Sirius talks, sings, and plays piano

A couple cute little videos of Sirius the Starling.

Here he is playing his toy piano with great enthusiasm, while John designs D&D characters with a friend in the background.

And here he is chattering along while John and I watched a Chinese opera. At about 48 seconds in, he really gets going. Most of his vocalizations are still mumbly baby-talk, but the occasional “Pretty” or “Birdy” is quite clear.

Window Plants

My garden is looking nice today.










Sirius the 6-Inch Pianist, Take Two

Sirius the Starling has improved at playing the piano!

And here are some more pictures of Sirius, just because he’s beautiful.

Review of Arbico Organics

So, from time to time I review things on this site. Sometimes books, sometimes programs. Today, it’s bugs.

Full disclosure this time does not require saying that the producer of the bugs has promised me anything in exchange for this review, because it hasn’t. I chose to write this on my own, because this company can always use more business, and I like it so much that I really, really want it to stick around.

The website Arbico Organics came to my attention when I was searching online for treats for my pet starling, Sirius. For those who aren’t already aware, a starling is a mostly insectivorous bird in the wild. As pets, they can live quite well on a diet of dog food and poultry mash, but Siri’s favorite treats included dried mealworms and crickets from the pet store.

However, these posed a few problems. He liked to eat a LOT of them, especially when I was training him to do tricks like playing the piano. And despite being insects, dried crickets and mealworms are not actually healthy snacks for a bird. They are mostly fat and indigestible chitin. Eating a whole lot of them is very unhealthy.

In addition, a 1.7-ounce jar of them at the pet store was in the $8- $10 range, usually the upper end of that range. At the rate he went through them, they were simply not worth the cost.

So I went looking for a healthier and cheaper starling snack. I focused on professional suppliers instead of trying to catch my own bugs to feed him, because wild bugs can carry various pesticides and parasites, and besides, I didn’t have the time to go catching that many.

Eventually, I found Arbico Organics’ Fly Delight.

This was a bag of dried, dead houseflies. And it seemed to be my wish come true. On their feeder insect page, Arbico Organics claimed that their pet treats “provide a natural varied diet that is easily digestible, and will not cause problems associated with chitinous, exoskeletal materials.” They carried no crickets or mealworms, but lots of flies, which have a thinner and softer exoskeleton. And they appeared to be raised in a pretty safe environment, unlikely to be infected with any diseases. Looked like a healthy snack to me.

The Fly Delight cost $6.50 for 0.20 ounces… more money per ounce than the mealworms or crickets I’d been buying. But in bulk, it was different. A 1-pound bag was $34, plus enough shipping to add up to $45.97. If I were to buy enough pet-store jars of crickets or mealworms to make up a pound, that would be nine or ten jars at over $8 apiece, for a total well over $70, and probably in the $80 to $90 range if I weren’t lowballing the prices. The Fly Delight was not only healthier, but close to half the price if I bought enough at once.

So I did, and when it arrived, I was impressed at the size of the bag. I’d had no idea that a pound of dead flies took up so much space! By volume, I was getting quite a lot for my money. This was going to last me a very, very long time.

I was also surprised that the text on the bag recommended refrigerating them. I wasn’t sure why; dried flies would probably be fine on the shelf, as long as it wasn’t too hot or humid. But just to be safe, I put them in a big container and stuck it in the back of the fridge, saving a handful of them in a small jar to keep close at hand.

Sirius loves them! In fact, at first he loved them so much that he wouldn’t even do tricks while I was holding them, because he couldn’t tear himself away from standing right next to them and staring directly at them! Eventually, he got used to them enough that I could use them as training treats, but he still counts them among his favorite things ever. As a starling snack, they are an absolute success.

While researching Arbico Organics, I found out that most of its business is not related to pet treats, but rather live bugs used in biological warfare against garden pests! They sell ladybugs, lacewings, nematodes, and lots of other beneficial organisms that eat things you don’t want to have on your plants.

This was of interest to me, because my windowsill garden was suffering from a bad spider-mite infestation. I could hardly get any beans out of my bean vines before the spider mites ate them alive, and my tomato plants would barely live to maturity at all. I had tried cleaning the leaves with a spray bottle of water, and another spray bottle with some soap and rosemary oil, but it was having limited success, and with Siri’s delicate avian respiratory system I didn’t want to spray harsher chemicals indoors.

I was quite interested in the Neoseiulus Californicus mites, which not only eat spider mites, but can survive during shortages of spider mites by eating other small arthropods and even pollen. They cost more than other spider-mite predators, but they seemed worth it because they wouldn’t immediately starve to death after they ate most of the spider mites, so they could potentially keep the scourge under control for a very long time.

Still, I was hesitant to spend $82.06, including the required overnight shipping for live organisms, when we were not in the greatest financial situation.

I bemoaned the whole thing to Sibre Collard, who surprised me with a wonderful offer. He hadn’t been sure what to get me for my birthday or Christmas, and seeing that it was about halfway between the two, he offered to buy them for me as a combined two-occasion gift.

You know someone is an amazing friend when he can grasp the weird fact that I would consider 1,000 live bugs to be a really good present.

1,000 was the smallest quantity they came in, and the site said “Use 1,000 per 4,500 sq. ft. of infested area,” so it was ridiculous overkill for a small garden like mine. I really should have shared them with other gardeners. But, alas, they had to be released within 18 hours of arrival, and I didn’t know anyone else who needed spider-mite predators and could pick them up within that time frame.

They arrived in a tiny jar inside a box mostly full of packing foam and cold-packs. The jar contained some grainy material like ground-up corncobs, but the mites seemed to be mostly crawling on the inside of the jar and its lid. They were barely visible to the naked eye, a lot smaller than my spider mites. I wondered if they’d actually be able to kill them, but the website said they preyed mostly on the larvae and eggs, so I figured it could work.

I sprinkled the grainy stuff in various spots on leaves and soil throughout my window garden, and set the jar and lid next to a plant in hopes that the mites would crawl off the jar into the right places. I pulled up all the plants that were too badly mite-eaten, but I left enough spider-mite-infested areas to make sure the new mites would be able to find food quickly and keep their population going.

After a few days, I didn’t see any more of them in or around the jar, so I guessed they were finding their way into the places where the spider mites were living. I couldn’t really see them on any of the leaves, but I knew they were hard to see, so I just waited and hoped they were doing their job.

Four weeks later, I’m very impressed! My garden’s growing well. The new bean vines I planted to replace the mite-eaten ones are flourishing without a single visible mite on them– the first time in months that I’ve been able to grow bean plants this far without them getting spider-mite-infested! I see an occasional spider mite on leaves of the tomato plants, but they’re not numerous enough to impede the plants’ growth. These mite predators really do their job!

I don’t know yet how long this will last. Maybe these lovely new mites will die of overpopulation in my little garden; maybe they’ll eat everything they can eat and run out of food. Maybe the humidity and temperature aren’t ideal for them and they’ll die from that. Who knows. If none of them survive, then maybe someday my spider-mite problem will come back. But still, I have plenty of hope.

So, all in all, I highly recommend Arbico Organics! The refrigeration requirement on the Fly Delight was a surprise that I wish they’d mentioned on the site, but that’s a small issue. I wish they sold the mite predators in a wider variety of quantities, but the 1,000-count jar certainly did the trick, and if you don’t want to buy that many, you can pool funds with other gardeners and share them if you’re better-prepared than I was.

Again, here are the links:

Arbico Organics

Feeder insect page

Fly Delight

Neoseiulus Californicus mites

Arbico Organics. Whether you’re feeding an insectivorous critter or growing veggies in your window, this site has what you’re looking for. High-quality, high-quantity BUGS.

Sirius the Starling: the 6-inch-tall pianist

My first video of Siri playing his piano. His training is going well, but he’s still a little bit shy about it.

I will post more videos as his skill improves.

(Sorry about the watermark; I am using a free version of this video editing program. When I have better videos– after more piano lessons– I’ll either buy the program or use a different camera that doesn’t insist on making 3gp files that can’t be edited in iMovie.)


This is my husband John C Ricker.

John is a ginger.

Gingers gain a freckle for every soul they steal.

John is a photographer.

Photographs steal souls.

John almost never photographs humans.

John photographs hundreds of animals and plants.

John has hundreds of freckles.


animals and plants 

have souls.


I have occasionally described myself as an alien.

And lately I have spent a significant amount of time on Tumblr (where all genders, orientations, and other forms of identity are accepted and defended, and furthermore, there are new and unusual identities gaining recognition all the time).

So I’m sure some people are wondering what my opinions are on the phenomenon of “otherkin.”

That question encompasses several questions, which I’ll try to answer one by one.

1. How do you define the term “otherkin”?

As I understand it, otherkin are people who experience a feeling of being something other than a human, trapped in a human body.

2. Is it real?

Of course. It’s a feeling, so, if people feel it, then by definition it is real.

3. Is it just a feeling? Or is it really what people say it is?

If you mean being a literal reincarnation of some animal, a literal descendant of some alien, or a soul that some supernatural power literally placed in the wrong body… then, in my opinion, no.

However, I don’t find those ideas any more unlikely than the claims of mainstream religion.

To people who earnestly believe them, I extend the same respect and tolerance that I extend to religious people, as long as they aren’t using it as an excuse to hurt others.

You don’t have to share people’s beliefs to respect their feelings.

4. Is it comparable to being transgender? (In other words, is it the same type of feeling, and of the same strength?)

Without having had both those experiences, I can’t give a confident answer to that.

I’m not telepathic. I can’t know for certain what another person feels, or how strongly.

I can only make guesses based on people’s words and actions.

From observation of words and actions, I’m pretty sure there is a wide variation among individuals, both transgender and otherkin, in terms of how strongly they identify as such.

In both groups there appear to be some who identify with the group consistently and strongly throughout life, and others who identify temporarily and less strongly while they are growing up and trying to figure out their own identities.

Is the consistent-and-strong identification more common among transgender people than among otherkin? Yes, from what I can tell.

The recorded history of the transgender movement gives lots of evidence of transgender identity being felt very strongly, often to the point of undergoing major surgery, and risking one’s job, relationships and even survival for the sake of expressing one’s identity.

There’s less recorded evidence of otherkin going to such extremes.

However, to be completely open-minded and scientific, I have to consider the possibility that this is because otherkin are less common overall, or because they have not had communities that recognized the existence of their identity until the last few years.

And otherkin (or possible otherkin) are not completely absent from recorded history: there is, for example, the 1987 case of the Leopard Man of Skye.

Also, even if the experience of being otherkin is generally much less strong and enduring than the experience of being transgender, that doesn’t mean it is undeserving of any respect at all.

5. Should we demand respect and recognition for otherkin, in the same way we demand it for transgender and gay people? Or would that harm the social justice movement overall by causing people to take it less seriously?

I can see both sides of that. On the one hand, I would find it very hard to argue that any group does not deserve respect and acceptance. But on the other hand, I’m not sure society as a whole is ready to accept otherkin.

And, if otherkin associate themselves with the transgender movement by using some of the same terminology and rhetoric, it’s possible that could cause setbacks for society’s willingness to take transgender people seriously.

Society is starting to accept gay rights, transgender rights, women’s rights, and racial equality. That’s a great thing, and it would be terrible to lose that progress by pushing demands for more acceptance on society faster than it can adapt.

I’m not saying that people *shouldn’t* be ready to accept all non-harmful forms of self-expression at once. I’m saying that, in reality, they aren’t… and, however unfair it may be, the success of all the various human-rights movements depends on society being ready to accept them.

So maybe we need to wait a while, in the same way that we’re not going to start fighting for the right to polyamorous marriage while we’re still struggling to get gay marriage accepted.

But, even if that’s the case, it’s not a question of whether otherkin deserve acceptance; it’s a question of whether it’s feasible at this point in time. I’m all for accepting everyone who expresses their identity without hurting other people with it.

6. Do you identify as otherkin?

I can see how people could get that idea, since my first published book was literally titled “Born on the Wrong Planet.” But no.

As a teenager, maybe even as a college student, I might have identified as otherkin, if I had known about that community. I have even actively described myself as feeling like an alien trapped in a human body.

But that feeling isn’t prevalent enough in my life for me to consider it part of my identity.

(Especially since I’ve managed to surround myself with friends and loved ones who are as alien as me. It’s easier to feel that I fit in on Earth, if I carefully pick the elements of Earth that I get to spend time with.)

Sirius the Starling takes the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ice bucket challenge is really working for raising awareness. It may be silly and gimmicky, but it’s getting people to donate.

So Sirius stepped up and tried it.

He’ll take a bath in ANYTHING. Well, almost anything. Maybe he had to wait until the ice melted; so what. He’s adorable.

Living Independently: The farm in my window

In the world of autistic adults, we keep hearing about the challenge of “living independently.” This is used to mean such things as cooking one’s own food, shopping, cleaning and maintaining a household, as well as holding a job to support oneself.

I have made unusual progress in that regard. I’ve had a job for over nine years, and my husband and I manage our small condo in Columbia Heights very well. Bills get paid on time, the place is clean, and we always have tasty and healthy meals to eat.

But, somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice keeps telling me that this traditional idea of being “independent” is just another way of being dependent.

One of the big disillusionments of growing up, for me, was realizing that almost all my possessions will need to be replaced someday, no matter how durable they seem right now. And worse, realizing that when that time comes, the place I originally got them might not carry them anymore. Stores change out their inventory, and manufacturers discontinue products. As a consumer, I’m at the mercy of the market, and the things I like to buy could stop being available at any moment. Shopping for your own stuff is just a way of being dependent on the people who produce and sell that stuff. Alas, they are not always dependable.

In the same way, having a job is a form of dependence on an employer, who could decide to fire you or cut your hours at any time. There is no way to live independently; everything in the world is interconnected, and everything depends upon other things.

At times, I have very little trust in the infrastructure of society as a whole. At times, it drives me into a panic that I am dependent on a society that is largely unstable and unsustainable.

We all have our ways of coping with this sort of worry. And mine is to take “living independently” to as far an extreme as I can take it. The more self-sufficient my home is, the more I can imagine that I’d be able to survive if society somehow collapsed around me.

I guess, in a way, I’m sort of a doomsday prepper. But most of the time, there’s nothing frantic about the process. Making my home as self-sufficient as possible is a pleasant and calming project for me. I feel a great satisfaction whenever I figure out a new way to reuse something, make something from scratch, or substitute a more sustainable alternative for something.

I make my own lip balm from castor oil and a few drops of peppermint oil and lemon oil combined in a glass roller bottle. (Castor oil is sold as a laxative in pharmacies. Scented essential oils are sold in natural-supplement stores; I use peppermint and lemon because I’ve found that combination helps prevent the lip balm from growing bacteria and starting to smell bad). Sure, I have to keep buying the ingredients, but not nearly as often as I would have to keep buying pre-made lip balm… and I don’t have to feel wasteful throwing out a little plastic tube every time.

I make my own spray cleaner with a mixture of water, rubbing alcohol and dish soap. I clean my glasses with a similar mixture that’s higher in alcohol, and I re-use cloth lens wipes (though I have to be careful to keep them very clean, because even a tiny grain of dirt on a lens cloth can make a scratch on my glasses).

In the kitchen, I use old washcloths instead of paper towels. I keep a stack of them in one cabinet, and in another I keep an empty wastebasket with unwound coat hangers forming a sort of metal clothesline across the top. When a washcloth gets dirty from cleaning up a spill, I hang it on the wire over the wastebasket, and when they’re all dirty, I put them in the washing machine with a generous splash of bleach to kill any germs and fungi.

This system is still dependent on my ability to get bleach, detergent and running water, but it’s better than having to keep buying paper towels. I keep a few on hand for guests, but very rarely use them myself.

And, of course, John and I make a lot of our own food from scratch, down to homemade bread, sauces and pie crusts.

But as Carl Sagan said, to really make a pie from scratch you would have to create the universe. No matter how you cook your food, you can’t make every part of it yourself. Even if you start with the ingredients exactly as they are found in nature, you still have to get them from somewhere.

That’s why I’ve become a little bit obsessed with making some of my food out of such basic elements as earth, water and air.

In other words, growing a garden.

I’m not an expert, by any means. I’m figuring it out as I go along. And there have been lots of setbacks– bugs, mold, overwatering, underwatering, plants dying for reasons completely hidden from me. But I keep doing it, because every time I succeed, the joy of harvesting and eating home-grown vegetables– even just a few– is well-nigh addictive.

I do grow a few things on the balcony. But the bulk of my veggie garden is on shelves by the window; that way I don’t have to worry about the weather, squirrels, or birds (unless Sirius decides to raid the plants someday, but as a mostly insectivorous species of bird, he’d probably eat the bugs on my crops before he’d eat the crops themselves).

The window faces west, not south, which would be preferable. But I still get strong light all afternoon, and I supplement it with several LED lamps plugged into a timer.

It’s a pretty simple arrangement. A set of shelves, open on both the front and the back, to allow both me and the sun access to the plants… placed on top of a sheet of plastic to protect the carpet. (I tried forever to find a suitably-sized plastic tray with a lip around the edge, but boot trays were too small, and farming mats designed for livestock were too big. I eventually bought a roll of clear vinyl and rolled up the edges, then clipped them in place with binder clips, creating my own lipped tray… so if a water spill happens, it’ll stop when it gets to the edge.)

The plants are growing in a wide assortment of containers. Small plants like basil and green onions are fine with little flowerpots. Bigger things, like potatoes and tomatoes, need larger pots, and for many of them I just used big plastic storage containers. Poke a few holes in the bottom of a storage bin, use the lid as a tray underneath, and you can grow potatoes in your window.

I like to buy heirloom seeds from online suppliers like Seed Savers and Park Seed. If seeds are labeled “heirloom,” that means they’re meant to be grown for generations, harvesting the seeds from each plant and planting them to start the next season of growth (unlike hybrid plants and some genetically-modified plants that are unable to reproduce). To have a self-sufficient garden, you’ve got to have reproductively-viable plants.

But the internet is not the only source I get my plants from. Some of them I get totally free. It’s surprising how many growable and reproducible plants you can get out of your kitchen waste!

I’m not kidding. Plant the seeds from some leftover cherry tomatoes, and you can grow tons of tomatoes of your own:

Have an old potato that’s sprouting? Cut it into chunks, with about one sprouting eye per chunk. Put a little dirt in the bottom of a big storage tote. Bury the chunks. Water them. As the sprouts grow upward, add more dirt, until you’ve filled the bin and the potato plants are going crazy with foliage. In about three months you’ll be able to harvest your own potatoes:

Bought some green onions, chopped up the stems to season your food, and don’t know what to do with the little white bulbs at the base? Plant them. They’ll grow new stems, and you might never need to buy green onions again:

You can even grow your own watermelons from watermelon seeds (not the few seeds in a seedless watermelon– those are genetically messed-up– but the ones from a normal seeded watermelon). They’re harder to grow than most of my plants, because you have to hand-pollinate them by picking off a male flower and rubbing it against a female flower, and even then the rate of success is pretty low. I never actually got a melon to grow to full size. But I got fairly far once, before bugs ate it. This was before I learned to keep a close eye on the pest population. If I had kept cleaning the bugs off the underside of the melon as it grew, it might’ve survived.

When I first encountered bugs on my plants, I was horrified. I imagined that they were a scourge of the kind you see in movies, like zombies or gremlins, where you have to kill every single last one or they’ll all come back and you’re doomed.

But gradually I’ve come to realize that they’re a fact of life in a garden, and my realistic goal is not to exterminate them all, but to maintain a balance where there are few enough of them for my plants to stay alive and keep producing food.

I’ve had little gnats that land on the leaves and appear to suck their juices; I’ve had some sort of tiny black dots that crawl around and chew holes in the leaves; and worst of all I’ve had spider mites– near-invisible tiny creatures that suck the goodness out of my plants, leaving the leaves transparent in spots, and festooning them with little spidery webs in the process.

If a few of these are on a plant, that doesn’t mean the plant is about to die. I currently have several bean vines that are suffering from mild infestations, while still growing and producing plenty of tasty beans. It’s just a matter of keeping things under control.

This means spraying the plants as a regular part of tending them, not just as an occasional attack to purge the pests. I spray with a mixture of water, dish soap and rosemary oil. Mixed in a regular spray bottle, it’s a mild, gentle, and pretty effective pesticide, and it costs very little to make (a few drops of rosemary oil go a long way, and it can be bought from the same supplement stores and online retailers as my lip-balm supplies).  I do it whenever I notice new bug damage on leaves, which can be once a week or so. It doesn’t eliminate all the bugs, but it keeps them at bay enough to keep my veggies alive.

I also hang fly tape, which is sold at hardware stores: a set of two spools, one wrapped in sticky white ribbon, which stretches across the area you choose and then winds around the second spool. I mounted them on the wooden shelves I use:

As the ribbon collects flying insects, you wind more of it around the empty spool. It lasts a long time and really helps keep the fly and gnat population down.

Most of the bugs that eat plants won’t bite a human, and won’t get into your stored food. So, beyond the harm to your garden, which your diligence can keep under control, you don’t really have to worry about those bugs being in your house. There are bugs in every house, and the ones that get into your veggie garden are a lesser evil than the ones that eat your clothes, your cereal, or your blood.

Sometimes, though, plants do die, and you just have to let them go and plant something new in the pot.

You can re-use potting soil. It might have bugs, bacteria or fungi in it, though, so it helps to sterilize it. You can put it in some large container with holes in the bottom, put that inside another container with no holes in the bottom, and pour boiling water through it from a big teakettle.

It also may have nutrients depleted from the plants that have grown in it before, so it helps to add fertilizer of some sort. Hardware and plant stores sell good all-purpose fertilizing powders that you can mix with water and use to water the plants.

If you’re very ambitious, you can also make your own fertilizer with a composter. The Worm Factory or the Can-o-Worms is a good one. Add red wiggler worms, newspaper, and your biodegradable garbage, and you’ll have a supply of nice rich fertilizer in a few months. (They have to be red wigglers, not night crawlers or standard earthworms. And if you can find someone in your area who does worm composting already, it’s better to get worms locally than have them shipped through the mail; they’re delicate little souls.)

My parents have done this since I was a kid, and they have the loveliest garden. It inspired the title story in my collection “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?”

I don’t know if I could support myself with my garden if I had to. It would probably involve starting new plants in every single window and still living on the edge of starvation, if I survived at all. But I take comfort in every new bit of experience I gain in self-sufficiency, every new skill I learn that makes me a little stronger on my own.

I don’t think people should stop depending on each other, but I think the world would be nicer if we all learned the simpler and more sustainable– though less convenient– ways of getting the things we need. When you have eaten a tiny, delicious bowl of beans that took five plants on your windowsill three weeks to produce, you never look at vegetables quite the same way again.

Curing hyperkeratosis

This is a post about the amazing progress we’ve made on the health of our bird. It goes into more detail about the overgrown foot scales we mentioned before, and the exact process we used for treating them.

If you don’t like looking at pictures of scaly bird feet, both healthy and unhealthy, then this post is not for you.

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