situation around?IMG_7969

Perhaps he’d learned from past experience that eight-year old boys are more easily manipulated than eight-year old girls. He seemed to single out one of the older boys and locked eyes on him. Perhaps the boy’s sixth sense alerted him that he was the recipient of stares, because he turned away from the other children and stared right back at the telepathic bird. And then I heard the boy utter the words all little fish must instinctively know will bring their doom. “Let’s feed them to the bird!”

Being a biologist by training and heart, I attempted to save this sampling of the next generation of fish by saying, “No, the Rangers want the fish back in the water to grow up.”

The Rangers remained silent, perhaps having seen this scene play out before. And the children were deaf to my words, hearing only the words of the boy. What a great idea!, their young faces seemed to say. And in a matter of seconds young hands began plunging into the shallow trays, scooping up the hapless fish, carrying the youngsters in their cupped hands to toss into the water directly in front of the waiting bird.

Temporarily stunned by impact with the water, the fish lay immobile just long enough for the bird to clasp them in his beak and swallow them whole.

Admittedly, I was too stunned to capture a photograph of the slaughter. You will just have to use your imagination; it was all over for the young fish in a matter of seconds.

At the time I wondered if I should tell my grandchild that she had been manipulated by a bird with a pea-sized brain, but I’m sure those words would have been wasted, just as had been my plea to stop the slaughter.

Biologists spend careers studying interspecies communication, verbal and non-verbal. Well, this may well be an example of non-verbal communications between animals and humans.

Which leaves me to wonder: should the normally derogatory term “bird brained” really be a compliment?




The Day the Gorillas Were Stopped at our Door

I think one of the reasons I enjoy my grandchildren so much, and vice versa, is because they know  they won’t always get a serious answer from me. They sometimes call me “silly”, but they do so with a smile. Silly is fun.

Children will assuredly get an answer to any question they ask me (within reason). However, that answer may be weighted more on the side of creativity and fantasy than on reality.  They understand that, and delight in it. My instincts tell me that there cannot be too much fantasy during the playtime of young children.

As for my choice of an answer, it’s not at all a conscious decision to alter reality. I simply abhor an uninteresting answer, to anything.

Case in point: My five-year old found two bottles of the popular foaming adhesive, Gorilla Glue, next to our back door. “What are these for Granddaddy?” Gorilla_glueBD070901053L6_tcm10-18065

Well, the stock answer would have been that I was gluing adapter ends to some polypropylene drainage gratings, and the Gorilla Glue would hold nicely until I could embed the gratings in concrete.

But I sincerely believe that if a writer can build on a play of words, he should. In fact it’s almost an obligation of adults to pass on an appreciation of the joy of words.

So my answer to her was as follows: “I use Gorilla Glue in case gorillas come into our backyard to scare us. I’ll run out into the yard and glue their feet down.”

That answer was very well received.

“Why is one bottle white and one bottle brown?”

“Well of course the white gorilla glue is for white gorillas, and the brown is for brown gorillas.”

Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons
Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons

“Let’s go try it!” she yelled almost ecstatically.

Looking out the window I saw no gorillas, or any other animal wild or tame. “Well, I think the gorillas are hiding from us now.” Thinking like an adult, I didn’t want her to be disappointed.

“No they’re not. We’ll just pretend,” she said with a sly wink that seemed to say, You do remember how to play, don’t you?

And with that the five year old  sprinted outside, paused at a spot where the threatening gorilla hoard was standing, and squirted pretend glue on pretend feet. She was fearlessly immobilizing at least six gorillas, and by my reckoning, three were white, and three were brown, because she selected just the right bottle for the proper gorilla.

As proof of the effectiveness of her defensive strategy, no gorillas entered our house that day.

Snowflake the Gorilla, Wikimedia Commons

Now, to be fair to all gorillas, I do plan to take my granddaughter to the zoo one day and explain to her what an intelligent and peaceful, and threatened, species gorillas are.

And then I’ll probably explain the real reason Gorilla Glue is named as it is. Gorillas undoubtedly use it to glue their nests together so gorilla babies won’t fall out of the trees at night.

Gorilla_nest (1)
Gorilla night nest. Photo courtesy of Jefe Le Gran, Wikimedia Commons.

Makes perfect sense to me.




The Magic of a Perfectly Proportioned Body

Click on the photo to go to the source link.

I was challenged to a race by a five-year old little girl. If I was not so amazed by the outcome, I would be humiliated.

When I say little girl, I mean really little, like 38 pounds and about three and a half feet tall, with spindly arms and skinny legs. She was a little wisp of a child, and so I thought it funny that she would challenge me to a race around the yard.

After all, in my day I used to be a reasonable sprinter. I was not on a track team, but I was one of the fastest in my college gym class. My only concern was that I would have to hold back and pretend to let her beat me so she wouldn’t break down in tears. You know, pre-kindergarten kids have pretty labile emotions. They cry a lot.

As it turns out, they also laugh a lot.

 Together we chose where the race would start and end, and before I knew it she was off, giving herself about a five-yard head start before telling me to start. Fair enough I thought; the puny child deserves a head start.

The only problem was, when I started running I found I was not closing the gap. Her tiny feet, with a diminutive stride, were eating up the yard at least as fast as were my much longer legs; maybe faster. Not being a trained runner she couldn’t resist looking back at me, laughing gleefully as she continued her headlong charge. I just knew she’d trip when she looked back, but yet she didn’t stumble. If anything, the distance between us was increasing.

Apparently I’d gotten out of practice.

I saw my chance to cheat — and took it (experience counts for something). As she ran behind a car parked in the driveway, I cut through a small garden and slid between the car and house, almost bowling over her startled father.

I’m sure she was shocked when I suddenly appeared just ahead of her, but exerting her champion-like dominance of the sport, she grabbed my shirt, pulled me back and shouted forcefully, “Get behind me.”

I obeyed of course, pleased by my outwitting of a five-year old, but not really wanting to teach her that cheating pays. So I let her win.

As I bent over with my hands on my knees, panting hard, I begged for mercy when she said she wanted to race again. I wouldn’t stand a chance the second time.

Being both a biologist and a physical scientist, I have marveled at the anatomical design of young children. They are perfectly proportioned for survival. For example, they are no match for a wrestling match with older kids or adults. Their weight and muscle mass is too small, and they understand that. Yet when it comes to running away from other kids, or adults, or wild animals, they would seem to fare pretty well. The amount of muscle mass for their weight is surprisingly well balanced, resulting in an amazing ability to sprint.

I would also have to conclude that my muscle mass to body weight ratio is no longer ideal  — by a long shot. Therefore when she next challenges me to a race I may be tempted to say, “How about a game of scrabble instead?”

Would that be cheating?




The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The birth of our first child was a moving experience. Sometimes I forget just how moving it was until I hear a song my wife and I used to sing to our infant son.

He’s grownup now, with a child who will soon herself be grown up. So much has happened in our lives and my children’s lives that it is easy to forget how young parents feel about the creation of life. But something as simple as a song can bring it back, almost as powerfully as if we were reliving it anew.

In college I picked up the guitar and probably spent more time playing it than I should have. But it was an exciting time to learn guitar music, thanks to the popularity and talent of folk singing groups like Peter, Paul and Mary. I bought and played as much of their music as I could, and well remember a live concert in Atlanta, Georgia. I was enthralled.

As it turned out, my guitar playing helped attract the attention of the girl who eventually became my wife. When our son was born, and we first laid eyes upon that child, that song, The First Time, seemed so appropriate. In fact, for us, it still does.

I’ve never heard it played for an infant, or a young child, but it is entirely fitting with the exception of one word. (We sang, “Kissed your face” instead of “kissed your mouth”).

By the time our son was born, there were two popular versions, the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the Scottish original, and the fabulous Roberta Flack version. Both of those versions are made available here.

If you have a baby on the way, or a young child at home, listen to the lyrics and the melody and see if you don’t agree with us that this music evokes an emotion difficult to express in any other way.





Is Your Local Ball Pit Safe for Children?


I sat on the edge of a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheeses, calipers in hand, measuring the diameters of a random sampling of plastic balls within the pit.

I suppose I stood out, an officious looking adult wielding a precision instrument in a place designed for fun. So much so that a father attending his child asked me what I was doing.

I was measuring the ball sizes. I explained that if the balls were too small, and a child became covered with them, then the void space around the balls, the contorted empty volumes that represented places where air can be exchanged, would be too small, making breathing difficult. That made sense to the father, and he seemed pleased that I was looking after his child’s safety.

A child is almost completely covered by balls. A single hand is sticking out, and part of a face can be seen.

Contrary to the way it seemed, I was not a corporate inspector for Chuck E. Cheeses. I was also not a government inspector. But I was curious, gaining information for ideas I was developing about the breathing resistance imposed by particles of various sizes. I was acting, as it were, as a free lance scientist investigating flow through porous beds.

Consider the circumstance where a person is forced to breathe through a mass of balls, as in the illustration below. You can see, better than in the case of the ball pit, that if the balls become too small, or smaller balls fill in the void spaces between larger balls, then the person would be at risk for suffocation.

copyright John R. Clarke.

Advertisements for balls sold for ball pits point out the safety advantage of larger balls for children under age 3. The smaller children are obviously more susceptible to tunneling deeper into a pit of balls, some which may piled to two feet or deeper depths.

Balls of 3.1 in. diameter are touted as being ideal for three-year olds, whereas other popular sizes [2.5 in. (65 mm), 2.75 in. (70 mm)] are not. The 3.1 in. ball is almost twice as large, in terms of actual volume, as the 2.5 in. ball.

Click to enlarge.

A problem awaits a child if the ball pit has poorly sorted ball sizes, especially a mixture of larger and small balls. As shown in the figure to the right, well sorted balls provide a porosity (airspace for breathing) of over 32%, whereas a mixture with balls fitting into the void spaces between larger balls can reduce void space down to about 12%. That would not be a good plan for a ball pit.

It also is not a good plan for the Namib mole.

The Namib Golden Mole is found in one region of Namibia because of the peculiar characteristics of the sand in that area. The sand grains are surprisingly homogeneous in size, and as the illustration to the right shows, similarly sized particles have a relatively large porosity. For the mole that means that when they burrow deep into the sand to escape blistering noon day heat, they will not suffocate. They can breathe through the sand.

If the sand were of mixed grain sizes, which is more typical of sand dunes, then porosity would be low and the mole would not be able to burrow deep enough to avoid the African heat without suffocating.

So, quite unexpectedly there is a connection between the uniform size of plastic balls in a ball pit and the survival of a mole in a far away African desert.

You never know where scientific curiosity will lead you.

As will be shown in an upcoming blog post, the topic of breathing through porosities in packed beds is relevant to diving with rebreathers, or breathing through chemical absorbent cartridges in gas masks.