President: Sarah Beshay firstname.lastname@example.org
Director of the Neuron: Maha Khalil email@example.com
By Maha Khalil
This is one of my very earliest childhood memories. At the time, I was about three years old, living with my family in Harrogate, England, and we were on a sight-seeing trip in London. I do not remember anything of this trip except for flashes of our outings in Hyde Park, and it was there that I had a memorable encounter with a pelican.
I was sitting quietly – a rare thing for me at that age – sleepily munching a sandwich. My parents were a few feet away taking a picture of something or other. I felt an odd presence nearby and looked left to find myself staring straight up into the black eyes of a very long-beaked, long-necked and long-legged white bird. Even though the pelican was much taller than me and standing very close, I remember I was not afraid. I sat there and it stood there, and we were watching each other motionlessly with considerable curiosity on both sides. Or at least I thought the pelican was curious. However, I changed my mind when the creature suddenly bent over its large beak and quickly grabbed the sandwich clean out of my hand before walking away rather coldly. I looked back at my parents to find that my dad, instead of shooing the pelican away from his three-year-old child, was busy taking pictures of the event and was quite upset for having missed the instant when the pelican had grabbed the sandwich! Finally realizing how much my pride was hurt by all this, and missing my sandwich, I did what I should have done much earlier and began to cry. But after seeing the picture below, I am glad it was only the sandwich the pelican wanted!
Of course, my opinion of the birds of England was not improved when the next day, a bunch of mallard ducks were not satisfied by the bits of bread I was throwing them and came out of the water to steal an apple from my other hand and then didn’t eat it!!
By Maha Khalil
The blackbird is a very special bird that has been resident in Egypt’s Nile Delta and Mediterranean coast since the 1980s. The adult male blackbird is all black with a yellow bill and eye-ring, while the female and young birds are dark brown. Adults have an aver
age length of 24 cm.
Blackbirds usually inhabit woodlands, gardens and plantations, and are quite common in Europe – more so than in the Middle East where they are found only in Turkey and countries of the east Mediterranean. The female lays bluish eggs with brown spots in a carefully prepared nest, and both partners care for the young. Blackbirds are monogamous and partners stay together usually their entire lives – the range of their life spans being 2-4 years.
Blackbirds are often seen on the ground as well as in the trees. In fact, it was on the ground that I saw my first blackbird and was able to photograph it. I was in the North Coast last June when I noticed an unfamiliar black bird in the backyard one afternoon. The (to me) mystery bird returned the next afternoon at almost exactly the same time. Determined to find out what it was, I waited for it every afternoon, sitting on the back porch with my camera and binoculars, silent and motionless, having asked family members to stay clear of the backyard for an hour! The bird kept following its daily habit and touched down in the garden every afternoon. I noticed that it always arrived when a certain amount
of sun was left in the garden, and I managed to take two photographs of it which I deeply treasure. I flipped through my Birds of Egypt book and reached the conclusion that my mystery bird must be a blackbird.
Just as my handy guide said blackbirds behave, my bird ran on the ground in short bursts, stopping to look for food – worms usually favoured. I was very excited because I had just found out recently that blackbirds have one of the most beautiful fluty birdsongs ever. I finally found out who the musicians responsible for the daily flute concerto I heard on my vacation were. The trees were full of them! The blackbird’s song is special because it is one of the very few birdsongs that actually compose varying and melodic musical tones rather than just repeating certain vocalizations.
Sadly, however, when I returned in early July to the same place, the flutes were silent and my daily visitor showed himself no more. It is true that blackbirds sing less in July, but since I did not even see any birds except the ridiculously common (though very cute) House Sparrow, my guess is that the start of the vacation season which is always accompanied by heavy spraying of powerful pesticides, has had a hand in driving the blackbirds away – hopefully not killing them… If you listen carefully – and if you are lucky – you may hear a blackbird on campus in the spring. It has been heard several times on Main Campus.
Cottridge, David and Porter, Richard. Birds of Egypt and the Middle East. Cairo; The American University in Cairo Press.
By Maha Khalil
Last fall, we, the Bioclub – chaperoned by our dedicated faculty advisor, Mr. Richard Hoath, and aided by the Environmental Awareness Association – organized a trash pick-up in Wadi Degla Protectorate on the edge of Maadi.
If you don’t know what the Wadi Degla Protectorate is, it is a very long valley that was once a riverbed thousands of years ago. The whole protectorate has an area of about 60 square km and is home to about 70 species of animals, including the Nubian ibex, dorcas gazelles and fennec foxes plus a surprising variety of desert plants. But facts aside, Degla is a very peaceful, serene place that provides a scenic and relax
ing outing away from the noise pollution of the city, as well as room for joggers and mountain bikers to exercise. Also, there is a particularly beautiful spot just below the visitors’ centre where the valley narrows into a very small “crack” through which you can climb to a higher level of the valley (see pictures) and get some panoramic scenes of the valley. This “crack,” which may have been a waterfall, is beautifully shaped by the movement of water in ancient times and contains holes that fill up with water when there is rainfall, providing a source of water for birds and animals in the region.
Sadly, however, although the vall
ey was declared a protectorate in 1999, marble factories have been built in the buffer zone of the protectorate and are disturbing the environment. Also, plastic bags flying in from the city collect in the narrow parts of the valley and get tangled in the plant branches. And this is why c
leanups are helpful.
On the Bioclub’s last visit, we collected a large amount of plastic bags (see pictures) and transported them back to Cairo for disposal. Of course, this means that the bags could fly back to the valley. We are now considering ways to take the garbage to a recycling factory.
On our trip, we also visited a bat cave a
nd were welcomed by little insect-eating bats flying into us in the dark, and we made friends with a fan-footed gecko. If you would like to join us next time, look out for our fliers!
By Richard Hoath
Talk of wild carnivores normally gets people thinking of Lions on the Serengeti in pursuit of hapless wildebeest, Wolf packs chasing down Caribou in the arctic tundra or Jaguars in some Amazonian jungle. But we have one of the most successful, and pound for pound powerful, natural predators here on the AUC Campus. And I am not talking about the cats.
The Least Weasel Mustela nivalis, in Arabic Ersa (‘Irsa), is one of the world’s smallest carnivores at around 100g in weight and 40cm, body and tail, in length. And that is the larger male. It can readily be recognized by its tiny size and long, slender form, dark brown above and pale below, frequently irregularly patched and spotted. The tail is relatively short and slender. It is probably most familiar as the lithe furry cylinder seen scurrying across darkened streets and beneath parked cars around campus at night. Indeed I have seen it on Greek, Main and Falaki. And we should be pleased.
The Least Weasel, and others in its family, is unusual amongst the carnivores in actively hunting prey far larger than itself. In Europe the 100 gram Least Weasel preys on mammals up to the size of rabbits that can reach 2500g in weight – 25 times the Least Weasel’s own size. There are no rabbits on campus, the DDC shop apart, nor indeed at all in Egypt in the wild, so our Least Weasels will be living on mice and rats, most likely House Mice Mus musculus and House Rats Rattus rattus which like it or not share our downtown site. Labor is not split equally. The larger male Weasel will often take larger prey than the female that can be half the male’s size. This ensures a pair can take maximum advantage of prey species within their territory and not compete with each other.
Three other weasel species are found in Egypt. The black and white Libyan Striped Weasel Poecilictis libyca is found across the northern coastal desert to the western Delta. The similar Zorilla Ictonyx striatus is confined to a few records from the very south east of the country while the stunning Marbled Polecat Vormela peregusna is confined to north-eastern Sinai. All are active predators.
There is some controversy as to what the Least Weasel is doing in Egypt. Some experts argue that it was introduced, possibly by the Romans. They point to the fact that here it is almost entirely a commensal, only associated with mankind’s activity. Others point to its distribution over much of northern North Africa and the fact that this population is sufficiently distinct to warrant its own subspecies subpalmata and should thus be considered native. Indeed it is even given full species status by some authors as Mustela subpalmata the Egyptian Weasel.
Native or non-native we should all welcome this unobtrusive member of the urban community – unless you really like House Rats (definitely introduced). But then perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this as we have just entered the Chinese Lunar Year of the Rat!
Kingdon, Jonathan. The Kingdon Field Guide to the Mammals of Africa Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.
An owl whose face is shaped
into a white heart
may be the only gleaming thing
beneath the eave of the house.
Despite its luminance, it never
questions the dark, or asks why
it is dark. It merely repeats what must be
its first memory: the click
and shriek of the pulley that lowered it
from the moon into this black bay.
I know the body, moving forward,
is pulled continually back. Isn’t this
primitive? This bird, whose face
might have been drawn by a child,
can hear, at thirty yards, a mouse
stepping on hard ground.
It will fly at night over a black
marsh, then drop ten feet—the mouse
grasped with pointed accuracy.
When I was a child, my mother sat
on a piano bench and touched, quickly,
the middle key. Listen, she said,
C is both flat and sharp.
Ocean, I thought. End and beginning.
The Biology Club cordially thanks Dr. Melanie Carter for contributing this poem to The Neuron!
Want to join the Biology Club and help us plan fun trips, screen great films and launch important campaigns, write or take pictures for The Neuron???? E-mail Sarah Beshay at firstname.lastname@example.org !!!!
Maha Khalil has stepped down from presidency of the Biology Club, and Sarah Beshay is now the new president. To join the Biology Club, e-mail Sarah at ephraims@aucegypt. edu