Life in the Real Desert: The Hummingbird Feeder Experiment

Hummingbird wikipediaI am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. Innate curiosity does drive much of what I do and as a young boy I did think that science was the path to be taken. That was overridden by the realization that I would not be the next Brains Benton or even Sherlock Holmes. My brain lacked the essential element necessary to make one an expert in the scientific world.

Logic.

Years later my curiosity and imagination are still here and logic, while it has increased in some aspects, has ceased to be the main reason behind not pursuing a scientific path. It is now brainpower and time that stops me dead in my tracks.

It was the curious part of me that wondered why all of the neighborhood birds flocked around my nectar filled hummingbird feeder. The upside-down bottle is full of a homemade concoction, recipe taken from the good old Internet, and when first filled only the little manic wing flappers supped from my good-natured offering.

When I made a new batch, using slightly different measuring utensils, other feathered friends began stopping by to have a drink. Even the woodpeckers would land awkwardly on the small feeder, using a series of gymnastic maneuvers that can only be described as comical to the extreme, to drink from my tiny well of nectar.

This intrusion on my little hummingbird friends would be acceptable except that a lot of the other birds are actively chasing off my little feathered chums. First there were the yellow, quite pretty birds, then the red headed and red crested ones and now the woodpeckers are all having a go at the original recipients of the nectar.

I left the feeder empty for a couple of days and all of the winged ones were approaching it, landing and dipping a beak in to see if anything was left. I then filled the thing with common tap water, sans boiling and sans sugar.

The idea being that as this is the desert and not a lot of excess water is to be found, perhaps the other birds are just thirsty. Time will tell whether this hypothesis is correct or not.

Thus far, the feeder has not been approached by anything apart from the odd hummingbird. After a day or two, I will boil some water to see if the avoidance is because of “treated” liquid. Apparently the tap stuff needs to be boiled in order to rid it of the chlorine, et al.

It will be interesting to see if all of the winged neighbors in my area return to have a sup of plain old water after the chemicals have been removed. Afterward, I will go back to the original utensils to make the nectar and see if the hummingbirds can partake of the sweet drink undisturbed by the bullying birds that have invaded their feeder.

I wonder if the enormous road runner spied this morning will decide to have a drink in either of the provided fluids in the feeder. While is seems unlikely that this veritable giant could manage it, the woodpecker with gymnastic tendencies is not shrinking violet.

Watch this space…

23 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth by Trevor Norton: Eccentric Experimentation

The title of this vastly informative and entertaining book comes from a “self” experiment towards the end of the book. The experimenter in question was testing decompression rates and a rapid ascension caused “one of his filled teeth to emit a high-pitched scream and explode because of air pockets that couldn’t vent fast enough.” The first part of the title; smoking ears also comes from this experiment and the end result was a pin hole in each ear enabling the recipient to blow smoke rings through his ears.

Author Trevor Norton takes us through an amusing and incredible journey through the trials and tribulations of the inventors, experimenters, scientists, doctors and (perhaps) the mentally unstable in their quest for knowledge and a cure for most of mankind’s ailments or a solution to what seemed to be insurmountable problems. Written with a sort of wry humour, these antidotes (pun intended) are a testament to the men and women who put their own safety last while searching for answers.

Norton even includes a couple of chapters that do not deal with medicine, health or science. He has dedicated several chapters to advances in warfare, deep sea diving, discovery of predatory animals of the sea, air travel and breaking the sound barrier.

Some of the names you encounter in this book, while not exactly household names, are fairly well-known to most people. The Curie’s, Chuck Yeager, and Louis Pasteur to name but a few; but the book concentrates mainly on those unknown and “unsung” heroes who have helped their fellow-man by unselfishly (and quite often fatally) experimenting on themselves to advance the knowledge of science and medicine; even researching dietary requirements and what non-domestic animals were good to eat.

These pioneers and rebels thought nothing of exposing themselves to various diseases via means that were nauseating at best and dangerous at worst. The fact that a lot of these self-experimenters came close to death and a good portion of these heroes did; but they also paid the ultimate price for their discoveries. Some like the Curie’s who, pretty much everyone knows, died because of their research into radiation; these “high-profile” visionaries are fairly well-known for their ultimate sacrifice for humanity. Others died unknown and forgotten by but a few of their colleagues and families.

The vast majority of the book details the men and women (but mostly men) who worked their entire lives to advance medicine and surgery. Norton’s use of humour helps to tone down some of the more unsavoury aspects of the lengths that these people were prepared to take. On more than one occasion I felt myself gagging only to have that reflex effortlessly segue into chuckling laughter.

Most importantly, the book sets the stage not just for the participants and their eccentricities but the politics, egos, jealousies and competition for recognition in their peer groups.

Trevor Norton deserves every ounce of praise he’s received in reference to his story telling skills. Not only is he erudite and entertaining but he obviously spends a great deal of time and care on his research. At the end of the book he has a bibliography for each and every chapter in the book.

Even if you have no real interest in the people who risked everything to find out answers, the intelligent and humorous way that Norton describes their individual stories is worth the price of admission alone.

Since I am interested in these types of stories, I’m giving the book a full 5 stars out of 5. And after discovering Mr Trevor Norton, I’ll be checking his other books out as well.

Author Trevor Norton.

Incredible Growing Purple Foam

In my last blog I mentioned the fact that I was a huge Brains Benton fan. Brains was a rich kid who was incredibly smart. His parents pretty much left him to his own devices. This included having a laboratory that would be the envy of any mad scientist. Brains with his best friend (a juvenile version of Dr Watson to his youthful Sherlock Holmes) would solve mysteries in his local neighbourhood. These mysteries were in fact crimes and the only one I can remember now with any clarity is The Case Of The Counterfeit Coins. There were only six books in the Brains Benton mystery series and I read four of them. These books with their focus on a juvenile with the brain power (and money) sufficient enough for him to scientifically solve crimes faster than the local police force inspired me.

I still remember begging my parents for a science kit for Christmas. In those days, if you were prepared to spend the money, you could get a great science kit. After an entire year of me harping endlessly about this science kit I got one. And it was a doozy. *On a side note – if you have never heard this particular word, doozy equals wildly great* This kit had a real microscope that worked on both batteries and solar power (a mirror system), glass: slides, test tubes, and beakers; a Bunsen burner and loads of chemicals. You also got a scalpel, forceps, an eye dropper, tweezers and an elemental table. Along with all this great stuff, you also were given a bunch of experiments to do. You could, for example, make a tornado in a beaker. *that is the only experiment I can remember from the kit*
Before I was even old enough to take a proper science class in High School I was doing experiments that, in school, I would not be doing until I was a sophmore taking Biology. I remember doing an “autopsy” on a frog. When I cut open the stomach I found six of the biggest beetles I had ever seen. Yet, the stomach, before it had been cut open did not appear to have been big enough to hold half the number I extracted. I was fascinated with anatomy and all chemicals period.
Then I decided to discard all the experiments that were listed in the science kit booklet. I had never been able to get the tornado experiment to work and because of that I started losing faith in it. I was going to make my own creations instead. This was how I made the “Incredible Growing Purple Foam.”
My parents knew that I “played” with my science kit constantly. My bedroom always smelled of the strange chemicals I worked with. No matter how long I left the windows open the smell remained. My folks had no problem with this at all and I was always allowed to do my experiments in my bedroom. That all changed when I concocted the purple foam.
I cannot remember what items I mixed together to make this foam. I can remember my excitement when the beaker began foaming. I can also remember my excitement when the foam changed colour from white to a dark purple. I can also remember when my excitement turned to concern and then panic when the foam started moving out of the beaker and onto my science table.
Luckily I had put my experiment on a place holder from downstairs. The idea being that if I spilt anything it would not ruin the table. Unfortunately my “Incredible Growing Purple Foam” was not content with growing out of just the beaker. This foam just kept growing. It soon outgrew the place holder and started spilling all over the table and onto the floor. And it still kept growing.
I quickly grabbed the place mat with the ever expanding purple foam on it and headed for the stairs. I ran downstairs, through the kitchen and out the pantry door into the back yard. I dumped the whole thing, place holder, beaker and foam in the space between our garage and the storm cellar. The foam kept growing for another couple of hours at least. When it finally stopped growing it made a mound of purple foam that was about one and a half feet high and two feet across. I was ecstatic.
My parents were not.
It took repeated cleaning to get the purple stain out of my bedroom carpet. The table had to be repainted because the purple colour refused to be removed. I was banished to the storm cellar for any future experimentation.  Amazingly my banishment was not because of the mess I had caused. No, my banishment was because I shared my bedroom with my younger brother. Where I was judged to be old enough to play with what was in essence a dangerous toy, my brother was way too young to be exposed to this stuff.
I did not argue about this. I meekly moved all my things into the storm cellar. The consequences of this move was gradual. I began to spend less time being a junior scientist. Not because my interest waned. No I spent less time because I did not particularly like the storm cellar. It was dark (even with the light on and the storm doors open) and it hosted a plethora of spiders. I had an almost phobic distaste and fear of spiders.
I am not in the field of science or medicine. Both of these fields were high on the list of careers that my parents thought I would eventually pursue. Nope, the world lost a creative and devoted junior scientist who could have grown into a scientific genius if not for a fear of spiders.