House Wren | Songs

The first tiny House Wrens returned last week. Their singing will seem non-stop for the next six months. For their small size, they make a lot of cheerful sound. This one occupies the house attached to our back deck. I wrote about his attempts to fill it with twigs in this recent post.


The Spring 2012 issue of BirdScope from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had an article about the song of the House Wren. The author claimed males can sing 600 times an hour. I confirmed that claim using my own backyard observations. During lunch on the deck, I counted songs for several timed intervals and got basically the same result. That is 6,000 calls in a 10 hour day, 180,000 in a month of 30 days, or 1,080,000 calls in 6 months. I don’t know how they do it. Such a little bird and so much sound. Wrens are one of the most vocal guests in our backyard, along with the Gray Catbird.

More from the article below…

House Wren | Welcome Back

I cleaned out the House Wren birdhouse last week to prepare for their arrival this week. This morning a single male could be heard in the bushes out back singing away. More about the singing of House Wrens here. He soon got busy adding new twigs to the house in preparation for arrival of the females. He must do a good job in order to attract a female.



Most of the twigs were small and fit easily into the small hole. But, now and then he brought one up that was awkward like this one. He tried several different approaches, first one end then the other.



This stick got the best of him. He seemed quite frustrated with it. Persistence paid off in the end.



These tiny birds are really busy non-stop. They forage for food. They sing loudly. They are very aggressive toward other birds much larger if they need to be. They scold us at times. Cats are a mortal enemy. No cat can hide in our bushes for long without being found out.

They need lots of energy per unit of volume for their size. It is a concept called surface-to-volume ratio. Here is a link to one of my more popular posts on that topic.


Don’t Ask

I’m not afraid of asking people about themselves. As an investment manager for many years, it was necessary to ask personal questions, to find out how people saw themselves and their families, their lives under different financial conditions. Often clients would apologize for talking about their worries for their grown children or for their health. They didn’t see those concerns as part of their financial picture, but I did.

At social gatherings Jim and I often find ourselves in conversation with those we don’t know, learning much about the others. People like to talk about themselves.

Except when they don’t.

Over time I’ve found that there are a few things you just shouldn’t ask someone. Things like
When is your baby due?
Aaaaah, fraught with peril. This is a question you should never ask a woman unless she has independently confirmed she is pregnant. A dear one of mine was asked this recently. She is not pregnant. She has put on weight because of an illness. The question left her feeling humiliated and humbled one more time by an illness that has robbed her of so much, including her physical self image.

One of the best, gentlest lessons in tact I ever had was when I was a couple of weeks from delivering my baby. A woman I hadn’t seen for a while saw me and smiled broadly. “What’s new?” she asked. I understood immediately that she didn’t want to assume that my distorted figure meant impending childbirth. Being a little overweight herself, she may have heard that question herself.

When are you going to start a family?
Another child-bearing question that is none of my business, nor yours, either. Sometimes this is asked by eager family members or friends, who want a woman to “join the club.” Sometimes it’s asked by complete strangers, as my niece related to me yesterday. People who want children but are struggling with fertility problems do not want to hear this. People who don’t want children do not want to hear this. People who might someday want children do not want to hear this. Leave it alone. I’m sure you’ll be the first to know when that precious bundle is expected.

What happened to (your marriage, your job, your plan to…)?
Depending on your relationship with the person asking, this might be a reasonable question. But when the neighbor down the street, with whom you have a nodding acquaintance, asks what caused your marriage to break up, the neighbor has stepped out of bounds. Don’t be the neighbor. It’s better to ask open-ended questions about the future rather than specific, painful questions about the past.

What church do you belong to?
Since at least the early 1800s, social discussion of religion and politics was considered rude. And for as long as religion has existed, religious differences have sometimes led to great tragedy. Leave religious discussions for very close family members, friends, or people within your faith community.

How could you let your (adult) child do that?
Um, “adult.” I don’t LET my adult child do anything. As an adult, that adult gets to make their own decisions.

How can you afford that?

Will you make me a quilt?
Probably not, but I am least likely to make quilts for people who ask for them.


Double Chocolate Cookies

by Melanie

This evening a friend will join us for dinner. We debated about menu, considering salmon and asparagus, or homemade pizzas. (We finally figured out how to make a pretty good crust. When paired with basil pesto as the sauce, the result is out of this world!) We finally decided to make chicken soup (I excel at soup) with Jim’s Irish soda bread and salad. That will suit our forecast for temps in the low 40s, with our ever-ready Iowa wind.

No matter what the main course would be, we agreed on cookies and ice cream for dessert.

This recipe makes 4 dozen terrific cookies. Each time I’ve made them the texture has been fabulous, and they freeze well, too.


2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup cocoa powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne (optional) OR 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, as needed
1 cup dark chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In large bowl, mix butter, sugars, eggs, and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. If adding cayenne or cinnamon, add to dry ingredients. Stir into the butter mixture until well blended. If the dough is too stiff, stir in up to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Mix in the chocolate chips. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake 8-10 minutes, or until just set. Cool a few minutes before removing to wire rack.

Merle Haggard, Rest in Peace

It’s been a long time since I cried about an entertainer’s death. Steve Goodman passed in September 1984, just before the Cubs clinched the National League East. I cried bitter tears for that sad irony. And I expect I cried when Harry Chapin died. I still miss Harry.

But yesterday was different. Learning about Merle Haggard’s death was more personal. Merle has been a part of my life for around thirty years.

At 79, a lung cancer survivor, Merle Haggard succumbed to double pneumonia. He was ill and frail, and he couldn’t hold out for another tour.

The first time I even heard of Merle Haggard, Jim and I saw him in concert. It was the late 1980s, and he was on a concert bill with three other big-name acts. Honestly I can’t remember which one we bought tickets for. Merle is all I can remember. Merle Haggard and the Strangers. The ensemble work of their music, the fun they seemed to have, his smooth voice, all left me a fan.

In 1988 he was performing near us. I desperately wanted to get tickets but couldn’t figure out how to make it work out. You see, his performance date was on my due date for delivering my baby. We skipped that concert, and the baby was born a couple of days later.

In 1991 he substituted for Reba McEntire after her band was killed in a plane crash. Jim and I went to that performance but were pretty disappointed. He seemed to be quite drunk and it wasn’t a good show.

But we had one more chance to see him recently. Three years ago he performed a few miles from us. The concert was not very spontaneous, but at 76, the old guy could still sing and make the fans happy, including us.

I’ve never been the kind of fan, of his or anyone’s, to follow all the news reports or learn the full biography, or to follow performances around the country. I couldn’t have bought all of Merle’s albums if I tried (though I have at least eight.) With more than 40 albums and 38 number one hits, stretching across decades, Merle was prolific. He toured even more than he recorded, spending much of his life on a bus.

When I read the news yesterday, I cried a little, and cried some more, and found my eyes leaking a few more times during the day. And as I listen to his music in the future, likely there will be more tears. But in truth I will have lost very little of Merle Haggard, as my relationship with him was through his recordings. As long as I can still listen, I’ll still have him in my life.

I can’t pick a favorite song, but there are a few that are especially meaningful to me. Here is just one:

Theological Anarchy

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution includes the clause we’ve come to think of as the separation of church and state. The intention was to ensure that the practice of religion would be free from government intervention, and limiting the power of the federal government to enact religiously-based laws.

Though the Bill of Rights was ratified more than two centuries ago, how the amendments are to be understood and enforced continually changes.

Challenges to the First Amendment have been in the news recently. There are two issues, in particular, at hand. One is the exemptions allowed religiously-based institutions from complying with government mandates. One is the passage of a state law, which would allow discrimination specifically when the discriminating party claims religious belief. Both have the potential consequence of theological anarchy.

In March 2016 the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the Affordable Care Act and prerogatives of religiously-affiliated institutions to deny insurance coverage to employees for reproductive health care. These institutions include schools, hospitals, and orders of Catholic nuns. The organizations were already granted a legal accommodation, allowing them to file a two-page form with either the federal government or with their health insurance provider. The form would allow them to opt out of having reproductive health care coverage under their plans. In so doing, the reproductive care would be insured separately and at no cost to the employer.

The religious organizations object, complaining that filing a two-page form is a substantial burden, too much to ask. Though seven appeals courts disagree, the Eighth Circuit Court found for the plaintiffs. The fact that the appeals courts had a split decision is what sent the issue to the Supreme Court.

In other news, the Mississippi legislature passed a bill allowing private citizens, government employees, corporations, and other organizations to discriminate in a wide range of ways, if they claim they do so because of their religious beliefs. The legislation is still subject to resolution of differences between the House and Senate versions. According to the Washington Post,

Mississippi’s House Bill 1523 says, among other things, that public employees, businesses, and social workers cannot be punished for denying services based on the belief that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman. Same goes for people who act on the belief that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage” and that gender is determined at birth. It says the government can’t prevent businesses from firing a transgender employee, clerks from refusing to license a same-sex marriage, or adoption agencies from refusing to place a child with a couple who they believe may be having premarital sex.

It prevents the government from “discriminating” (through taxes, fines, withholding benefits, or other forms of retaliation) against a “person” (broadly defined as an individual, religious organization, association, corporation and other kinds of businesses) for acting on their religious convictions regarding sexuality and marriage. That includes employers, landlords and rental companies, adoption and foster care agencies, people and companies that provide marriage-related services (rental halls, photographers, florists, etc.).

The bill protects doctors who refuse to provide counseling, sex-reassignment surgery, fertility treatments and other services based on their religious convictions, and allows companies and schools to establish sex-specific policies regarding dress and bathroom use. It allows state employees to recuse themselves from licensing or overseeing a same-sex marriage, so long as they take “all necessary steps” to ensure that the marriage isn’t impeded or delayed as a result. And it gives foster and adoptive families license to “guide, raise or instruct” children as they see fit, a rule that Human Rights Campaign argues would make LGBT children vulnerable to being forced into “conversion therapy.”

Emphasis above added in bold by me. But read it again: “It prevents the government from “discriminating” (through taxes, fines, withholding benefits, or other forms of retaliation) against a “person” (broadly defined as an individual, religious organization, association, corporation and other kinds of businesses) for acting on their religious convictions regarding sexuality and marriage.” In essence, the bill says a person, broadly defined, can act however they want with regard to someone else’s sexuality or marriage, as long as that person claims it is due to their religious convictions.

Supposedly these two current issues are narrow, one about contraception and reproductive health care, and the other about sexuality and marriage. But why stop there? Why is SEX so special, that it gets special exemptions? If a person (or organization or corporation) can be exempt from following the law in these circumstances, why should they ever follow the law, any law they don’t like? Why can’t they claim their religious conviction prevents them from serving people of color? Or requires that they marry their daughters off at age 10? Or requires them to stop paying taxes? Or allows killing other people because they don’t like them? What is off limits here?

And what accurate test is there of religious conviction? Is it like the Monty Python test for witches? How can we tell who is acting out of conviction and who is just plain mean and ugly?

In other words, anyone could claim any moral or religious position and ignore standing law, not just relative to health care or insurance or marriage or sexuality, but on any issue. All the hypotheticals we saw in the Hobby Lobby case regarding insurance coverage of birth control or other reproductive care, blood transfusions, vaccinations, diabetic care for those who “eat too much,” etc., these don’t begin to scratch the surface. Anyone could claim exemption from any law, on the basis of their claimed religious or moral beliefs. Corporations will be able to rape the Earth with no constraints, claiming that “man is to have dominion over the Earth.”

There is NOTHING out of bounds.

Theocratic Anarchy: no rule of law except each person’s or organization’s own interpretation of what is allowed based on their beliefs.

The only upside? No legislators would be needed, as no law passed would ever have teeth again.

Ledges State Park | Ups and Downs

by Jim and Melanie

A sea covered the midwest region of North America about 300 million years ago, eventually forming a deep layer of sandstone in what is now central Iowa. Several past glacial eras carved out diverse landforms across the state. Between 12,000-14,000 years ago, a lobe of ice pushed south from the northern plains and stopped near present day Des Moines. Melting and runoff carved out steep canyons in the sandstone bedrock below, forming what is today Ledges State Park. It is one of Iowa’s favorite parks offering hikes with elevation changes of 150 feet in several places. This topographic map illustrates the rugged terrain. Many people think of Iowa as flat farmland. Most of Iowa isn’t flat.


USGS | The National Map

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Turdus Migratorius and Our Windows

© Debbie McKenzie, AL, September 2008

Here we go again. The American Robin in the spring feels territorial and the need to nest. It comes to our windows, flies up to the glass, taps several times with their beak, before sitting on a nearby branch. After a few minutes, the bird does it again, and again, and again, etc. This goes on for several days.

Why do they do this repetitive window bashing? Some claim they see their reflection and try to ward off another bird from their territory. Some claim they see the reflection of the surroundings in the glass and fly toward it. Maybe they see a dark interior under a protective roofline that would make a dry safe nest site. Those are each plausible. Whatever the reason, turdus migratorius is a slow learner.

We’ve tried different strategies to discourage their behavior. Most don’t work. We shake the curtains. The robin flies away and returns later or goes to a different window. We hang teddy bears or animal figures with big eyes. The robins don’t seem to care. This year I tried drawing a big face on a sheet of paper. That didn’t work. Notice how well the trees and sky are reflected. This window is more problematic than most.



Another window has a Vendetta mask hanging in it. Robins don’t seem to appreciate the finer points of literature and history. It looks kind of weird. I wonder what the neighbors think.


Food | Different Techniques

Alternative ways to slice or cut 3 fruits.

How I See It

Many techniques are used in preparing food. Some are tried and true methods passed down through the ages. I’ve come up with a few of my own that are more unusual. I made the following short videos to illustrate them. I hope you try them and find them useful.



These can be challenging because of their size, texture, and different parts. I use a serrated bread knife. Be careful.



You know that odd plastic tool in the back of the kitchen drawer? It’s the one with the sharp hook at one end and the curved flat thing at the other end. It’s an orange peeler. You can peel an orange in two neat hemispheres, a spiral, vertical strips, animal shapes, or whatever else you can think of. Impress your friends with your talent and skill. Here is one simple example.


Kiwi Fruit

The fuzzy skin on these highly nutritious fruit can be challenging…

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Solar Eclipse | 8 March 2016 | Images

In case you missed it online…

How I See It

The regions of Indonesia and Micronesia were blessed with mostly clear skies during the recent solar eclipse. The track of the umbra shadow shows a purple marker where the duration of total eclipse was the longest at just over 4 minutes. The island of Woleai was in the ideal location near that marker.


A team supported by NASA and the Exploratorium was sent to Woleai with several telescopes and solar measuring equipment. They broadcast live during the eclipse via NASA TV. All images in this post are screen captures from their broadcast.

Eclipse7.04.13 PM
Progress of the Moon across the face of the Sun was slow. The Moon moved from the lower right toward the upper left as it passed in front of the Sun. One small sunspot was visible on its face. This image captured the moment the Moon crept by and covered that sunspot.


What follows is a…

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