Sunday, March 22, 2009

Genetic Tendencies

I am certain that birding is a learned behavior. My father, teachers, and friends taught me to identify birds and enjoy their splashes of color and hear their calls and songs. Birds are beautiful (mostly) and are quite visible (mostly). So, it is easy to see why millions of people take up birding.

A love of small mammals, I am just as certain is an inherited trait. Not nearly as many people take up small mammal watching. I am thinking that my mother and father must each have the recessive gene for keenness for small mammals, and as one of four siblings I got the trait. The DNA for small mammal-love expresses itself in several ways in my family.

My parents met and married when they both worked at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. My Dad was a mammalogist, and yes he worked on small mammals. As I remember the story being told by Gram...When my grandmother learned that her daughter was marrying a doctor she was excited; but this was tempered when Gram learned that she was marrying a "mouse doctor." "Are you sure?," said Gram's brother Bob. It all worked out well and Gram loved Dad and maybe even liked mice and chipmunks.

We grew up in an old house, and old houses have holes that allow mice, flying squirrels, and sometimes bigger things to wander in. I don't recall any screams when these small creatures were encountered in our house. Mostly we set traps and moved them outdoors. But if you know about small mammals, you know they will travel far to get back to a cozy home so we probably moved the same ones, multiple times. We kept one visitor for a while, a flying squirrel that crawled into our pockets to sleep.

I went off to College to study wildlife biology. My summer jobs during college all related to birds -- shorebirds in downeast Maine, songbirds in central New Hampshire, birds in northern Maine. Eventually I landed at Iowa State University for graduate school. And darned if my study animals were not small mammals living in tallgrass prairie in southwestern Minnesota. I don't recall thinking along the way that I wanted to go to Iowa and Minnesota to study small mammals. Yet, it happened. It is in my blood.

If you've read some of my blog posts to date, you'll notice that small mammals seep into the conversation fairly often. And I just learned that Mom's favorite mammal is the shrew. Wow. How many people can say that about their mother. The small mammal force is strong within us.

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