Monday, April 23, 2012

Fifty Bits of Fifty

Full disclosure: I didn’t just turn 50. No, not me.  I actually recently turned 51.  So I’m an old (read: old) hand at being 50. 

I spent much of my daydreaming time at 49 thinking of fun things to do to celebrate turning 50, not knowing that due to family circumstances it was actually going to be the saddest year thus far of my life, but as another spring rolls around I’m once again contemplating making the most of my time in this world. 

Which probably should preclude doing things like compiling a list of 50 things about 50, but this activity pleased my inner librarian/packrat, and I like to keep on her good side.

So: 50 fifty-ish things about 50. Fingers crossed I stick around long enough to do 100 things about 100. 

1. There are—news flash—50 states in the Union. 

2. That’s why there are 50 stars on the U.S. flag. 

3. Hawaii is the 50th state, surely therefore it is logical to go to Hawaii for your 50th

4. Tin has 50 protons, so its atomic number is 50. 

5. 50 is the smallest number that is the sum of two non-zero square numbers: 50 =  12 + 72 and also 52 + 52. It is also the sum of three squares, 50 = 32 + 42 + 52. And yes, I cribbed that straight from Wikipedia. 

6. A jubilee year is a 50th year—so you can honestly host a jubilee when you get to the half-century  mark. 

7. Reaching 50 years of marriage marks your golden anniversary. So your 50th birthday can be considered your golden anniversary with Life, or Earth, or something along those woo-woo lines. 

8. 50 is also apparently “the fifth magic number in nuclear physics,” a magic number being “a number of nucleons, either protons or neutrons, such that they are arranged into complete shells with the atomic nucleus.” (Thanks again, Wikipedia.)

9. "Fifty-fifty" means all's fair.

10.  Just add a silent g, nobody will notice: The Dutch word Kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingswerkzaamheden is 49 letters long and means "preparation activities for a children's carnival procession." So your first 49 years could be seen as preparation activities for a celebration, and that is how I will shoehorn this in because I couldn’t nail down a 50-letter word. 

11.   In 2009, a racehorse received the name Fifty Fifty. 

12.  Every 8 seconds, another American turns 50.

  13.  Humans have 46 chromosomes. Among the living things with 50 chromosomes are the kit fox, the striped skunk, and the pineapple.

  14.  A total of 50 horses have won two-thirds of the Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes).

     15. 50 Miles of Art is a corridor that runs through Missouri along which fine artists and crafters live. 

     16.   In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy intones, “And what is
     fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. 
     Yes, I call it a very easy distance.'' 

     17. In 2009, a viper in a Bhopal zoo gave birth to 50 baby snakes
     18. 50 gallons of fresh water weighs about 417 pounds.

     19. And 50 gallons is about how much water a typical oyster filters in 1 day.

     20. Which would make it a poor roommate for an elephant,which drinks about 50 gallons a day. 

    21. If you had a pet elephant, you’d be well advised to use the bathtub as its water bowl:  a typical tub can hold about 50 gallons.

    22. That’s if the horse isn’t using the bathroom: a typical horse produces about 50 pounds of manure a day.

    23. But you could always use a rain barrel, an aquarium, or a  
     compost-tea brewer: these all come in standard 50-gallon models. 

     24. Sadly, the average American guzzles about 50 gallons of soda  
     in a year.

     25.  This is half of 50.

     26. A half-dollar equals 50 cents equals four bits.

     27. 50-cent coins have been minted nearly continuously since 1794, with only the penny being minted more consistently.

     28.   An opossum has 50 teeth.

     29.   What the L? It means 50 in Roman  

     30.   In the brilliant movie A Town Called Panic, Cowboy and Indian intend to build  their friend Horse a barbecue for his birthday.  They need 50 bricks, but accidentally order 50 million instead, leading to calamity.

     31. The song “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong” was a hit 
     in 1927. In 1975, Paul Simon climbed the charts with “50 Ways   
     to Leave Your Lover.”  Which makes me wonder, if 50 million
     Frenchmen each came up with 50 ways to leave your lover, how
     many excuses does that make?

     32. Memory Lane in Rogersville, Tennessee, is a town filled with 1950s buildings that is open to the public just once a year.

     33. Driving at speeds more than 50 miles per hour uses up a lot more fuel due to air resistance and, no doubt, some complicated physics-and-math ratio that I don’t wish to deal with.

     34. Perhaps this is why such animals as lionesses, gazelles, racehorses, quarter horses, African hunting dogs, and wildebeests usually don’t hit a top speed of more than 50 miles per hour.  

     35. Ostriches run pretty darn fast,
     too, plus an ostrich’s eye is about 50 mm in diameter. The tall bird also sports up to 50 tail feathers. 

     36. A black tuna can swim at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. And heck, it doesn’t even have to worry about air resistance.

     37. In a crowd of about 20 or 30 people, there is a 50 percent chance that somebody else in the room will share your birth date.

     38. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was made in 1958. She wasn’t 45 feet tall; she wasn’t 100 feet tall. 50 must be something special indeed.

     39. Lego bricks celebrated their 50th birthday
     on January 28, 2008. Since their invention in
     1958, the company’s made so many bricks
     that there are about 62 bricks for each person
     on the planet. Which leads to questions such
     as, how many of them willingly share their
     Legos? How many have they left on the floor for Mom to step on
     in bare feet in the night? Have you ever seen a purple Lego brick?

     40. A footbridge made of 50 tons of recycled plastic crosses the Tweed River in Peebleshire, Scotland. 

     41. Perhaps another bridge can be constructed from the 50 tons of  trash once left behind after the Rose Parade event in Pasadena, California.

    42.   The list of other creatures who can celebrate 50th birthdays includes elephants, lobsters, bonobo chimps, Senegal parrots,  narwhals, bottle-nosed dolphins, right whales, rhinoceros, gorillas,      red-eared sliders, manatees, and, of course, the greenblotched      rockfish.

     43. Tegopelte was an ancient, giant cockroach-like creature that had up to 50 legs. 

     44. It would probably have loved eating Green Eggs and Ham, the eponymous meal of Dr. Seuss’s beloved book, which celebrated its 50th birthday on August 12, 2010. Seuss wrote it after his editor challenged him to write an “intelligent, entertaining” book that used just 50 words.  Seuss not only got the book written and published, but won $50 in the bet. 

     45. Plain old white eggs starred in Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul  Newman’s character swallows 50 hard-boiled eggs in one hour.

     46. In 2006, Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days, one in each of the 50 states. 

     47. A refrigerator typically hums at 50 decibels.
     48. Although the actual social-scientist method for determining the divorce rate has it topping out at 41 percent of marriages, the popular figure for the divorce rate is that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce.

     49. You could fit 50 moons inside Earth if it were hollow. And if you could ensnare and  duplicate the moon.

     50. The biggest rabbit in the world is an English bunny named Darius, who weighs 50 pounds.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

White-Crowned Sparrows, Not Robins, Herald Spring

A winter robin in our birch tree, December 2011.
The robin is widely acclaimed to be a harbinger of spring in the United States; a robin appearing in late winter inspires many people to share the news that they've spotted one and thus spring must be around the corner.

How the bird earned this reputation isn't clear. In many parts of the country (such as here in the Pacific Northwest), robins are year-round residents. In places where robins migrate farther south for the winter, robins moving south from Canada may take their place.

The robin/spring equation isn't even a holdover from English folklore, as far as I can tell. Long-ago settlers from England, wistfully recalling the flora and fauna of their country, dubbed the big, feisty American thrush a robin because it had a russet breast like the spunky little English robin back home (which was once classified with thrushes but is now grouped with flycatchers).

But English robins, like many American ones, typically stick around for the winter (and are known for singing in fall and winter).

White-crowned sparrow, Magnuson Park, July 2011.
To me, it's the sweet, clear call of the white-crowned sparrow that signifies spring's arrival. White-crowns hang around all winter in the Puget Sound region, but I usually don't hear this little bird's melody until a Saturday in April, when it rings from the thickets striping the farmland near the stable that's our second home.

The white-crowned sparrow has starred in many studies seeking to unravel the mysteries of birdsong. Much of what we know about how birds learn to sing and birdsong dialects is based on research involving this species. Yet its plaintive melody hasn't yet been rendered in handy mnemonic-device form, unlike the "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" of its cousin the white-throated sparrow or the "Quick, three beers!" of the olive-sided flycatcher.

Any existing efforts labor just to catch the rhythm of the song--it's translated variously online as "poor-wet-wetter-chee-zee" or "more, more, more cheezies, please pink!", making it sound like it's after Cheetos rather than singing a melody that, to me, is like a balmy, languid, summer afternoon distilled into notes on a flute.

Field guides, alas, aren't much help. David Allen Sibley's white-crowned sparrow is a "doodly-doo, I don't know the words" kind of singer that trills "feeee odi odi zeeee zaaaa zoooo." The Audubon field guide sternly declares that the bird's song "basically consists of a clear introductory whistle followed by 4-8 whistles or wheezy trills on different pitches." The Kaufman guide simply states that the song "varies, with local dialects" and usually includes "clear whistles and buzzy or trilled notes."

Author-ornithologists seem to have more leeway when they write outside the confines of a field guide (which of course must use words sparingly so that the physical book doesn't get so cumbersome it can't be carried into the field).

Photo by Mike Baird/Wiki Commons
Naturalist and conservationist John Burroughs, for example, who lived from 1837 to 1921, called the white-throat's melody a "sweet, quavering ribbon of song" that was the "most plaintive of all the sparrow songs." In expressing its sound, he notes that "it begins with the words fe-u, fe-u, fe-u, and runs off into trills and quavers like the song sparrow's, only much more touching."

Songs of the white-crowned sparrow do vary from place to place and subspecies to subspecies, and these distinctions were keenly observed by ornithologist William Leon Dawson (1873-1928). In his voluminous Birds of California, he describes one subspecies' song of "oh hee sween'tie chup ichin'" as having in it "the sprightliness of springing heather, the bright, compelling cheer of sunshine battling with glaciers for imprisoned waters, and a little of the wistfulness, withall, of whispering pines."

Another species trills "Hoo hooee, wheeoo hoo che wee che wee hee, chee oo chee chee wee che" (after which Dawson notes, "These imitations are very stupid, of course--about as expressive of Zonotrichian melody as a naked wire dummy is of a man." (The bird's genus is Zonotrichia.) A third subspecies, the one living in Seattle, he chides as a singer of a "prosy, iterative ditty" that ends with a trill of "a wooden quality which we may overlook in a friend, but should certainly ridicule in a stranger."

It was a northwestern bird's "prosy, iterative ditty" that led me to a white-crowned sparrow perched on the tippy-top of a conifer in a park on the Oregon coast in the early 1990s--it was a new bird for me (white-crowns are scarce back East where I grew up).

The next one I saw wasn't nearly as hard to spot: It had claimed the central courtyard of a local elementary school as its territory, and when I spent a few hours there as a volunteer cleaning and weeding, the sparrow hopped from tree to tree to supervise my work.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) had to work a lot harder to check out white-crowned sparrows (which he called "white-crowned finches"). "It is to the wild regions of Labrador that you must go, kind reader, if you wish to form a personal acquaintance with the White-crowned Sparrow," he wrote after an arduous trek through what sounds like a bog.

He then rhapsodizes about the sparrow's song:
"In such a place, when you are far away from all that is dear to you, how cheering is it to hear the mellow notes of a bird, that seems as if it had been sent expressly for the purpose of relieving your mind from the heavy melancholy that bears it down! The sounds are so sweet, so refreshing, so soothing, so hope inspiring, that as they come upon the soul in all their gentleness and joy, the tears begin to flow from your eyes, the burden on your mind becomes lighter, your heart expands, and you experience a pure delight....Thus it was with me, when, some time after I had been landed on the dreary coast of Labrador, I for the first time heard the song of the White-crowned Sparrow."
Of course, this didn't stop him from destroying a patch of habitat in his determined quest to procure a nest ("we returned with hatchets, cut down every tree to its roots, removed each from the spot, pulled up all the mosses between them, and completely cleared the place") and later shooting the "gentle and unsuspicious" nesting pair of birds.

Perhaps the white-crowns would agree that "oh, please, leave me be, be, be" might be a fair rendition of their song, but they're such friendly, cheerful little creatures that they'd be inclined to forgive Audubon his songbird slaughtering in the name of science. So I'll content myself with simply hearing "oh, spring's here at last, last, last."