Q. I have seen so many robins lately -- hundreds, in fact, hanging around our yard. Many friends also have remarked about the large numbers, and each one is fatter than the next (the robins, not my friends). What's up? Also, whom can I contact at Lindenwood to see if they are having any cooking classes at the Belleville campus?
-- Barbara Baldridge, of Belleville
A. Talk about birdbrains. You'd think they'd take a cue from people who buy a vacation nest in Florida to spend winters far from the dreary cold and snow of St. Louis. After all, if you could fly for free and had no family obligations, wouldn't you take advantage of it?
But robins apparently aren't like some of their avian brethren -- or human snowbirds, for that matter, according to the experts at the St. Louis Zoo. Robins only fly far enough to get comfortable and will zip right back if conditions improve, so, in mild winters, you may see them often.
"It's not unusual," spokeswoman Susan Gallagher told me after consulting with the zoo's bird curator. "Robins don't migrate to the deep south. You'll see a whole congregation of them moving south if it's 10 degrees colder where they are. They go south to the warmer spot for a little while and then migrate back to the other area when the temperature goes up. So they're very temperature sensitive.
"For example, it's not unusual here in Forest Park to see 200 robins in a single day and then very few the next day if it gets really cold here. So that's the answer. For a 10-degree difference, they will move as a flock to a warmer climate and not very far -- a couple of hundred miles. Then they'll head back when things warm up."
As I said, mild winters would certainly influence their activity here, so some speculate that global warming is leading to their increased presence. But in Ohio, where robin counts at Christmas have soared from 4,500 in the '60s to 30,000 recently, Jim Abrams, a retired state wildlife official, wrote recently that an increase in tasty, non-native plants may be the lure for them to stick around. Either way, I think I'd take off for Puerto Vallarta.
As for cooking classes at Lindenwood, there's nothing on the front burner. No offerings are in the catalog and there are none currently planned, although you're certainly welcome to contact Keith Russell, the dean of academics, for future updates at 239-6021.
Q. When that meteor slammed into Russia last week, it created a loud sonic boom as it fell. I remember in the '50s hearing sonic booms from jets on a regular basis. Why don't we hear them anymore? Were there any kind of damages from them?
-- Randy Weiss, of Highland
A. Let me ask you this: How did you react to those dish-rattling, window-shattering, set-your-teeth-on-edge blasts from the blue? If you were like me when they staged 150 supersonic flights over St. Louis in 1961-1962, you had the bejeebers scared out of you.
Apparently, so did a lot of other folks. In 1964, for example, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration teamed up to do "sonic boom tests" over Oklahoma City, causing eight of the thunderous explosions each day. The result? Nearly 5,000 claims for cracked glass and plaster. After the FAA paid out only $123,000, a class action lawsuit resulted -- which the government lost. Still, those flights continued to boom. In a three-month period in 1967, the U.S. Air Force reported receiving $3.8 million in damage claims.
And just just look what happened in England and France, where they expected the Mach-2 Concorde to be the model for future air travel. Instead, they soon found countries all over the world banning supersonic flight in their airspace because of damage to buildings and, possibly, humans. (Some studies found people subjected to repeated booms showed thickened heart tissue, although these have been disputed.) Now, as you probably know, those big birds have been retired for a decade.
In any event, civilian aircraft here are prohibited from "breaking the sound barrier" over land and the military keeps them to a minimum. NASA astronauts, for example, wound up doing their training flights over the ocean. A spokesperson at Scott Air Force Base told me that its primary missions -- aeromedical, evacuation, airlift support and refueling -- do not require supersonic flight, so the wild, blue yonder remains a lot less wild around here.
Which common fabric is named for where it originated -- Nimes, France?
Answer to Sunday's trivia: In 1960, Cyprus became the only country to include a map of itself on its flag. It remained a unique occurrence until February 2008, when the new Republic of Kosovo raised its flag for the first time with a gold-colored map of itself on a blue field underneath six white stars.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2465.