As The Crow Flies

Praising The House Centipede

by Doug Pifer

I was one of the boys in charge of stacking the books in the back closet of the school room on the last day of second grade. That’s when my first house centipede ran across the floor and under a bookcase. Girls shrieked. Boys whooped. Our teacher, a gray-haired lady wise to the ways of children, patiently explained this was a house centipede, and that it was completely harmless and simply disturbed because we invaded its secret hiding place.

Since that day I’ve been a house centipede fan. Its angled legs carry it gracefully across a wall or floor. The long legs move in waves like synchronized dancers. The creature is a wonder of engineering. The delicate antennae and the hindmost pair of legs of a house centipede are extremely long, so neither prey nor predator can be sure if the centipede is coming or going. Its movements are lightning fast and can change direction in a second.

The animal is tough and resilient, yet so delicate it’s almost impossible to catch one without breaking its legs and destroying it. Its love of darkness and its ghostly transparency add an air of mystery and fantasy. As a wordsmith, I appreciate the scientific name, Scutigera coleoptrata. A tongue-twister, the species name defies both autocorrect and spell check. It’s not coleoptera, the order of beetles, nor Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.Despite my fondness for this creature, I’ll admit there’s an undeniable creepy factor that freaks many people out. With 15 pairs of legs, accentuated by dark and light banding, a house centipede can be imposing.

I’ve heard brave people call it the scariest thing they ever saw. The biggest adult females are four and a half inches long, the legs contributing to almost half that length. Shy and retiring as it acts in the open, the creature is a voracious predator on small invertebrates such as crickets, spiders, and beetle larvae. After running its prey down, it gathers it up in the segmented tips of its legs. Then it injects venom into its prey with tweezer-like fangs to immobilize it. The fangs of a house centipede are too weak to penetrate human skin.

Having lived in a succession of old houses, my wife and I have always been at peace with house centipedes. If you have a house with a cellar or crawl space, you’re likely to harbor a few of these characters there. Their presence is not harmful to the house or your belongings. If you can seal all cracks in walls and floors between your damp cellar and the living area of your house, you’re less likely to encounter these leggy creatures.Centipede, meaning “hundred legs,” is a charming exaggeration.

A house centipede adult in perfect condition has only 30 legs. Immatures just hatched have four pairs and somewhat resemble crickets. As they grow, their leg pairs increase from 6 to 8 to 10, until they are adults. 

Winter Birds Need Food But Also Good Habitat

As the Crow Flies

Story and artwork by Doug Pifer

An abundance of good bird habitat is a benefit of life in an old farmhouse. While still in bed, we sometimes look out at a couple of house finches or bluebirds drinking runoff melted from the frosted metal roof.  Or we catch the flicker of wings as a yellow-rumped warbler or a Carolina wren perch momentarily, scanning the window frame for dormant spiders or other insects.
This winter morning when I let the dogs out, they scared up a mixed flock of songbirds from the driveway: dark-eyed juncos, white-throated and song sparrows, and house finches. I heard a Carolina wren, a cardinal, and a tufted titmouse singing from one of our mature shade trees.  While walking out to pick up the morning paper, I also noticed chickadees and nuthatches clambering among the lichen-covered limbs of the aging Kentucky coffee tree in the front yard.
Yesterday I saw a downy woodpecker testing various limbs to see which was best for a drum-roll. Sometimes he is joined by a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers. If I’m lucky, I might see a yellow-bellied sapsucker returning to one of the neat rows of sap wells he drilled in the trunk of our big tulip tree.
Last evening I heard the loud “check” call of the mockingbird that roosts in our big forsythia bush and saw him perched on top of it. Down by the creek, we sometimes hear the rattle of a kingfisher, or see the shadow of a great blue heron as it glides over the pasture on the way to one of his favorite fishing holes in the stream adjacent to our place.
Many folks are surprised when I tell them we never put out suet, seed or any type of supplemental food for the birds. My wife and I don’t own any kind of bird feeder other than those we use for our domestic poultry.
We don’t oppose bird feeding. Maintaining a regular source of supplemental food in appropriate feeders is a great way for people to bring birds close enough to observe and enjoy. And if you have kids, I think the educational value far outweighs any downside to artificially feeding wildlife. We don’t feed birds because we don’t have to. Wherever we’ve lived, we’ve encouraged year-round habitat for birds. This includes leaving the stems and seeds of last year’s flower gardens standing, planting trees that have fruits or seeds attractive to birds, and encouraging natural vegetation to flourish along our fence lines.
No place we’ve ever lived would appear in a stylish house and garden magazine or website. But we’ve offered birds, mammals, insects and other wildlife places to feed and hide. Overgrown fences give wildlife a place to evade predators, and they provide nesting, loafing, and denning sites for birds and mammals. We’ve planted native trees and shrubs along our stream as a natural buffer between our fenced pasture and the wetland. This offers wildlife a clean source of water, prevents erosion, and maintains a clean water flow from the nearby spring to our own stream, which flows into Rocky Marsh Run and, after a mile or so, into the Potomac River.
If, like us, you’re lucky enough to live on an old farmstead, wildlife is already there. Your encouragement and care will allow it to flourish.

Time To Set Up Homes For Cavity Nesting Birds

By Doug Pifer

Many native birds nest in natural tree cavities or old woodpecker nest holes. But man-made nest boxes are beneficial for cavity nesting bird species whose numbers are declining.  This is a great way for a family or youth group to get involved in serious wildlife conservation!

My wife and I have kept houses for bluebirds and purple martins for many years. Now that we have a farm with a stream, some nearby woods and much more open space, we’ve expanded our list of prospective tenants to include wood ducks and American kestrels.

Last fall I put up a bluebird box in what looked like an ideal spot, with plenty of open space around it. I installed a cylindrical baffle around the 4 1/2-foot metal post supporting the house to discourage snakes, cats, raccoons and other predators. All winter, bluebirds often perched on that house and looked inside.

In February I attached four more bluebird houses to various fence posts throughout the farm. I spaced them at least 50 yards from each other, with their 1 1/2-inch entrance holes facing southeast or east, away from prevailing winds. In the last few weeks the local bluebirds have been fighting over the new boxes, even tumbling around on the ground. To learn more about attracting bluebirds, look up the North American Bluebird society (

On March 7 I put up a new, lightweight aluminum martin house. I’ve had bad luck attracting martins in the past, but this seems to be the perfect site. It’s surrounded by an acre of treeless open space, is about 30 feet from the house, and has access to open water nearby (see location tips at Its eight nesting chambers have semicircular openings designed to exclude starlings. I added three of my hand-carved purple martin decoys, and I’m hoping for success this time! Right now the bluebirds are perching on the heads of our martin decoys!

Next day I put up a wood duck box beside the bank of the stream that enters Rocky Marsh Run, where I’ve seen wood ducks swimming. I followed the wood duck society’s instructions ( and mounted a circular predator guard on the 1 1/2- inch electrical conduit pipe below the nest box. Wood ducks naturally nest in tree cavities along streams and are attracted to custom-made nest boxes. The day after hatching, intrepid wood ducklings climb up the inside of the box and spring out of the entrance at their mother’s call. They land lightly on land or water and scamper to join her.

I also put up a nest box for American kestrels in the hayfield. It has an oval entrance 3 inches in diameter, mounted on an 18-foot telescoping pole. Kestrels are the smallest American falcons. Often seen perched on utility wires along the roadside or in open fields, kestrels hunt for mice and grasshoppers. They prefer to nest in lofty tree cavities that face open fields and are attracted to the proper housing (see Cornell University’s So far, we haven’t had any kestrels, but the bluebirds keep perching on it and looking inside.

In the next weeks, more cavity-nesting birds will be seeking homes. It’s exciting to watch for them!

The Perseids Are Coming

By Don Henry

Around August 10–13 the Perseid meteors will streak through the night sky. If you have never seen a meteor shower, now is your chance. But what is a meteor shower? Why is this shower called “Perseid?” First, let’s talk about meteors.

Outer space is mostly empty, but whizzing around within our solar system there are rocks of many sizes, from wee dust particles to very large objects called asteroids. Some of these objects plow into the Earth’s atmosphere and cause the air to glow brightly. The flash of light from these particles is called a meteor; sometimes we call them shooting stars or falling stars. Meteors rarely make it through the atmosphere and reach the ground. When they do, they are called meteorites, and they can be spectacular.

In 2013 an asteroid entered the atmosphere over Russia at a speed of 20 kilometers per second (40,000 miles per hour). When the asteroid exploded in the sky, the flash of light was brighter than the Sun, and about 5,000 people were injured, mostly by broken glass from shattered windows. You can watch a video of the fireball at

Fortunately most of the meteors we see in the sky are short streaks caused by small particles that originate from comets and last less than a second or so. Comets, sometimes described as dirty snowballs, are comprised of ices (various hydrogen compounds) and rocky material. They orbit the Sun, going far beyond the orbit of Neptune.

A comet develops a tail if it gets near the Sun. Its surface warms and the solid ices change directly into gas (the ice sublimates) that escapes the comet’s weak gravity. The gas can drag dust particles from the surface to form a cloud (called a coma) around the comet. As the comet approaches nearer to the Sun, two tails form: one of ionized gas (a plasma) driven by solar wind directly away from Sun and the other of dust particles driven into a slight curve back in the direction from which the comet came.

At the same time pieces of rock the size of sand grains to pebbles too large to be affected by solar wind or sunlight drift slowly away and spread along the comet’s orbital path. When Earth crosses the path, these particles, traveling at speeds up to 70 kilometers per second (156,000 mph), pass through the atmosphere and heat it, causing the air to glow. That’s the streak in the sky we see. Because of the numerous particles, we can see many meteors in the sky as the Earth moves across the orbit of the comet. That’s a meteor shower.

If you watch a meteor shower and trace the paths of the meteors back through the sky, the paths will all seem to point back to the same place (called the radiant point) in the sky. The shower is given the name of the constellation nearest to the radiant point.

One of the best meteor showers is the Perseids; all the meteor streaks seem to be coming from the constellation Perseus the Hero, often reaching a peak of 50 to 100 meteors per hour (roughly one to two every minute). The Perseid particles originated from the comet Swift-Tuttle. The peak is reached around August 10–13 each year, and this year the best time of night is from late night until dawn. Unfortunately the moon will be fairly bright, so you might not see the dimmest meteors.

To view the shower, go somewhere away from bright lights, sit in a comfortable chair or lie down on a blanket, use bug spray, take along some snacks and drinks, and stare up at the sky. Don’t blink! You will see short flashes, and just maybe an exceptionally bright streak will race across the sky. Binoculars will not be needed; the meteors whiz by too quickly.

As we sit and watch the show, we can marvel at the universe in which we live.

Save The Earth, Eat Your Steak

By David Lillard

Next time you go food shopping, save yourself the aggravation of hauling all those bags full of groceries home. Instead, take $40 of the hundred you plan to spend, and throw it in the trash—or nearest compost pile. If you’re like most Americans, as much as 40 percent of the food you buy never gets eaten. That’s an estimated $165 billion per year in wasted food according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resource Council of America.

All that wasted food also represents one quarter of all freshwater consumed in the U.S. annually—water used to grow and process food we toss away. Food waste also causes 23 percent of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. In Europe alone, producing, shipping, storing and cooking food that ultimately gets tossed pumps as much carbon into the atmosphere as 36 coal-fired power plants.

These disheartening numbers are consistent whether dining at home or in restaurants—just think of all the doggy bags you throw out! Operators of buffet-style restaurants know this too well. They see it when clearing the half-eaten plates of food patrons leave behind.

“Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs,” says Steffen Kallbekken, co-author of a new study for the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. Kallbekken and cohort Håkon Saelen are helping restaurants cut food waste by nearly a quarter. Their simple solution will work in eateries and at home: They cut the diameter of buffet plates by three centimeters.

“If you place meals of exactly the same size on one large and one small plate, the meal on the large plate simply looks skimpier,” said Kallbekken. “Even trained nutritionists are unable to serve correct portion sizes when plate sizes differ.”

Buffet guests using smaller plates still have the freedom to eat as much as they like, the researchers found, but they waste less—helping to reduce financial waste, resource waste and environmental impact, not to mention indigestion.

For parents with young children here’s another simple strategy: Stop loading the kids’ plates with food they can’t finish. Remember, most people’s stomachs are about the size of their fists. Put smaller portions on a child’s plate and you’ll avoid throwing away food that won’t even fit in tiny bellies.


Here’s another benefit of serving less food: You can afford to eat better. Many consumers shy away from organic meats and produce because they’re often more expensive. But why not eat a delicious 8-ounce grass-fed steak instead of a 12-ounce factory-farm cut—an eating habit that’s bound to help with our nation’s obesity problem too.

With your buy-less strategy, you can eat better while saving money. Plus you’ll be helping the environment by purchasing locally raised food instead of food grown across the continent or around the world. You’ll reduce the environmental harm caused by chemical fertilizers and pest control in industrial-scale agriculture, and the fossil fuel needed to truck in food from afar.

It’s nice to know that some of the greenest personal actions come about by simply conserving another kind of green—those dollar bills that we’re now tossing into the waste stream.

No matter where you shop or what you eat, you can live greener by saving greenbacks.

Check out a fun video of Kallbekken and Saelen’s research at


Telling My Son About Tar Sands Oil

Telling My Son About Tar Sands Oil

By David Lillard

I often learn more from answering my 6-year-old son’s endless questions than he does. Usually we make it a game, searching out answers together to queries like, “How many stars are there?” or, “What is in our air?” (it’s almost 80 percent nitrogen).

But he stumped me recently when—after quizzing me about what I was reading—he asked why some people want to build the Keystone XL TransCanada pipeline to pump tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Texas coast.

Like most people, I thought this controversial pipeline was just another fight between an oil company and environmentalists (yawn) until my son insisted I learn something.

It turns out that tar sands oil isn’t really oil at all.

The thick goo of tar sands only becomes oil when treated with toxic chemicals, heat, and pressure. This process is so dirty that even the Canadian government—which backs the project—says that this high-sulfur crude is polluting lakes 50 miles from the tar sands with cancer-causing contaminants.

My kid is into maps, so we studied the pipeline route. It crosses over the Ogallala Aquifer, part of the High Plains Aquifer System, a vast shallow underground water table. That aquifer waters about 27 percent of the irrigated farmland in the U.S., and provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people living inside the aquifer’s boundaries.

How do I answer my kid when he asks: “What happens to people when the pipeline leaks?” I can’t. Groundwater, once polluted, stays polluted forever.

“Why build this?” he asks again. I grasped for facts about investment and jobs. However, TransCanada hasn’t been forthright about this. They say the project means $7 billion in U.S. investments. But most of that has either already been spent on design or would be invested on the Canadian portion of the pipeline, according to a Cornell University study. And the steel used to construct it will come from Canada or India.

At least the price of gasoline will go down, right?

Sorry. No. TransCanada, the builder, admits gas prices will go up 10 to 20 cents a gallon in the Midwest. That’s because refineries there already get some tar sands oil. If the pipeline gets built, all that oil will go straight to the Gulf, where it will be refined for shipment to China.

That’s right. Keystone XL will actually reduce the amount of oil available to the U.S. And the leading project investors, it turns out, are Saudi and Chinese oil interests.

One question leads to another: “Whose backyard will the pipeline go through?” my son asks. The answer: Anyone’s TransCanada wants it to.

The project has been granted eminent domain rights in Midwestern states, allowing TransCanada—a foreign company—to take the private property of American citizens so it can transport Canadian oil to China.

For my son, who protects our backyard from neighborhood dogs intent on pooping there, this was the greatest injustice of all.

“So emm-nant doh-mane means someone can poop in somebody else’s backyard even if they don’t want them to?” he asked.

Yes. That’s exactly what thousands of farmers and ranchers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and elsewhere are learning.

That’s when my own inner 6-year-old woke up and asked, “So, why are we doing this?”

Certainly not for my son. Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s most respected climate scientist calls the Keystone XL pipeline “a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet.” If all the carbon stored in the Canadian tar sands is released into the earth’s atmosphere, says Hansen, it will mean “game over” for the planet – for my kids and for yours.

I can’t bear to tell my son this.

“Why do some people want to build the TransCanda pipeline?” I ask myself again. The only credible answer: Because some people stand to make a lot of money, and their political allies want to help them.

Millions of Americans have asked President Obama to kill Keystone XL. His authority can stop the pipeline at the Canadian border. I hope he will.

If he does, I’ll have no trouble explaining the reasons to my son.

Blue Ridge Press.