portrait of The Inquisitive Ostrich

Sunday, November 21, 2021

thoughts from The Inquisitive Ostrich

My pen-pal is a phenomenal athlete in North America. They had a rough race recently, so there was a gap in their letters to me. Their silence was my clue; I knew they were frustrated. This had happened before, and I’m guilty of silence after a set-back as well.

My pen-pal competes in two types of races: one is a Vertical Race (straight up a tree!) and the other is a Spiral Race (around the tree in fast descending laps). We’ve recently been swapping training techniques for tight turns. Although we have very different physiology and run different races, we are able to collaborate on how to best handle the demands of the turns in our competitions. Our detailed correspondence often includes sketches of body position, arrows pointing out angles and precision in wing placement, and storyboards showing the timing of the specific movements in a race. Those pictures add humor to our letters as well . . . speech bubbles on the stick figures often include exclamatory remarks and shouts of celebration as well as sarcastic side-comments!

I was thrilled to finally receive that long-overdue letter from my pen-pal this morning. A recent race didn’t go as planned. It was Spiral Race, so lots of training time on turns had been building up to this event. In fact, the focused training preceding this race had been a focus even before we became pen-pals.

The Track Athlete Pen-Pal Program (known as TAPP) started when health and safety concerns temporary halted track programs and track events around the world. As community-oriented athletes, my teammates and I floundered without our weekly practice routines and athlete camaraderie. We started TAPP to connect athletes all over the world! The goal was to share stories, favorite workouts, race-day snack ideas, and provide accountability for our now-solo workout routines. Many of us flourished in these pen-pal relationships since our shared passion for the sport was a great conversation prompt.

One of the unique challenges my pen-pal faces on race day is the variability of tree bark. Track officials do not release course information until the night before the event. This means that my pen-pal (and their competitors) must prepare for many different types of tree bark. Some common trees chosen for the Spiral Race are Iron Wood, Ash, Oak, and Birch. Given the dramatic differences in the habitats where we live and my lack of knowledge about these deciduous trees, my pen-pal thoughtfully drew me pictures contrasting the bark of these trees. They told me about races on the Oak Tree: unique foot placement and deliberately high steps, eyes ahead to avoid being thrown off course by deeper furrows in the bark, and extra awareness to avoid being hit by a dropped acorn. In contrast, they shared that other trees are less technically challenging because their bark is smoother overall. My pen-pal’s specialty is the Iron Wood since they grew up racing their friends on those trees-- darting near the unique seed pods that hang in the fall, and using the regular spacing of the long, narrow furrows to estimate their top racing speeds!

The Spiral Race venue was announced the night before my pen-pal’s race: Ash. Many friends, chicks, and nannies of chicks were attending the event to call out encouragement during the race. My pen-pal shared with me that Ash is becoming an increasingly rare venue choice because of a beetle species that infests the Ash. The beetles hurt the trees and draw lots of attention from Downy and Harry Woodpeckers who bust open the bark to devour the beetles and other insects they find inside. For the limited number of Ash Trees that are still standing, this makes the bark surface extremely unpredictable for races.

As I began reading my pen-pal’s letter, I suspected the worst. For this letter, they began in short, factual sentences. No emotion. No extra elaboration. I resume reading now and skim ahead through their description of the weather, the view from the starting line, the hole-free bark signaling that this tree was not plagued by the Emerald Ash Borer, the cheers from the crowd below, the false start due to a competitor’s slipping foot . . . And then my pen-pal describes the third lap. From the starting line-- several feet up the trunk of the tree-- there are five total spiral laps that bring competitors to a finish line that grazes the grasses and leaf litter of the forest floor. My pen-pal’s letter changed style, and they described their fateful third lap when the Spiral Race was derailed:

A samara zipped downward from the branches above. This seedpod was in a race of its own. It seemed determined to dive into the moist soil below with such determination that nothing, including my outstretched wing, could get in its way. Smack! The leading edge of my left primary feathers collided perfectly with the tail of that pesky samara. I was thrown off balance. I was startled. I yelled in frustration. My high speed turn around the back side of the tree had transformed into a tumble where feet, feathers, and seedpods were indistinguishable in the chaos. I reached out desperately for the tree, wishing for the deep furrows of Burr Oak bark that would be easy to grab in that moment. The tips of my toes touched something solid. I pulled my body back tightly to the tree, tucked my head, turned my beak downward, and stumbled several steps as I tried to regain my focus. In all the chaos, part of the samara had broken and was stuck to my back, a fellow racer’s feather has become caught on my tail, and I had bits of bark all over my stomach. I don’t even recall the rest of the race. I think I crossed the finish line. I think I stumbled gloomily to my nearby cache of snacks. And I think I greeted my chicks and their nanny before heading home for the day. What a terrible race!

Ahh, my pan-pal is a tough competitor! After finishing their letter, I immediately sat down to begin my response. They need some humor, some empathy, and some reminders to get back out there and try again. My letter begins with a cartoon sketch of my pen-pal as a super hero, a Samara drawn as a villain, and the caption: “Samaras plague North America. Track star saves forest!”

Cunningham, Val. “Natty, Noisy Nuthatch - Saint Paul Audubon Society.” Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.saintpaulaudubon.org/2010/01/natty-noisy-nuthatch/.

“Emerald Ash Borer - The Arbor Day Foundation.” Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.arborday.org/trees/health/pests/emerald-ash-borer.cfm.

“Researchers Reveal the Mysterious Fall Movements of a Familiar Backyard Bird | Audubon.” Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.audubon.org/news/researchers-reveal-mysterious-fall-movements-familiar-backyard-bird.

“White-Breasted Nuthatch | Audubon Field Guide.” Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/white-breasted-nuthatch.

“White-Breasted Nuthatch Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-breasted_Nuthatch/id#.