Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Spring beauty – the potato of the springtime woods


While out and about in the forests of Allegany County in April and May, you will come across a dainty little wildflower called the spring beauty.

It is an attractive sprite that stands just two to four inches off of the ground. The flowers are only a half inch across. They are a very light pink or white (some even look like they were lightly brushed with lavender) and a closer inspection will show deeply-pink veins in the petals. Sprouting from inside the flower will be five or six stamens with pink tips. They are photo-sensitive, closing up and night and opening on the next sunny day (they remain closed on the cloudiest of days).


The leaves are very narrow and typically two inches long in our northern woods – sometimes, in the best soils of Appalachia they will be much longer, sometimes reaching a half-foot in length. The leaves are shiny and smooth. Once the flowers wilt away in a couple of weeks, the leaves will remain with us until late-May.

The spring beauty is more than that cute flower. It’s what you don’t see that makes it even more of a special plant.

The flower’s underground root is a corm or tuber. They are very small, maybe no bigger than the fingernail on your pinky. They served the Native Americans quite well as a food source, although, as you can imagine, it would take some effort to harvest any reasonable quantity of the corm.

Spring beauty’s corms were treated like a small potato, hence another name for the flower – “fairy spud”. Native Americans used to roast them and it would have that same potatoey flower. Raw, they have a sharper flavor that some compare to a radish or chestnut.

More than just a foodstuff, some tribes also used them for medicinal purposes. They were used to treat children suffering from convulsions while others believed that if women ate them they could make themselves permanently sterile.

Those mystical powers have since been proven unfounded and the corm is classified as an edible and nutritious snack. Regardless, I suggest that you do not eat them – there’s no need to kill such a delicate, beautiful plant. Treat them well and their appearance will delight you every spring.


From the 13 April 2022 Wellsville Sun

Small town schools, world class educations


“There’s a reason Clark Kent was raised on a farm. If he was raised in Metropolis he never would have become Superman.”


Back in 2016, I had the privilege and honor of delivering the commencement address at my alma mater, Royalton-Hartland, and that statement prefaced the speech which focused on the super powers the graduates gained by being raised in a small town and educated in a small school.


The speech and the basis for it were counter to the widely-held sentiment that larger suburban schools are where it’s at. Those districts are so popular, so celebrated that many families base where they live solely on the access to what’s said to be quality schools.


That practice sometimes leads parents who remain in small towns to question if they are doing the best for their kids.


If you are one of those mothers or fathers, let me tell you this: Yes, you are.


Without a doubt, the suburban districts are quality systems, but that doesn’t mean smaller districts are inferior. As a matter of fact, small town schools offer, in their own way, compelling characteristics that make them superior to the big ones.

Out here in the country we may not have some of the resources that the high-ranking suburban schools like East Aurora, Williamsville, Clarence, and Orchard Park might possess, but we offer our students so much more.


It comes down to having access, and being a name and not a number.

In my school district, there are 1,200 students in grades kindergarten through 12, an average of 92 per grade level.

Let’s compare that to Williamsville. They have approximately 9,900 students, an average of 762 per grade.

In larger districts like that the teachers can’t know all the students, the parents and pupils can’t know all the teachers and administrators, and the students can’t know all their peers. Having the very easy chance to get lost in the shuffle has to be overwhelming to middling students or young men and women lacking in confidence or support at home.

Contrast that to smaller schools like mine. We know one another. We look out for one another. We work together to make sure no one is left behind. In a small school, students and their families have access to the educators, staff, and coaches that can’t be held in larger districts. Those educators know the kids and have watched and will watch their development every step of the way. A school becomes a family and a legacy.  

Coming with those smaller numbers and that veritable one-on-one attention is a similar and equally remarkable benefit to students: Having access to experience.

The larger schools’ sports teams, choruses, and bands could be considered havens for only the elite. Due to there being only so many available roster spots not everyone has a chance to glean the experiences of teamwork, self-discipline, self-betterment and sense of urgency that extracurricular activities provide.

That’s not the story at smaller schools. Everyone has a very real chance to acquire and strive for a place on the team or band. This gives every student the chance to become elite or put their very best effort into it – and that’s what education is all about. Similarly, smaller clubs -- be it robotics or Future Farmers of America -- give each participant a heightened chance to shine, lead and change the world.

Likewise, smaller peer groups lead to better access to labs, experiments, public speaking exercises and more in the classroom, all of which lead to more experience – and that’s what adds capability and productivity to the intended results of tests and standards that all schools have to master.    


I often say that the larger an organization gets – be it a business or government – the farther away it gets from the people within it, the people it is supposed to serve, and the core values that defined its foundation. There’s a reason why people don’t like Big Government or Big Business. The smaller the better.

That holds true for schools, too. So many people champion the “it takes a village to raise a child” mantra because there’s something to be had in that interpersonal, intercommunity connectedness -- the direct and universal ownership of individual outcomes -- that the village mentality entails. Smaller schools exist in villages and are villages unto themselves.

So, I say to the parents who wonder if they are doing right by their kids for sending them to a small school, “fret not”. Your kids are getting a world class education. They are not being denied opportunity in a small town; they are being provided it. They are receiving the access, attention and experience they deserve…all of which they will put to great use as tomorrow’s workers, volunteers, leaders and parents.


From the 11 April 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: The turkey vulture – beauty is in the eye of the beholder


One of the signs of spring is the return to the local skies – and roadsides – of the turkey vulture. Called “buzzards” by old-timers, they are the most common local raptor, far outnumbering red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks.


Most people are familiar with them. Many are even repulsed by them. But, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – they are interesting birds. 

Their appearance

I say that people are repulsed because, up close, turkey vultures aren’t the most attractive birds in the world. Over the years, I’ve heard many people call them the ugliest bird they’ve ever seen.

That’s because of their bald head. Unlike the bald eagle with its white-feathered dome, turkey vultures truly are bald. The head is devoid of feathers and just as red as the meat that vultures consume. A young turkey vulture will have a black head in its first year.

It’s that naked head and neck that led to the moniker of turkey vulture as the turkey that fills our dinner tables also struts around with an unfeathered head.

Without feathers to add the appearance of mass, the vulture’s fleshy heads look small compared to the rest of their body.

Those bodies, though, are impressive. They are so dark brown that they appear black. And they are big: An adult vulture will be 27 to 32 inches in length, which makes them a half foot taller than a red tailed hawk. That’s huge in the bird world.

Their wingspan is huge, too. Their wings fully spread come in at 6 feet, making them an awesome sight in the skies. No doubt you’ve seen them in flight as they ride the thermals of Allegany County’s high country – with the tell-tale long “fingers” at the end of the wings which are held in a shallow “V.” It’s that “V” that makes the bird instantly identifiable from even a half mile away; that, and their habit of rarely flapping those wings — for long periods of time vultures will just ride the air currents and thermals, sometimes soaring for hours before a single wing beat.

What they eat

Turkey vultures are always soaring because they are constantly on the hunt for food. But, unlike other birds of prey, they lack the talons and claws (and the flight speed) necessary to kill small animals. Their feet look closer to those of a turkey than they do of a hawk.

Instead, they eat dead animals (carrion).

Believe it or not, turkey vultures really aren’t soaring the skies to look for carrion from above. They remain in the skies so they can smell the stench of the bodies as their scent wafts through the air.

Vultures have the most powerful sense of smell in the bird world, and maybe the entire animal kingdom. They can smell dead bodies from over a mile away and can even detect death in the air at only a few parts per trillion, which is almost implausible. While it takes some time for a dead creature to ripen before a human being can smell the rot of death, a vulture can smell animals that have been dead for as few as 12 hours.

Vultures don’t have impressive claws, but their beaks are incredibly strong. They can use them to tear apart the strongest of hides, like on a deer or cow, and can rip apart muscle and sinew like we would rip a piece of paper.

They jab their heads into the body cavities of the dead – even through their anuses -- and tear out the insides for their culinary delight. This is why they have bald heads --- the blood, undigested food, stool, and all similar gross stuff from the cadavers would stick to feathers and make for some serious discomfort. Chunks don’t stick too well to bare skin and a nice rain will give their mug a bath.

Vultures don’t get sick from eating dead animals and all of the bacteria and other goodies that come with them because of their natural defense mechanisms. The acid in their stomach is up to 100 times more powerful than that of other vertebrates and they have two specialized bacteria that live in their guts that can help fight other bacteria.

Benefitting from our car culture

The turkey vulture was rare in the northeast in the early 1900s but, around mid-century, they made a serious move north and saw their population explode. It had nothing to do with global warming and everything to do with America’s burgeoning car culture.

As more Americans bought cars and cars became faster, road kill became a normal part of the landscape. From house cats to raccoons to deer, vultures have a cornucopia of death to choose from. You will often see them in small groups roadside serving as nature’s clean-up committee, doing away with all of the bodies. Because of the availability of food, their numbers in New York State have grown at a rate of 6.4 percent per year over the past 30 years. That’s staggering growth.

More disgusting behaviors

Vultures also have a few more behaviors that lend themselves to repulsion.

Vultures will defecate on their legs. It was once believed that this was done to cool off their naked legs in the summer heat, but ornithologist now surmise after analyzing the fecal matter that the same bacteria and acids that protect their belly also act as a shield to infection. If the vulture has cuts and scrapes on its legs, that would allow sickness to enter its bloodstream and kill the bird, so it just poops on its legs and kills the offending bacteria.

Vultures will also puke defensively. If a coyote or fox comes too close to the body they are eating, they will projectile vomit onto the canines. That vomit contains the nasty stomach acids (so it burns, especially in the eyes) and the equally nasty contents of the belly (which don’t smell good at all). Baby vultures will also do this to anyone who visits their nest – so if you encounter a vulture nest on the ground, stay back about 5 feet or you will regret it.

From their faces to their dining choices to their defense mechanisms, turkey vultures can really be at once of the most disgusting and most interesting of our avian friends. So, the next time you see them at work on a road kill, take the time to appreciate those rather strange nuances. They are unique birds…to say the least.



From the 06 April 2022 Wellsville Sun