On the Fourth of July the branches of the chokecherry trees in the yard bent nearly to the ground, heavy with fruit. The next morning proved to be a race against robins, warblers, blue jays and woodpeckers for the spoils. The birds squawked and whined in protest as humans salvaged the last quart of tiny berries. The word “choke” makes many folk gag, at least figuratively, at the prospect of chokecherries as a food product. Until absolutely ripe (a dark purple, bordering on black) chokecherries taste rather bitter, but even with a few under-ripe red ones mixed in the pot they will cook up into a delicious jelly or jam. Chokecherry syrup for your waffles or pancakes can be made by simmering the chokecherries in a slightly less than equal amount of water for several hours, straining the juice through a cheese-clothed lined colander then mixing the juice with sugar and a bit of pectin for thickening.
One of my Nebraska cousins actually gathers in so many chokecherries that she has a small mail order chokecherry jam business. The chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is perhaps the most widespread tree in North America. It can be found as far north and east as Newfoundland. The fruit of chokecherries along the Arizona/Mexico borderlands is very dark at ripening and sweeter still than northern counterparts. Chokecherries, though classified as riverside shrubs, only ripen fruit with prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Chokecherries provided the Plains Indians with their most abundant source of fruit for thousands of years before the arrival of European “pioneers.” The archeological study of Kelly Kindscher (published in 1987) placed chokecherries at more Indian campsites in the Dakotas than any other wild plant. Plains Indians pounded the chokecherry then dried it in the late summer sun. Chokecherries were such an important part of the diet that the Cheyenne and Blackfoot words for it meant “the berry.”
While the chokecherries were being picked here, and birds chirped and squawked in protest, a friend called with a question prompted by a Fourth of July hike. The specific situation involved a hawk flying overhead during the hike, but the question boiled down to: Can birds poop in mid-flight?
The answer is yes. Birds don’t have an anus or a sphincter, the muscle band that allows us humans “to hold it.” Birds have a cloaca, a posterior opening which serves intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tract needs. Birds just “go” when the need arises, whether they are flying or perched like a pigeon on a statue. Cloaca is a slightly contradictory word at its root form. In Latin it means a sewer, but that word derives from the Greek kluzein, which translates as “to wash.”
Seagulls were notorious at windswept Giants games in old Candlestick Park (any semblance between Candlestick and a real park lies only in the spelling of the word). They still fly, in less Hitchcockian numbers, at the Giants newer downtown venue. However, it was at the Oakland Coliseum, more than three and a half decades ago, when I learned that birds excrete while in mid-flight. A seagull’s lunch dropped, plopped and splattered on the empty upper deck seat next to mine, while I looked out over a sea of similarly empty seats as the Vida Blue led Oakland A’s played Gaylord Perry’s Cleveland Indians; for Giants fans: Duane Kuiper played second base that day for the Indians. The seagull came closer to scoring than the Indians.
None of the chokecherry-deprived birds here at the ranch were full enough to exact aerial revenge.