Correspondents 1997

(This column was first published in the December 29, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    As the 1997 calendar runs down, I take this opportunity once again to thank my many correspondents for your encouragement and for the interesting insights you have given me into the natural history of the Niagara Frontier. I mention only a few in this column, but be assured that each of your calls and letters is appreciated.

    The account of my bike ride from Youngstown to Niagara-on-the-Lake brought the most responses, which indicates the strong local interest in bicycling. Two indirectly accentuated my shortcomings. Bob Rodgers told me how he prefers to ride only half as fast as most bike club members, but even the speed he mentioned is faster than I am able to maintain. And Ed White invited me to join him on one of his 65 mile round trips between Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Although I couldn't accept -- the one-way distance is already beyond my range -- I appreciate his telling me that bike path maps for that trip are available at the Ontario Information Center in Fort Erie.

    Carmon Becker, who retired recently from his role as caretakaer at the Beaver Meadow Nature Center, wrote in response to my column about mullein. I had mentioned mullein spikes reaching heights of 4 to 6 feet and Mr. Becker confirmed that stated range in wildflower guides. However, he and a friend found plants greatly exceeding that. They measured individual mullein stems, identifying some 8 and 9 feet tall. Finally Mr. Becker discovered a giant 10 foot 5 inch plant growing in gravel along Cattaraugus Creek -- surely a record.

    Late last winter I received many letters and calls about changes in bird populations. For example, Donald O'Hara of Orchard Park and Keith Martin of Buffalo were very concerned about the decline in the number of birds at their feeders. But within days another letter arrived from Barbara Wagner of West Falls telling about the many birds (and a black squirrel) she had attracted. Although the winter of 1996 and last spring were especially hard on both overwintering species and early migrants, our area censuses indicate that locally observed population changes rarely reflect long term fluctuations. One exception to this, however, is the precipitous decline in house finch numbers due to avian conjunctivitis.

    In response to the column about a two-headed chipping sparrow at the Carsons' feeder in Hilton, Mary Lange of Hamburg forwarded a picture of a four-legged starling at her feeder. Indeed the two extra legs dangle uselessly behind those on which the bird is perched. One researcher attributes the cause of this unusual deformity to chemical pollution.

    After writing my confirmation of the two heads on that sparrow but still concerned about this anomoly, I took the photographs Bob Carson had sent me to Don Trainor in the University at Buffalo Graphics Arts Studio. He enlarged and enhanced those pictures enough to show that I was wrong. The "second head" appears to be a large burr about half the size of a thistle. It evidently stuck in the shoulder and head feathers of the sparrow to give the illusion of a second head. It even turned as the bird turned its actual head to feed.

    The pictures are posted on this web site. Here you can see how the original photographs fooled me and how the improved pictures revealed my error.

    Please continue to call or write in 1998. In particular, if there is a topic you would like addressed, let me know.

    Happy New Year.