Sunday, January 13, 2013

Folk Wisdom for Kids: Have you seen a Scarecrow lately? (Sixth of a Series)

Dr Abe V Rotor

Living with Nature - School on Blog
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's School-on-Air) 
with Ms Melly C Tenorio
738 DZRB AM Band, 8 to 9 Evening Class, Monday to Friday

 1.  Scarecrow – friend and foe.
Love that scarecrow (banbanti Ilk.).  It is folk art on the farm. In the middle of the field it feigns scary to birds, what with those outstretched arms and that mysterious face hidden beneath a wide brim hat. There it stands tall amid maturing grains, keeping finches or maya birds (Lonchura Malacca jagori and L. m. formosana) at bay.   Finches are widely distributed in Asia and the Pacific feeding on rice grains, and alternately on weed seeds, but now and then they also steal from the haystack (mandala) and poultry houses. They are recognized for their chestnut colored compact bodies, and sturdy triangular beak designed for grain picking and husking. The scarecrow also guards against the house sparrow, mayan costa (billit China Ilk.), including the loveable turtle dove or bato-bato (Streptopelia bitorquata dursummieri), all grain feeders. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

A scarecrow is usually made of rice hay shaped like a human body wrapped around a T-frame. It is simply dressed up with old shirt and hat.  The idea is to make it look like the farmer that the birds fear.  There is one problem though.  Birds, like the experimental dog of Pavlov (principle of conditional learning), soon  discover the hoax and before the farmer knows it a whole flock of maya is feasting on his ready-to-harvest ricefield.  It is not uncommon to see maya birds bantering around – and even roasting on the scarecrow itself! 

Today the scarecrow is an endangered art.  In its place farmers hang plastic bags, or tie old cassette and video tape along dikes and across the fields.  These create rustling or hissing sound as the wind blows, scaring the birds.  Others use firecrackers and pellet guns. At one time I saw a lone scarecrow in the middle of a field. On examining it closely, I found out that it was made of a mannequin dressed the way the fashion world does. It reminded me of the boy who discovered the statue of Venus de Milo in a remote pasture in Greece. On another occasion I saw balloons and styropore balls hanging in poultry and piggery houses, bearing the faces of Jollibee, Power Puff Girls, Batman, Popeye, Mr. Bean and a host of movie and cartoon characters. Interestingly I noticed that the birds were nowhere to be found.
When I told my friend, an entomologist, that these new versions of the scarecrow seem to be effective, he wryly replied, “Maybe there are no more birds left.”  Suddenly I remembered Silent Spring, a prize winning book by Rachel Carson. The birds that herald spring had died of pesticide poisoning.

2. Old folks talk about living things resurrecting from the dead, and others that have self-healing power. 
They tell us of the magic of lizards growing new tails, crabs regaining lost claws, starfish arising from body pieces.  How can we explain the mystery behind these stories?

The biological phenomenon behind these stories is called regeneration. The male deer grows a new set of anthers each year; sea squirts and hydras are produced from tiny buds; the same way plants grow from cuttings.  New worms may regenerate from just pieces of the body; and some fish can sprout new fins to replace the ones that have been bitten off.

Experiments demonstrated that the forelimb of a salamander severed midway between the elbow and the wrist, can actually grow into a new one exactly the same as the lost parts.  The stump re-forms the missing forelimb, wrist, and digits within a few months.  In biology this is called redifferentiation, which means that the new tissues are capable of reproducing the actual structure and attendant function of the original tissues. 

Curious the kid I was, I examined a twitching piece of tail, without any trace of its owner. I was puzzled at what I saw.  My father explained how the lizard, a skink or bubuli, escaped its would-be predator by leaving its tail twitching to attract its enemy, while its tailless body stealthily went into hiding.  “It will grow a new tail,” father assured me. I have also witnessed tailless house lizards (butiki) growing back their tails at various stages, feeding on insects around a ceiling lamp. During the regeneration period these house lizards were not as agile as those were with normal tails, which led me to conclude how important the tail is.

Regeneration is a survival mechanism of many organisms. Even if you have successfully subdued a live crab you might end up holding only its pinchers and the canny creature has gone back into the water. This is true also to grasshoppers; they escape by pulling away from their captors, leaving their large trapped hind legs behind. But soon, like their crustacean relatives, new appendages will start growing to replace the lost ones. 

Another kind of regeneration is compensatory hypertrophy, a kind of temporary growth response that occurs in such organs as the liver and kidney when they are damaged. If a surgeon removes up to 70 percent of a diseased liver, the remaining liver tissues undergo rapid mitosis (multiplication of cells) until almost the original liver mass is restored.  Similarly, if one kidney is removed, the other enlarges greatly to compensate for its lost partner.
3. Animals respond favorably to music, so with plants. 
In a holding pen in Lipa, Batangas, where newly arrived heifers from Australia were kept, the head rancher related to his guests the role of music in calming the animals. “We have to acclimatize them first before dispersing them to the pasture and feedlot.” He pointed at the sound system playing melodious music.  In the duration of touring the place I was able to pick up the music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Bach. It is like being in a high rise office in Makati where pipe in music is played to add to pleasant ambiance of working.  Scientists believe that the effect of music on humans has some similarity with that of animals, and most probably to plants.

Which brings us to the observation of a winemaker in Vienna.  A certain Carlo Cagnozzi has been piping Mozart music to his grapevines for the last five years.  He claims that playing round the clock to his grapes has a dramatic effect. “It ripens them faster,” he said, adding that it also keeps away parasites and birds.  Scientists are now studying this claim to enlarge the very limited knowledge on the physiological and psychological effects of music.

Once I asked a poultry raiser in Teresa, Rizal, who also believes in music therapy.  “The birds grow faster and more eggs are produced,” he said. “In fact music has stopped cannibalism.”  I got the same positive response from cattle raisers where the animals are tied to their quarters until they are ready for market. “They just doze off, even when they are munching,” he said, adding that tension and unnecessary movement drain the animals wasting feeds that would increase the rate of daily weight gain. In a report from one of the educational TV programs, loud metallic noise stimulates termites to eat faster, and therefore create more havoc.  

There is one warning posed by the proponents of music therapy.  Rough and blaring music agitates the adrenalin in the same way rock music could bring down the house.

4.  You can actually hear death knocking in the night.
It’s like an Edgar Allan Poe’s story of death tapping on “a night dark and dreary”, but in this case it is not a raven. It is the Death-watch Beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum) that is alluded to death. It is an insect with a scary habit all right. The name was derived from the tapping sound it produces, which is frequently heard during mating period, usually in April or May. 

The beetle simply jerks its body forward in rapid succession, and strikes each time with the lower front part of its head against the surface on which it happens to be standing.  It gives eight taps in slightly less than a second; and almost before it stops another beetle of its kind that is within hearing distance will respond by tapping back in the same quick manner.  In woodworks and furniture that have been attacked by the Death-watch Beetle, the worm holes are large and distinguished by the presence of frass and powder around the openings.

The beetles are from one-fourth to one-third of an inch in length, dark brown in color, spotted and banded irregularly with thick patches of short yellow gray hairs. Pairing takes place after the beetles have made their exit from the wood, and they die a few weeks later, the female in the meantime having laid some 70 eggs.  The tapping is of the nature a sexual call, and may be repeated over and over for quite a long time. Grating sound may also be heard as the larvae gnaw on wood inside its tunnel.  It takes three years to complete the insect’s life cycle.  A more familiar beetle, Anobium punctatum, is called powder post or furniture beetle, named after the dust it scatters at the mouth of its tunnel on furniture.  

5. Do you believe in divination?  Take the case of the water diviner – one who can detect the source of ground water by mere perception.
A kindly old man from Baclaran, a foreigner who has been in the country for years, is a known for his special gift as a “water diviner”. He was hired to locate a reliable source of water for a piggery project in Macabebe, Pampanga.  Previous to this there was a newly constructed well which ran dry. This is the story related to me by the project manager. 

First he prayed, then looked from a perfect Y-shape branch of guava and cut it like a big frame of a slingshot (tirador).  Holding the smaller ends in each hand, and pointing the common end to the ground, he scoured the whole area. Then on a spot he stood, the branch vibrating in his hands.  “Dig here,” he said. True, he found an underground stream, which to this day, twenty years after, the well continues to pour out hundreds of gallons of water everyday.  

Can the water diviner detect the vibration of the flow of an underground vein of water (aquifer)?  If so, he must have that special gift of naturalism. ~

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