I saw the neighbors’ woodchuck shuffling around in our backyard in an amble that also caused every sparrow in the world to fly away from our bird feeder. Also, if you’re missing a sparrow, it’s probably flying back to you after visiting our bird feeder this afternoon.
Jack Kinney produced today’s short. It’s from 1960 and has a story by Ed Nofziger. Animation direction’s credited to Harvey Toombs. Here’s Bird Watcher Popeye.
It seems like earlier this week I was writing something about the good Popeye cartoons being more about mood than story. Here’s one that’s all mood — all little scenes, really. Maybe you can call what it has a story, but it’s trying to not be one. What it most feels like it’s trying to do is sit on my head. Or it’s trying to be a dream. I know I call on this metaphor a lot. Let me make the case for the dream logic.
Popeye’s pushed into Olive Oyl’s obsession du jour, bird watching. The bird in Olive Oyl’s backyard bites Popeye’s face. So they go to the zoo. At the zoo there’s a penguin who looks like Popeye that punches a penguin that looks like Brutus. There’s a parrot singing the Popeye the Sailor Man song. So a disgusted Olive Oyl sends Popeye into the woods, watching him by telescope. There, Popeye’s punched by a hummingbird who’s also singing the Popeye the Sailor Man tune. And then he’s punched by an owl. Brutus, who’s got a nest on top a chimney, sends a vulture — the Sea Hag’s Bernard, perhaps? — to kidnap Olive Oyl. Popeye spots this, spinach, punching, there we go. We close with Olive Oyl talking how she doesn’t want Popeye to change. Meanwhile the weird “Popeye, You’ve Done It Again” music from that baffling Popeye’s Testimonial Dinner plays. And so, evoking the Beatnik cartoon (Coffee House), Popeye says, “Like, I am what I am”.
So which sentence in that previous paragraph could you not reasonably append “for some reason” to? I don’t mind a flimsy story. These are characters I like and I’m happy to see them hang out and do silly stuff. But if Popeye can’t watch birds at the zoo successfully why send him off in the woods on his own? Whether the cartoon works likely depends on how well you tolerate characters doing things without a clear motive.
There’s some fun stuff here. I like the Popeye-and-Brutus penguins. The parrot is a good bit too. Popeye has a bunch of great facial expressions, too. Irritation at the start, as that bird swoops at him. Abashedness when Olive Oyl scolds him. General grouchy looks all around. A laughing cycle where his head is kept still and his body shakes up and down, which does a good job making it look like richer movement.
But, boy, if you are not exactly on this cartoon’s wavelength it’s a disaster to you.
It’s a Paramount Cartoon Studios-produced short today. The story’s by Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer, with the director as usual Seymour Kneitel. Here’s the 1961 short Love Birds.
So, here we delight in the 584th straight “Popeye has to chase a thing” cartoon produced by Paramount this line. I exaggerate. But it is another one of the formula where Popeye gets in trouble chasing an innocent who’s not, particularly in danger from the perils around them. It’s done with the competence I’d expect. There’s a few nice little throwaway pieces, such as Popeye’s eyes picking up a western when he falls on a TV antenna.
The most curious joke is in the pet store. The proprietor’s a monkey wearing a blue suit. Popeye is as confused as I am. It seems like this should set up the revelation that the real owner is right behind the monkey and we just didn’t notice. But, no, a talking monkey is selling love birds and that’s just something in the Popeye universe. It feels like a transgression. But it’s not as though there haven’t been talking animals in the Popeye cartoons before. Even ones that speak more than a throwaway line as a joke. I don’t know why this bothers me in a way that the Whiffle Hen or the Hungry Goat don’t.
The whole pet store business is part of getting Olive Oyl’s lonely love bird, Juliet, a partner. It takes two and a half minutes for them to meet, and start fighting right away; Popeye’s chase doesn’t even start until nearly three minutes into the five-and-a-half-minute cartoon. The pacing is all very steady, very reliable. A bit dull.
And, then, bleah. There’s the love birds squabbling, Juliet hectoring Romeo until he runs away, the first time. The second time, he takes a tiny bit of spinach and fights back. This works because cornball humor is all about how wives are awful but you can yell them into place. There are things I miss about this era of cartoons. This attitude, though, is not among them.
Animal researchers were surprised in the last couple years to learn that rooks will make and use tools. Here I mean humans who research animals. The animals researching people were surprised that this was surprising. I don’t know what the people who research animals who research people were surprised by. I can’t take all that much surprise, not in a single sentence.
The thing to remember here is that the rooks are birds. These are variant models of the crow, with a moonroof and power aelerons, not the chess pieces. These are often confused, what with how surprising and confusing a time it’s been. Also with how many of them are members of the International Federation of Chess-Playing Animals, an organization that’s properly known in French by basically the same words in a different order. In the wild, rooks actually don’t depend much on rooks. They play much more on bishops, which leaves them vulnerable to badgers, who like the little horseys. “How are we losing to you?” cry out the rooks. “You call them `little horseys’!” Chess is, as the immortal plumber says, a game of deep strategy.
The thing I don’t know is how anybody can be the least surprised by animals making and using tools. Yes, we used to think humans were the only people who made and used tools. But that came to an end with the historic ruling in 1996 that animal researchers — again, the humans doing the researching of animals — were allowed to sometimes look at the animals they were researching. It made for exciting times in the animal-research (by humans) journals. Top-tier journals published breakthroughs like “Kangaroos not actually large mice”, “Mother opossum just, like, wearing a coat of babies”, “Mice not actually tiny kangaroos”, “Is that red squirrel yelling at me?”, “Medium-Size kangaroos or mice just nature being difficult”, and “Look how happy this mouse is eating raw pasta!”.
Today we should understand that basically any animal that can get one will use tools. The only unique part about humans is when we get a tool we’ll feel guilty for not filling out the warranty registration. In our defense, filling it out requires dealing with a web site, and those haven’t been any good since 2012. Also they want to be allowed to send you push notifications, so that anytime, day or night, you might be interrupted a fast-breaking update on the biscuit-joiner situation. It’s a great way to get out of a dull conversation, yes. “I’m sorry, I have to take this, it’s Milwaukee Sawzall telling me about a clamp meter” is a socially acceptable pass out of any interaction. “It’s of much greater precision!” will get you out of the next conversation, too.
Meanwhile we see animal tool use all over the place. Nearly two-thirds of all Craftsman tools sold in the 2010s were bought by tree-dwelling mammals of 18 inches or less in length. Nearly the whole world’s supply of rotary sanders have been obtained by squirrels. We don’t know what they’re doing with them, but we do notice the red squirrels spending less time yelling and more time rubbing their paws together while grinning. And this all does help us distinguish the smaller squirrels from chipmunks, who prefer belt sanders. See a Miter saw in the wild? There’s a badger no more than 25 feet away. Nobody knows how raccoons got wood routers, but it is why they’re just everywhere on the Wood Internet.
And animals have done much to give us tools. The inclined plane, for example, was nothing more than an incline before sea turtles thought to match it to the plane. They didn’t even realize they were creating a useful tool. They just hoped to advance to being sea-saw turtles, and did. The monkey wrench, as you’d expect from the name, was not invented by a monkey. It was a team of four monkeys working long hours for a period of ten years, at the end of which they had produced the works of Shakespeare, which they had been reading during breaks. Nobody knows how wrenches got into the matter.
Having said all that, now I’m wondering whether the animal researchers were confused between the chess rooks and the bird rooks. Wouldn’t it be just like life if they had meant to study the chess pieces and got onto birds by mistake?
Here are some things a groundhog might predict.
Six more weeks of winter. This occurs when the duly appointed groundhog for a region emerges and sees its own shadow. This commits us to six more weeks of cold weather. There is also an option on snow, freezing rain, and your car being somehow glazed. This is all per an ancient agreement that nobody remembers why humanity made. It must have solved some problem, but what?
Six fewer weeks of winter. Unless that should be six less weeks of winter. This occurs when the duly appointed groundhog for a region emerges and sees its shadow. Or … no, wait, that’s supposed to be more weeks of winter. Maybe it’s you get more winter when the groundhog doesn’t see a shadow? Well, it’s one of those cases. This is what we have a research department for.
Six wider weeks of winter. This occurs when a groundhog emerges and sees its shadow through the distortions of an anamorphic lens. It’s a great chance for everyone to wear horizontal stripes and to play out their favorite scenarios of not being able to fit through door frames.
Six more eggs of winter. This happens when the groundhog emerges but is dressed in either a chicken or an Easter bunny costume. Extremely rare but valuable as it lets you make two more cakes than you otherwise would have. Alternatively, you can poach a couple of eggs in up to six bowls of ramen and that adds a little bit of joy, even when you’ve already gone to the Asian grocery and gotten some of those strange ramen packets with flavors like Spicy 3-Chili Artificial Pork With Broth.
Six more beeps of winter. This is what to expect when the emergent groundhog is a robot of some kind. I don’t make any assertion of why the groundhog would be a robot. Maybe they’ve cut back on the budget for squirrel-family payroll. Maybe the area is too environmentally challenging for groundhogs to be there in person, and they have to be telepresent instead. Maybe you just live in the robo-ecosphere. I don’t judge.
Six more shrieks of winter. Foretold when the groundhog emerges and gets a good, clear, direct look at the state of anything in the world. Not a winter for anyone with any anxiety.
Six fewer eggs of winter. The terrible flip side of more eggs. This happens when the groundhog completely lacks a chicken or an Easter bunny costume, and can’t be coaxed into wearing that great peacock costume. “How could a peacock lay an egg?” the groundhog demands to know, and not completely unfairly. “It should be a peahen!” You try to answer: peahens are lovely birds. If it weren’t for peacocks stealing the spotlight they’d be rated among the most beautiful of birds. It doesn’t matter. Nobody even understands what this argument is supposed to gain. And there you are, deprived of the ability to make up to two cakes or six poached-egg bowls of ramen. You have within you the strength to survive this.
Six more weeks of winter, all stacked on top of each other. When the groundhog emerges and turns out to be several groundhogs sitting on one another’s shoulders. No, not wearing a trenchcoat. So you think some years it just feels like February 24th goes on for like 48 hours? Wait until you spend forty-two days on the 24th of February. Stockpile some books and at least sixty pointless quarrels to have with your loved ones.
Six more tweaks of winter. The groundhog does not emerge, as it is busy fiddling with a couple of inconsequential details in the confident hope that everything will be perfect when they are done. They are never done, so nothing ever has to be done, which is perfect.
Six more beaks of winter. BIRDVASION! RUN! RUNNNNNN!
Six more feet of winter. This we can expect when the groundhog turns out to be one or more spiders collaborating. This is great news for the hosiery merchants. It’s not so good for people who’ve laid in a huge stockpile of two-legged clothing. This is nature’s way of reminding us that it’s never worth hoarding pants. Last observed in Syracuse/Utica’s famous Leggy February of ’78.
Sure, according to the clear directions of my dream, it was going to be one of those frustrating days where I duck into the used-book-store for a morning coffee and the chance to smell decomposing paperbacks. And just stepping in I’d see that now it was 7 am, like an hour earlier than it could possibly be and that I’d already be late for work, and every minute that I spend there I’m a half-hour later although every clock moves backwards three minutes, the way you’d expect. Well, before you know it, I’m up on the roof of the old church, balancing everything I have just barely as I sit down to some serious writing. And then there’s a bunch of crows on the next roof glaring at me. Plus there’s this ostrich who keeps projecting her head out from the building and through the cupola windows to come just close enough that I think she’s going to snap at my hand. But the worst part is that in the dream I was putting on paper exactly the letter needed to reconnect with that estranged friend. And when I woke up I couldn’t think of a single word I had written. But at least I had it right for a little bit.
It was a perfectly nice flying dream right up to the point that the swan or whatever it was decided to land on my back and freeload on the ride. I can’t blame the swan for its decision. It’s a sensible enough decision on its part. It’s just that swans turn out to be pointy in surprisingly many places. The narrator did his part to shoo the swan off, but the swan was paying no attention. Maybe the narrator was added in post. I don’t think it was Morgan Freeman narrating. I suspect I was doing the narration myself, since I got to talking in my sleep loud enough that my love nudged me awake and expressed concern about what I was going on about. I don’t know what the swan made of it all.
It’s not the most exciting thing we have around the yard — that would be our pet rabbit being let out in his pen to frighten squirrels — but we do have a bird feeder out back, which we use to get angry at squirrels who are passing up the perfectly good squirrel feeder that’s on the tree they can actually get at. Anyway, it’s fun looking up at the window and seeing that every sparrow in the world is visiting at once.
And then there’s the occasional surprise visitor. We just got a Cape May warbler visiting. There was one here last year, too, and it delighted me first because it’s not so much bigger than a sparrow but is far more interesting to look at, what with looking like it’s been dipped in lemon sauce before heading out for the day. It’s named, if we believe in Wikipedia these days, for Cape May, New Jersey, where it does not live and through which it does not migrate, but where it was spotted one time by George Ord, who swore he wasn’t making it up, even though another one wasn’t seen in Cape May for a hundred years after that, and where it still doesn’t get seen much. I am just delighted that the world works out like that sometimes. Imagine if you could apply that to people. I might be named something like “Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport Shuffler-To-Connecting-Flight”. Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport meanwhile is properly named after World War I pilots Ernest Groves Wold and Cyrus Foss Chamberlain, but the “Wold-Chamberlain Field” apparently is not much seen, and I like to think that’s because the name has moved to Cape May to retire.
A mouse scares off some cats by beating up his elephant-shaped scooter. A fish demands a drink of water from the annoyed Farmer Al Falfa. An ostrich or maybe a penguin (I guess a duck is plausible enough?) pops out of trap doors and walks through rooms. The Farmer berates his maid, a mouse, to get back to work cleaning. The mice take to courting. It’s all, really, a peculiar bunch of events, even though the storyline always seems to be making sense at the moment. It’s only in the aggregate you wonder, “the heck did I just watch?”
The Farmer Al Falfa series of cartoons — sometimes called “Farmer Gray”, as the YouTube link’s title does — started in 1915 for Paul Terry. Terry and Terrytoons are known for creating Mighty Mouse, and Heckle and Jeckle, and, truth be told, that’s about it. You can find some people who remember Deputy Dawg (which I watched altogether too much of in my youth) and I’ve heard good things about The Mighty Heroes but dunno about them myself. The studio never had the strongest characters or plots or gags, but, they delivered on time, and sometimes hit pretty solidly.
And a grizzly, cantankerous person isn’t a bad start for a cartoon character, and he’d have a fairly long life. Wikipedia notes he was the person being annoyed by Heckle and Jeckle in their first couple cartoons. I didn’t suspect at the time that I was watching a thirty-year-old cartoon star.
So, some good news from our animal-watching friends. According to a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences department, wild mice like to run on wheels, in pretty much the same ways that regular old domesticated mice do, so doctors Johanna H Meijer and Yuri Robbers have some payoff for all their mouse-watching. It hasn’t all been about making mice nervous about being stared at; those are just bonuses.
According to their research wild mice run pretty much the same way domestic mice do: the mouse comes out, pokes at the wheel a little, then hops on and starts running until it starts squeaking. Then the mouse keeps running until the squeaking drives somebody crazy, and that somebody comes out and dabs a little vegetable oil on the axle. Once that’s done, the mouse is overjoyed because, hey, vegetable oil. That stuff doesn’t grow on trees. I guess except palm oil. And banana oil. Maybe also oak oil. Or for that matter tuna oil, for fish that have been lifted into trees, perhaps by a waterspout or by a practical joker or by the efforts of a daring fish explorer. I guess the important thing is, vegetable oil on the axle. Once that’s there, the mouse is delighted because steel slathered in vegetable oil is delicious, and the mouse can lick it all off, giving much-needed calories and a refreshing taste sensation before going back to running and driving people crazy by their squeaking. There’s nothing about this that requires domestication, is there? Just fish.
Mouse wheel-running, the paper says, is done in bursts lasting from under one minute to as much as eighteen minutes, which I think is interesting because it means a mouse can plausibly run a wheel for longer than the half-life of a neutron outside an atomic nucleus. I can picture mice puttering along on the wheel and chuckling at a pair of free neutrons, telling them, “by the time I get off this wheel at least one of you is gonna be gone.” So now you know why back in middle school I was the kid people wouldn’t play Dungeons and Dragons with.
The average wheel-running speed for a mouse in the wild is about 1.3 kilometers per hour, while that in the lab is 2.3 kph. The maximum speed of a wild mouse, though, was about 5.7 kph, while laboratory mice topped out at 5.1. This means something, although you have to divide all those figures by 1.6 to know what they mean in the United States.
The researchers got videos of different animals running the wheel. There were a couple of rats who went running, and some shrews. There were some frogs, too, raising the question of wait a minute how can a frog run on a wheel? Surely they were hopping the wheel instead, and that should’ve been a data point for the paper about whether wild mice will get their hopping done on wheels. But more surprising and I swear this is exactly what they say, there were incidents of slugs and even a snail getting on the wheel. A snail! This, this is what Turbo is doing to screw up the ecosystem.
They have video of the slug running on the wheel, too. It’s the third video, twenty seconds of time at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1786/20140210/suppl/DC1 and as you can see at a glance, nothing happens in it. But if you zoom the video up to full-screen, and if you get a bigger screen, you can see the wheel is turning a wee tiny little bitty bit, at about the same rate that Pluto rolls around the solar system, only with a slug. Why do they not have the snail video? Did they feel embarrassed on the snail’s behalf?
A caption to some of the photos mentions that there were birds that visited the wheel, but none of them were spotted running. Superficially this is a very frog-like situation since I’d expect birds to be flying the wheel, but if they’re flying, they don’t even need the wheel. But birds can run when the spirit so moves them, such as when they need to complete a Fun Run which they entered because of the attractive rhyme such offer. That no birds were observed to run indicates a shortage of the fun in outdoor spaces near campus. Maybe the birds are worried about their quals.
I wonder if now that we know mice like wheels there’s any research under way to see what wheels feel about mice.
[ Franklin Pierce Adams was a humorist who wrote a newspaper feature that, as best I can tell, has just plain vanished: the newspaper poem. He’s known, at least among baseball-history fans, for composing “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”, a ditty about the Chicago Cubs’ double-play-making machine of Tinkers and Evers and Chance, often credited with putting those three in the Baseball Hall of Fame together. Here’s a bit from the collection Tobogganing on Parnassus, a title which by itself shows his expectation that readers won’t be thrown by classical references or an erudite turn of phrase. I’m sympathetic; I like to think I skew to the higher brow, but I admit reading his stuff makes I’m glad I can run off to the Internet to look up what he’s talking about. It’s hard to fully believe that the typical reader of 1913 quite got all of it. This selection, at least, isn’t too obscure. ]
Unlearned I in ornithology —–
All I know about the birds
Is a bunch of etymology,
Just a lot of high-flown words.
Is the curlew an uxorial
Bird? The Latin name for crow?
Is the bulfinch grallatorial?
O’er my head no golden gloriole
Ever shall be proudly set
For my knowledge of the oriole,
Eagle, ibis, or egrette.
I know less about the tanager
And its hopes and fears and aims
Than a busy Broadway manager
Does of James.
But, despite my incapacity
On the birdies of the air,
I am not without sagacity,
Be it ne’er so small a share.
This I know, though ye be scorning at
What I know not, though ye mock,
Birdies wake me every morning at
So maybe you remember I was trying to keep squirrels off the bird feeder by having a stand-up comic keep them rolled up into balls of cackling fur that would roll downhill from the bird seed, and that this just ended up a mess as the comic instead on telling controversial material. After that horrible scene I just tried not looking in the backyard after all and trusted that I’d come to regret this for some original reason.
Now it turns out the squirrels were bothered by that comic too, and disappointed that I didn’t find anyone to replace them, which explains that week they spent kicking my shins whenever I went to my car. (This was more effective than kicking my car’s shins, so good on them.) Turns out they’ve organized an improv comedy troupe to keep themselves entertained, and set up a little proscenium at the back of the garage, and the local free weekly’s named them one of the Up And Coming Events (comedy division) for their summer program, “Not Every Block Of Four Words Is A Potential New Band Name”.
I have to admit, I don’t get it. I think it’s squirrel humor. But now there’s a bluejay squawking about putting on a modern-dress version of Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, which seems ambitious for a couple birds’ first time out, but who am I to call anything impossible now?
I thought the link on the BBC News Science and Environment page read “Bird slime reserve baffles experts” and that’s why I clicked it. Who wouldn’t wonder what there was to be baffled by in the current bird slime reserves? Bird slime reserves are the soundest form of capital deposit known to the financial world, because anyone challenging the worth of one nation’s reserves is liable to get a telegraphic transfer of bird slime for their nosiness.
But no, the link was really, “Bird reserve slime baffles experts”, as there’s mysterious jellies appearing at a nature reserve in the Ham Wall nature reserve in Somerset, England. That’s not so mysterious, apart from how nobody knows just what it is or why it’s here or what it’s doing. I want my link-clicking returned, which I can get by applying in care of this office.
We’ve got a bird feeder, so we’ve been feeding squirrels. But I know the only effective way to keep squirrels off a bird feeder is to put up some squirrel exclusion device, which they find so hilariously ineffective that the squirrels roll up into balls of cackling fur, and drop from the bird feeder, then roll downhill. So I hired a guy to stand out by the feeder and tell them jokes.