Regulars and Shorts, Urban Almanac

Urban Almanac: December 2011

By Diane Olson

Day by day in the home, garden and sky.

DECEMBER 1 Today the Sun rises at 7:31 a.m., and sets at 5:01 p.m. December’s average maximum temperature is 40 degrees; the minimum is 27 degrees. It snows an average of 11.6 inches. 

DECEMBER 2 FIRST QUARTER MOON. The first snowpack of the season consists of delicate, newly fallen snow crystals.

DECEMBER 3 Remember to turn and water the compost pile, but otherwise protect it from snow and rain with a tarp. Surround it with straw bails if you can, for added warmth.

DECEMBER 4 Obesity, heart disease and anxiety are all linked to the health and makeup of our microbiome—the collection of bacteria, viruses and other microbes that dwell in our bodies. And as in agriculture, a diverse ecosystem is a healthy one. Keep yours healthy by avoiding antibiotics whenever possible and eating probiotics (found in fermented foods and cultured milk products) and prebiotics (found in soybeans, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, jicama and chicory root). 

DECEMBER 5 Jupiter, between Aries and Pisces, is still huge and dazzling this month. 

DECEMBER 6 If you’re forcing paperwhites, which tend to get gangly, add a little rubbing alcohol to the water. The stems will grow only a third to half of their usual length, while the blossoms will be normal. Use one part rubbing alcohol to 10 or 11 parts water. 

DECEMBER 7 A team of hygienists recently swabbed hundreds of everyday objects to determine which breed the most bacteria and viruses. The top offenders: Gas pump handles, public mailboxes, escalator rails and ATM buttons.

DECEMBER 8 There are 200 million starlings in North America, all sprung from the 60 or so released in 1890 by the American Acclima­­tization Society, which was dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America. In the 19th century, such societies were not only fashionable, but supported by the scientific community, as the effects of non-native species on local ecosystems weren’t understood.

DECEMBER 9 So, so beautiful: In late fall and early winter, just before dusk, starlings often gather in huge, shape-shifting flocks called murmurations that reach speeds of up to 20 mph. As they fly, each bird exactly copies the movement of the bird next to it, creating a rippling effect. Scientists conjecture that it’s a survival mechanism, as the birds maneuver away from the fringes of the flock, where they are most vulnerable to hawks. Here’s one in Ireland:

DECEMBER 10 FULL LONG NIGHTS MOON. TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE MOON. There’s a full lunar eclipse tonight—well, actually tomorrow—just before dawn.

DECEMBER 11 Dry-toasted crickets taste like sunflower seeds.

DECEMBER 12 There are at least 200 million virus particles in a milliliter of mucus. The average human body produces about a liter (4.22 cups) of mucus per day. 

DECEMBER 13 Tonight is the Geminid meteor showers. Look to the northeast after Moon set. 

DECEMBER 14 Halycon Days begin. So too does the 112th Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

DECEMBER 15 Check for praying mantis egg cases before you bring your Christmas tree inside. Otherwise, you might end up with lots of little mantises among the ornaments, as the warmth inside will cause them to hatch.

DECEMBER 16 A bird’s plumage not only keeps it warm, it streamlines the body to reduce friction during swimming and flying.

DECEMBER 17 LAST QUARTER MOON. This was once the week of Saturnalia, when all work was put aside in favor of feasting and gambling, and the social order reversed, with masters waiting on their slaves. 

DECEMBER 18 I am so in love with this website:

DECEMBER 19 Mars, rising in Leo, is gaining in brightness as the month progresses.

DECEMBER 20 Might be time to switch to veggie burgers. Scientists recently determined that cows, like humans, have friends and enemies, feel strong emotions, and worry about the future. 

DECEMBER 21 WINTER SOLSTICE. Winter begins at 9:30 p.m. tonight, the moment the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the Sun. In three days, the Sun will begin its journey back to the northern hemisphere. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses got to hook up during the summer and winter solstices, and Hades was allowed to leave the underworld. 

DECEMBER 22 Tonight is the Ursid meteor shower, remnants of the Tuttle comet. Look to the north just before dawn. 

DECEMBER 23 Open water is as important to birds as food. Get a heated birdbath or keep ponds and other water features open with a floating deicer. 

DECEMBER 24 NEW MOON Animals are said to talk—and bees to buzz in their hives—at midnight tonight. 

DECEMBER 25 In 46 BC, Julius Caesar established this as the date of the winter solstice in Europe, but over the centuries, the date has crept slowly back, nearer to the actual astronomical occurrence.

DECEMBER 26 Look for Venus to the left of the crescent Moon tonight.

DECEMBER 27 Some species of lady bugs, or ladybird beetles, winter on rocky slopes, high in the mountains, forming layers so thick that they melt snow. Others aggregate on the south side of trees or houses and stir about on warm days. Ladybugs eat pollen, as well as mites, mealybugs, scale and aphids, and are most attracted to plants in the crucifer family, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, candytuft and rock cress.

DECEMBER 28 Use leftover evergreen branches to protect raspberry bushes and tender perennials.

DECEMBER 29 A fireball is a dazzlingly bright meteor—brighter than Venus. Fireballs can sometimes be spotted during the day.

DECEMBER 30 Look for snow fleas, a type of springtail, hopping around snowdrifts on warm winter days. Scientists are hoping to use proteins similar to those found in the springtail’s blood to store transplant organs—and make ice cream that doesn’t develop crystals. 

December 31 FIRST QUARTER MOON. The Sun rises at 7:51 a.m. today, and sets at 5:10 p.m. 

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. —Rachel Carson

This article was originally published on November 30, 2011.