The perfect small pet might be right under your nose

I can’t remember exactly how this pet came into my life, but I distinctly remember it being one of the coolest, most interesting, and easiest critters I’d ever had.

And grew up with a lot of pets.

Dogs and cats, yes. But also chinchillas, cockatiels, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, gerbils, fish, a rabbit, a hedgehog, and an assortment of frogs/toads. Oh, and a leopard gecko. And a bunch of hermit crabs. And one impulse-adopted escape-artist shrimp.

(Despite all indications to the contrary, I did not grow up on a farm or a zoo.)

I loved all those pets, in one way or another. Some were friendlier than others, some were challenging to keep, and some became my best friends. No matter the species, all of my many pets had the best home I could give them at the time, and were all special to me.

But one tiny pet made a big mark on my memory.

The stick bug.

aka stick insect, aka walking stick, aka phasmid

Now, I am not a bug lover. Insects play a vital role in the ecosystem, sure, but I wouldn’t be too upset if I never saw another spider in my house ever again. Yuck.

So for me to keep an insect as a pet was a pretty big deal.

The stick bug – which, sadly, I never named – was highly cool. It was about 8 inches long, greenish-brown, skinny, and a dead ringer for an actual stick. When I could spot it, that is.

There’s more than one in here! How many do you see? Image: Phasmid Study Group

There are a lot of ‘pros’ for keeping a walking stick insect as a pet.

  • Walking sticks are surprisingly friendly. When handled slowly and gently, they don’t seem to mind being picked up. It’s hard to tell, but they might even like it, since they’ll crawl onto your hand quite readily. Like any animal, they can bite when handled roughly, but it’s extremely unlikely.
  • They’re super chill. They don’t scurry, dart, scuttle, jump, or fly. All they do is walk slowly in a non-creepy way. They have no interest (or ability) to infest your home if they escape.
  • They eat romaine lettuce. In nature, stick insects eat whatever plants are outside, but in captivity, a leaf of lettuce is all they need. Now, this is species-dependent, so you really must do some googling to make sure you’re feeding yours correctly.
  • They’re silent, odorless, and clean. Your landlord will have nothing to complain about.
  • They’re low maintenance. A stick insect will live quite happily in a well-ventilated 10-15 gallon aquarium decked out with twigs and leaves. Room temperature is just right for them, and a gentle daily misting provides all the water they need. Of course, you’ll need to remember to clean up wilted lettuce and refresh the environments once in awhile, but other than that, there’s not a lot of care. Arguably, walking sticks are the easiest exotic pet there is.
  • They don’t have long lifespans. Time to get real. If you’re not sure how much of a commitment you want to make to small pet ownership, you’re in luck. Stick bugs only live about a year.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) care for a cat, dog, or hamster, walking sticks might be just the ticket.

Best of all, they live wherever you do.

Stick insects live on every continent except Antarctica, and if you have a keen eye, you can probably find one in your backyard right now.

I did once. I have no idea how I managed to see this little fella walking in the grass outside my home, but I did. 

Do you see it?

Sounds awesome right? Read this fine print before you bring one home.

  • Stick insects are just as fragile as they look. Only careful adults should pick them up, and even then only as gently as possible.
  • Make sure there’s enough room for your bug’s environment, because they can get quite large. They like to hang upside down, too, so the top of the aquarium/terrarium should be mesh.
  • Purchase your insect from a reputable company. It’s not nice to take wild animals from their natural environment. On the other hand, non-native stick insects are illegal to keep as pets in the US, so do some research either way.
  • Important: If you have a pet stick bug, do not let it outside. Depending on the species you’ve adopted, it could be an invasive ecological pest.

If you do decide to get a pet walking stick insect, be a responsible pet parent (because it is a pet) and do your homework. There are over 3,000 phasmid species to explore!

But if you aren’t ready for that kind of commitment, just take another look in your backyard! You might be in for a surprise.

Harness the power of social media to fight illegal animal trafficking

You love animals. Of course you do! That’s why you love seeing adorable animal pictures on social media.

But if you really truly love animals, you’ll learn the signs of trafficking on social media and use those same tools to fight back.

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

I know, baby tigers are cuter than anything, and you’ve always wanted to hug a monkey. Cheetahs riding in the back of Lamborghinis is the stuff of your most envious 1%er dreams.

That’s why Instagram shows it to you.

You can’t help but see perfectly-posed animals sharing our human space, and want to keep one as a pet. It’s science.

So whether it was intentional or not, social media has become the biggest driver for international animal trafficking, abuse, and the illegal wildlife trade.

That’s right. Black market animal trafficking doesn’t just happen on the darkweb anymore. You don’t even need to turn on incognito mode because happens right in front of our eyes.

And we “love” it.

A recent study of YouTube videos showed that when people see human-exotic animal interactions, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

Today, there are efforts in place on most social media platforms to slow pet sales. In 2017, Facebook and Instagram banned the sale of all animals: exotic or domestic. Their seemingly-robust algorithms frequently flag harmless products that reference threatened animals in any way. (Try posting an innocuous item on the Facebook marketplace and describe the color as “ivory” or “mink,” I dare you.) This might make you think what you’re seeing has been vetted by the algorithm and isn’t abuse.

But it can be.

Photo by Bisakha Datta on Unsplash

Animal traffickers are smarter than the platforms’ AI. They’ll phrase things a certain way, use specific terms, or use posed photos that don’t tell the whole story. This is how they list wild animals for sale to unsuspecting people like you and me.

You’ve seen this practice, I’m sure. Don’t we all have some relative who talks about the pandemic as “c0v1d” or types “wax seen” instead of vaccine? The idea is to trick the AI into thinking you’re talking about something else. And it often works!

Many of these practices are just as easy to spot. If you see the phrase “baby tiger for sale” along with a WhatsApp number, you can be pretty confident that illegal endangered animal trafficking is going on.

Facebook is one of the biggest drivers for sales, but Instagram is where people get the idea of owning these pets in the first place.

Most of us feel like Instagram is the most picture-perfect aspirational social media platform out there. So when we see our favorite influencer snuggling with their ultra-exotic pet, we want to do that, too.

Instagram knows about this.

If you search a specific hashtag like #slothselfie or #petcheetah, you’ll get a popup telling you that animal exploitation is wrong. But it’s a one-click bypass to see hundreds of jealousy-inducing photos. Try it in another language — particularly Arabic, because the majority of cheetah trafficking takes place in Saudi Arabia — and you’ll see even more posts and NO warning popup.

Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

Cheetahs are in especially hot water right now. They’ve come to symbolize extreme wealth, so owning one has become the ultimate status symbol, driving demand for this fragile species up. Way up.

In 2018, The Cheetah Conservation Fund found that 1,367 documented cheetahs went up for sale between 2012 and 2018.

That’s 20% of the entire cheetah population. In the world.

One fifth of all cheetahs were for sale, and most of them on social media.

And that’s just the ones that survived trafficking long enough to get posted.

Yeah.

The ACCO found that most wildlife trading takes place in broad daylight for everyone to see. No cloak and dagger, just public social media posts.

So here’s what we need to do.

  • Don’t like, share, or comment on any images that you think portray an illegal exotic pet or trafficked wild animal. Instead, like, share, or comment on images of animals living free in the wild or being cared for by reputable organizations. AZA-accredited zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and reputable wildlife accounts that promote positive conservation and education get the green light.
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on touristy images of people snuggling with wild or endangered animals. It looks like an amazing bucket list experience, but it is abuse. This one can be hard to spot, since some of the hashtags and organizations putting them on look legit. These “encounter” experiences are often billed as humane or even as a conservation project, so many of us have fallen for this trap. But there are loads of humane wildlife tourism alternatives out there — support them instead!
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on anything that makes you think the animal (or a part of it) is for sale. Sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s not. Instead, report these crimes whenever you see them. If you think you’ve seen wildlife trafficking — including wild animals for sale, ivory or animal parts for sale, or abusive videos — report it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But by reporting what we see and refusing to support abuse, we can do our small parts to reduce the demand on trafficked animals.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Make the world your skatepark

For a real challenge, get outside and away from the concrete jungle 

Skateboarding is an urban sport. 

Right?

I mean, just look at any city’s downtown scene. Even if there’s nothing built specifically for skateboarders, you’ll see them flocking to stairs, handrails, curbs, and concrete art installations. Anything bolted down or built up, really. The DIY concrete skatepark movement is so ingrained in skate culture, that visiting historic parks has become a rite of passage.

But what if skateboarding didn’t have to have such hard lines?

What if you could take your board into the wilderness for a realer experience?

If you thought cracked concrete was crusty, you’re going to have to get real creative, real fast when you try to boardslide a fallen log. Skating in nature demands innovation. 

It’s imperfect, will definitely mess up your bearings, and requires a level of knowing one’s limits that not every city skater can achieve. Creativity unleashed.

And yeah, not everyone is up for the challenge, just as not everyone has access to choice skateparks and skater-friendly downtown areas.

So some skaters who don’t live in big cities, don’t have access to skate-mecca plazas like Kulturforum, or have done Burnside so many times it’s lost its appeal (heresy, I know!) – they’re forced to head out to the sticks. Literally. 

Others just want to feel that connection between their board and the forest it came from.

Inspiration

The idea of skating in the great outdoors isn’t a new concept. Element’s “Nature Calls” is only the latest installment in the years-long trend of raw nature skating. It’s just that this one’s gained a lot of traction.

In just one month, this video’s had over a quarter million views on YouTube alone. Even more impressively, almost nobody in the comment section can think of anything negative to say about it.

In “Nature Calls,” Jaako Ojanen, Madars Apse, Phil Zwijsen, and other Element Europe skaters brought their boards to the Pyrenees to dig up a whole year’s worth of unconventionally – but undeniably – skateable spots.

They found bike trails. Aqueducts. Mountains. Desolate roads. Fallen logs. I-beam bridges. Breakwaters. Even a cactus patch looked like a good enough spot for these guys. 

The creativity in this film is next-level. Not every trick was one for the record books, but how are you going to skate down a mountain or across a frozen lake and not be considered a badass?

Even if you’re not a skater, “Nature Calls” (and the subsequent extended version) is highly jealousy-inducing. Between shreds, the crew took breaks to go canoeing, swimming, throw rocks, and bother a cow. Like any outdoors adventurer, they couldn’t help but stop in awe and take photos that would never do the real thing justice. 

One viewer said they felt like they were watching Planet Earth, but with skateboarding.

Brand purpose

Like practically all skate brands, most of Element’s vids are city-centric. This time, they’ve released one that embraces their.. ahem.. true nature. And if the rumbles from the skate community mean anything, “Nature Calls” has put them firmly on the cool list. 

Element is not a new company, and it’s had its share of critics. Some snobs who insist on a minimum level of gnar (and a minimum pricetag) will turn up their noses at this affordable, tree-huggingly wholesome brand.

But for those of us who are interested in breathing fresh air while we enjoy outdoor sports, Element is a go-to. They know what’s up.

This brand is doing its best to be ethical, environmentally aware, and nature-promoting. Their sustainability commitments, recycled collections, and partnership with National Geographic have earned them some crunchy brownie points.

As much as Element’s trying to pioneer ethical skateboarding, Cariuma beat them to the B Corp punch. 

It’s the very first certified B Corp skate company, and for good reason. Cariuma has made sustainability and negative carbon impact their priority, been transparent about their impact, and are actually participating in reforestation.

This is a big shift in messaging from the major skate brands.

Most brands have no comment about sustainability. There’s very little supply chain transparency and they have nothing to say about environmental impact. 

And yes, skateboarding does have a significant environmental impact

Deforestation is a serious global problem, and this particular industry is a contributor in a way we can’t ignore. Maple logging for skate decks, specifically, needs to be confronted. That, and fast fashion. Nike SB, the hottest skate shoe brand du jour, is working on lessening their environmental impact, so that’s good. But considering the immense demand for constant wardrobe updates, high rate of consumerism, and the broader community’s “edgy” low opinion of eco-conscious brands, this is more than an uphill battle. It’s a vert ramp.

Find your natural skatepark

Skating in nature isn’t exactly an anomaly, but it’s not easy to find groups willing to get off the streets. The most common idea of a skatepark is decidedly free of vegetation.

Most of the info you can find about off-road, mountain, wilderness, outdoor, nature, or forest skating is almost exclusively geared toward longboarders. Sometimes electric skateboarders. Probably scooterers, too, but by then we’re way off track.

If you want to skate outside, just find a spot and do it.

Urban exploration is wonderful, but there’s something extra special about rural skating. If rural means farmland to you, skate it. If it means deep forests, beaches, deserts, or snow ramps, by all means. Skate it.

Bottom line? You don’t have to be a concrete surfer

But there is a catch.

If you do decide to skate off road, be kind. Ride safely on bike and hike trails, and be respectful of the plants, animals, and geology around you. Don’t trespass, don’t damage fragile ecosystems, and if you’re in a park, don’t stray from the trails. And don’t crash into any pedestrians, either. 

And nature skating has the same rules as hiking. Go with a buddy, tell someone where you’ll be and when you expect to be back, keep track of your location, and bring a first aid kit. You’ll also want a first aid kit for your board because your bearings are going to be toast.

But there’s a lot to be said for nature skating. 

The silence, for one.

The challenge of making the most of the unknown.

The immeasurable, incomparable beauty of an untouched landscape.

Also, no cops. 

For more nature skating inspiration, check out these classic films.

Top 10 Awesome Animals that Inspired Me in 2021

As we finally turn the last page of our 2021 calendars, many of us are making our Top 10 lists to commemorate things we loved this year. Top 10 Best Songs, Top 10 Favorite Books, Top 10 Movies, and so on.

Those are all great, but I like animals. There are some pretty cool ones out there.

But I quickly discovered that I couldn’t simply pick 10 favorites. That’s too big of an ask! So instead, I thought about the animals that have ‘wowed’ me recently. Some have fascinating facts or backstories, others are weirdly wonderful, and some are just plain cute.

Have a look at all these animals that are close to my heart for one reason or another. Be sure to let me know which are your favorites, too!

Vicuña

I love the vicuña conservation story. Once hunted almost to extinction, wild vicuñas are now sustainably herded, shorn, and returned to their homes in the Andes mountains. This process is called chaccu and it involves hundreds of community members literally joining hands to create a human chain. The people slowly close the circle and guide the vicuñas to an enclosure so they can humanely harvest wool. Because this low-impact annual event doesn’t require domesticating vicuñas, the animals are simply released to the wild or dedicated nature preserves. Vicuñas’ extremely valuable wool supports the Peruvian economy and traditions, AND has increased the populations of these adorable little camelids. Everyone benefits!

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar waxwings are sleek (but clumsy) colorful (but drab from a distance) quiet (but incredibly annoying) and widely distributed (but often go unnoticed).


Also, they’re shameless drunks.

Vampire Bat

Yes yes, it drinks blood. Very spooky. But check out that nose! All leaf-nosed bats use their extra-sensitive noses to find their prey with astounding accuracy, and vampire bats use specialized heat sensors in theirs to zero in on blood vessels. Wild, right?

I had a close encounter with a (non-vampire) bat earlier this year which rather forced me to learn more about these amazing animals. I’ve always appreciated bats’ roles in the ecosystem and admired their unique skills, so as unsettling as the encounter was, it was a stroke of luck that led me to learning more about these amazing animals.

Walking Stick Insect

Unless you live in Antarctica, you’ve probably seen a stick bug without even realizing it. Despite its god-tier camouflage, I was lucky enough to spot one in the grass a few years ago! They’re very friendly, as far as bugs go, so the kids and I were able to pick it up and play with it for a moment before returning it to a nearby bush.

I haven’t seen one of these cuties lately, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking!

Okapi

Until 1901, okapis were cryptids. They have crazy looking bums, yet keep such a low profile that until then, most people considered them mythological creatures. Clearly, they’re real. You can’t help but wonder which other “impossible” creatures are out there just waiting to be discovered. The “jungle horse” is a great reminder to never stop searching.

Woolly Aphid

Woolly aphids are pests to most people, but I like finding these little cuties in my tomato garden. My kids call them fairies.

Okay, I admit it. I do, too.

Bobcat

Bobcats are firecrackers! They’re small, feisty, eat just about anything, live just about everywhere in the US, plus they’re cute and fluffy. What’s not to love?

I recently worked with The Felidae Conservation Fund on a research project to introduce these (and other!) beautiful cats to more readers. It was an absolute pleasure learning more about bobcats and putting them in perspective. Sadly, I found out that they live almost everywhere… except where I am! I’m holding out hope that I’ll see one from a safe distance someday — their numbers are steadily climbing nationwide and there have been recent sightings in my area!

Pufferfish

The “leave me alone” fish have surprisingly endearing personalities. Pufferfish are rather intelligent (for a fish) and can be trained to do tricks. How amazing is that!?

Poison Dart Frog

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the rainforest. I still am, but it was My Thing when I was about 9. Poison dart frogs are teeny tiny, ultra toxic, almost supernaturally colorful, amazingly varied, and are essentially the symbol of the Amazon Rainforest, so they’ve always been a favorite of mine. Whenever I visit my local zoo, I never miss the poison dart frog exhibit. No matter how many times I’ve seen them, I am always surprised how adorable they are!

Gray Squirrel

Squirrels. I just like ’em.

If you enjoyed this top 10, I encourage you to make one of your own! I’d love to see which animals inspire you and why, so please feel free to tag me in your post. Have fun and happy new year!

Saving the World One Mail-Order Lordship at a Time

Yes, it’s a lot of fun to run around and insist that people call me Lady Sarah, but it’s also a clever way to conserve the countryside.

That’s because I can’t call myself a Lady without actually owning a piece of land in Scotland.

Highland Titles sells souvenir Lordships, Ladyships, and Lairdships of Glencoe, each associated with a small dedicated plot set aside in the Highland Titles Nature Reserve. Mine’s near Kiel Hill.

And the land that came with my title is mine, mine, all mine. 

Nobody may do anything to it or on it without my express permission. And when I die, that property passes to my heirs. That means my 100 square feet of Scottish wilderness will remain untouched indefinitely.

Except by me, if I want. I can visit my parcel of prairie, set up a tent to camp, or hug my trees in the room-sized plot anytime I wish. As part of the nature preserve, it can’t be paved or built up. No fishing, hunting, or chopping down trees, either.

Scotland boasts some of the most amazing and varied landscapes on the planet. From staggeringly steep cliffs to marshy bogs to dense ancient forests, it’s home to a huge variety of plants and animals.

Watch the trail cams to see animals playing in the reserve. Badgers, red squirrels, roe deer, pine martens, golden eagles, and even wildcats have been spotted in the area.

No doubt they appreciate the space to roam.

Honestly, this is a win-win. I get to demand everyone call me by my rightful title and I do my part in keeping the wild wild. 

And you can lower that skeptical eyebrow when it comes to my ladyship.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually have a claim to peerage. I’m not a noblewoman. True, I have papers proving my landownership, but I’m more of a landlady than a land Lady. 

It’s clearly an honorary title as thanks for purchasing a souvenir piece of land. Not legal admission into the House of Lords, so calm down. 

The title is all in good fun and increases tourism in a positive way.

That’s because Highland Titles Lords, Ladies, and Lairds live all around the world. The nature preserve has seen upwards of 6,000 nature-loving tourists a year, many of whom surely wouldn’t have visited if they didn’t have a claim to it.

The preserve is staffed by volunteers so the maximum amount of profits go toward conservation. They make active efforts to set up the preserves, plant trees, promote rewilding, and stoke curiosity in Scotland’s wildlife. They’ve even set up a hedgehog rescue center!

So if you’re looking for a way to support conservation while poking fun at your snooty friends and family, Highland Titles should be on the top of your gift list.

I was given my ladyship as a tongue-in-cheek gift years ago, but the more I think about it, the more I recognize the true value of my Highland Title.

This article is in no way sponsored. I actually do have a mail-order ladyship and think it’s cute and clever. Whatever gets people to pitch in and fund conservation, know what I mean?

Those Ubiquitous Peruvian Alpaca Hats Interweave Culture with Nature in the Most Beautiful Way

You’ve seen them before. They’re super colorful cone-shaped hats with big earflaps, long ties, and are adorned with intricate geometric knitted designs. They’re a favorite among indigenous Peruvians, tourists, and snowboarders alike.

A must-have souvenir for almost every Machu Picchu tourist, chullos are much more than a fashion accessory. This cold-weather garment evokes the majesty, culture, and natural vibrancy of the Andes Mountains.

Andean culture has brought us some amazing things, not least of which is the chullo. These hats are traditionally handspun, handknitted, and worked on narrow gauge needles for firm fabric, maximum warmth, and space for intricate designs. The earflaps provide full coverage from the elements.

Sure, you can purchase solid-colored machine knit hats made out of synthetic fibers. But you’ll be sorely disappointed on all counts. The patterns are culturally significant, the local artisans who make them are skilled in their crafts, and the real alpaca, llama, or vicuña fibers are as luxurious as they are practical. These eye-catching hats are definitely worth wearing in the Andes.

First and foremost, chullos are comfy. Alpacas have super soft wool that is perfect for insulating against the frigid mountain winds. Because of the structure of alpaca fibers, there are lots of teeny tiny natural air pockets that will keep your head warm. And because it’s so insulating, you can use thinner spun yarn than you could with sheep’s wool or other fibers. This makes alpaca chullos perfect for tucking in your pocket.

Alpacas and llamas are domesticated but native to the Andes, so their wool is truly local. Vicuñas, their wild cousins, are still thriving in the mountains. This national animal of Peru produces eye-wateringly expensive ultra-fine luxury fiber. The price tag is largely due to the fact that most of these animals still live in the wild. Sustainable humane vicuña wool harvesting supports both the local community and species conservation efforts. So if you have the budget, vicuña chullos are a great way to support Peru as a whole.

Whichever natural fiber you choose, forget the plain hats and look for a regionally significant style.

The geometric patterns, exuberant colors, and design of each chullo are unique to the region and the makers. This mark of heritage represents thousands of years of cultural significance. In fact, the acts of spinning wool, weaving, knitting, and producing textiles is as essential to the fabric of South American culture as the Andes themselves. Traditionally, the vibrant colors are made from local plants, insects, minerals, etc. and each color has specific associations. Green represents lush forests, yellow for riches, red for warfare, and so on.

Most chullo designs feature repeated geometric motifs, but many modern styles include images. Jaguars, plants, birds, and of course, the animals who generously gave their wool for the hat. (It doesn’t harm them any more than a haircut, by the way.)

It can be very cold and windy in the higher peaks of the Andes, and tightly-knitted alpaca earflap hats are just the ticket to keep you from catching a chill.

This distinctly mountain-friendly style gained popularity from communities living in the Andes. For the longest time, chullos were nothing more than a functional piece of outerwear. What was once a humble stackable hat has become the most instantly recognizable garment of South America. Tourism has kept this traditional style vibrant and expanding.

It wasn’t always considered fashionable in Peru, but the chullo has taken hold as one of the most popular, iconic garments of the region. Customized to the local climate, knitted from the wool of animals who live there, and covered in unique motifs indicative of local history, chullos are quintessentially Peruvian.

If Lisa Frank was tasked with designing a bird, it’d be the ocellated turkey

Most wild turkeys look something like this…

Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

Or this…

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

But then there’s this fella.

National Audubon Society

Meet the ocellated turkey — wannabe peacock and birdwatchers’ darling.

And one of the most flamboyant birds I’ve ever seen.

There are six types of wild turkeys: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Gould’s, and our prismatic friend. Most turkeys can be found in Canada and the USA, but the ocellated version lives exclusively on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their small region includes only a small part of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. 

And yes, if you visit Yucatan ruins like Tikal, you might get a glimpse of these seussical birds. They’re quite comfortable living and nesting near Mayan ruins.

Ocellated Turkeys at Tikal, Guatemala by Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Though I’m pretty confident you could identify an ocellated turkey without a description, this bird stands out in more ways than one. This species is small as far as turkeys go, topping out at 12 pounds for males and 7 pounds for females. They have neon-blue heads decorated with garish hot orange warts, but no dangling ‘beards.’ Both sexes are blindingly colorful with females only marginally duller and greener. As a bonus, these turkeys’ voices are slightly less obnoxious than that of their blander cousins.

Ocellated turkeys spend most of their time walking rather than flying and enjoy a buffet of bugs, seeds, and leaves in their rainforest homes. The ‘ocellated’ part of the name refers to eyespots on their peacock-like tail feathers. Considering the brightness of the rest of this bird, you’d be forgiven for missing that detail.

Tim Proffitt-White / Flickr

These vibrant animals are Near Threatened and declining, thanks to overhunting and habitat reduction. But all is not yet lost — the ocellated turkey fanclub is growing, drawing ecotourists and conservationists to the region.

With continued conservation efforts and increased awareness of these eye-popping birds, more and more tourists can hope to spy an ocellated turkey. For some, ocellated turkeys are on the menu, but it’s my humble opinion that they’re better enjoyed visually. Maintaining their habitats and encouraging sustainable tourism to landmarks like Tikal will help get this glorious bird back on track. 

In the meantime, check out this desperate dance our rainbow friend does for a bunch of females who couldn’t care less. At least his fashion sense is on point.


How to say more with less

Over-writing kills your scene. Here’s how to keep it tight.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When you first bring your reader onto a scene, it’s tempting to give them the full picture. Floor to ceiling, head to toe — you want to show every tiny detail. You’re dying to give your reader a glimpse into your world so they can see it exactly how you see it.

But that’s just it. They only need a glimpse.

If your scene descriptions look like this…

I laid out four of my best bone china plates — remembering to turn the intricate blue iris pattern slightly to the left — in front of four dark oak lattice-back chairs, each with a white upholstered cushion. The six-foot mahogany dining table was finally picture-perfect when I set out my grandmother’s red satin runner with gold tassels on either end.

…I have news for you. That’s way too much!

The reader is lost in the details and can’t actually envision the scene anymore. They’ve been handed so much information, their imagination has stopped. And when the imagination has stopped, so has the story.

But you can still be descriptive. In fact, by saying less about the scene, you paint a much more interesting picture. There’s an easy trick to it, too:

Two visuals, one other sense.

That’s it!

Here’s how it works.

Choose two of the most pertinent (or most interesting) physical objects or visuals in your scene. You can use adjectives to describe them, but not too many. Now, pick another sense: taste, touch, smell, or sound. This rounds out the scene by grounding it in reality.

Here’s the dining table scene using the two visuals, one other sense trick.

I laid out my grandmother’s red table runner between four china plates. The scent of roast turkey filled the air.

This is a much more immersive experience. The reader now knows that it’s almost time for dinner, there will be four people eating, and turkey’s on the menu. It’s probably a fancy meal, too, because when else would you put out an heirloom runner and china plates? Your mind probably filled in side dishes, potential dinner guests, and even the preparation that it took to make the turkey.

It’s all there in the scene, too. I just took it away so you can imagine it yourself.

When you describe a new scene or a character, all you need to do is give the sense of the moment.

Two visuals, one other sense.

Here’s another example to prove that it works in fantasy, too. I’ll even do it backwards so you can see how your imagination gets bogged down with too much detail.

The clang of the knight’s bootfalls echoed in the high-ceilinged stone hall. Moonlight glinted on his sword as he slowly drew it from its sheath.

The two visuals here are the glinting sword and the high-ceilinged hall. We hear the bootfalls clanging, which makes the scene more dynamic. We know it’s late at night, his boots are probably made of metal, and there’s not much else in the hall because of the echoes. He’s drawing his sword, but we don’t know why. The reader has a lot of questions at this point, so they’ll want to read on.

Let’s try this scene with more detail.

At a quarter past midnight, Sir Lancelot entered the great hall where he and the other knights had dined on turkey legs earlier that day. Now, the great hall was empty, echoing, and moonlight streamed in through the arrowslits and pooled on the gray stone floor. He scanned the high-ceilinged room and slowly drew his jewel-encrusted sword from the leather scabbard at his side.

Yes, this scene gives a lot more backstory and some of the imagery is richer. Now you know the knight in question is Lancelot, he ate turkey with some other knights (off bone china plates, perhaps?) and the sword has jewels on it. You can see the hall a little better, too.

This is all great information, but you probably already mentioned it in your story. And if you haven’t, you have the whole rest of your story to flesh out the scene. We still don’t know why he’s drawing his sword, but I guess that’s what the next paragraph is for, isn’t it? We’ll get to it.

One more.

The burglar’s heart pounded in his chest while Mona Lisa’s tight smile peeked out from under his elbow.

Whoa! That’s a ton of information! You know there’s someone stealing the most famous painting in the world and because he can feel his heart pounding, you know he’s very nervous about it. You’re probably envisioning the Louvre, likely late at night. And given Mona Lisa’s smile, you might even get a sense of what the painting itself thinks about being stolen.

I could’ve put all that in the scene, but info dumps release tension. And nobody likes a tensionless heist.

Now let’s hear from you. How would you use the sense of taste to round out a scene? And feel free to use these prompts as the openings to your story! I’d love to see the stories continued in the comments below.

Previously published on Medium.

Short Story: What’s in a Name?

A comedy of errors

Photo by Isaiah Schultz on Unsplash

“So, ah, there’s something you should know before we go through with this,” said Clyde as he knelt in the soggy grass.

“Oh god, anything, Clyde! I love you so much!” Jessica cried, mascara streaking down her cheeks. “I can’t wait to be Mrs. Packer!”

“Yeah see that’s the thing,” he began tentatively. “My name isn’t Clyde Packer.”

Jessica’s bloodshot eyes widened and the grin fixed on her face. Her voice quavered. “What?”

Her mind brimmed with horrible scenarios. Had he truly been lying to her this whole time? Was Clyde on the run? Living under an assumed name? Wait, was he in witness protection? He shouldn’t tell her if he was. She blanched with the sudden terror that maybe she had been calling him by the wrong name this whole time and he never corrected her.

“It’s Clyde Pac-Man.”

“Did you say ‘Pack-m’n’?”

“Nope. Pac-Man. I go by Clyde Packer, but it’s Clyde Pac-Man.”

Jessica stared at Clyde, unblinking.

Clyde shifted awkwardly, still balanced on one knee in the grass. Boisterous birds chirped overhead and his brand new fiance wasn’t saying anything. “Like the game? You know, little yellow guy? Likes to eat dots?” He clapped his thumb against his fingers, imitating the pie-shaped character’s eating habits.

“I know the game,” Jessica breathed. “Well, I see why you go by Packer!” So this meant Clyde wasn’t a fugitive from the law… she didn’t think.

“Yeah. But. My legal name is Pac-Man and, so, yours will be too.” Clyde eyed the diamond ring on Jessica’s finger as though it might explode.

“So I’ll be… Ms. Pac-Man?” Her head felt light.

“Well, Mrs. Pac-Man, technically, but yeah,” Clyde admitted. Jessica plunked down in the grass next to her still-kneeling fiance. He rocked back on his heels and squatted in the grass. He wanted to be ready for a quick escape after dropping his bombshell.

“That’s kind of funny, but it could be worse. I’m sure I’ve heard worse names,” Jessica placated her fiance and rubbed his back. She considered a mutual acquaintance named Ronald McDonald. He managed. She knew someone who said he knew someone named Chris P. Bacon. And what was it that Elon Musk named his baby? Surely being Ms. Pac-Man wouldn’t be so terrible. She kissed his hair and something dawned on her. Jessica stopped and pulled back.

“Wait. Clyde…

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I’m named after one of the ghosts.”

Jessica flattened her lips and tried to stop smiling. “So, which one is that?”

“…It’s the orange one.”

Jessica lost it. Laughter ripped through her and Clyde sat down hard, dropping his head in his hands. He clutched the ring box against his temple.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Okay so why don’t you change your name if it bothers you?” She swallowed her giggles.

“Can’t. Dad changed our last name after he beat the game before I was born. I told you about that, right? That he was the first person to get 3 million-something points?”

“Yeah but you never mentioned anything about naming you after a video game. I didn’t know he was, like, a superfan.”

“He wasn’t. He isn’t. I guess Namco — that’s the game maker — contacted Dad and offered up a contract. A big annual stipend if he changed his name. Sort of like a living breathing advertisement for the game, you know?”

“But ‘Frederick’ isn’t one of the ghosts…”

“No, I know. He negotiated the contract so that he only had to change his last name. But payouts would be doubled if he had any children named after the characters. So I’m Clyde. I’d’ve been Pinky if I was a girl.”

“Can’t you change it now?” Jessica repeated. “You’re an adult.”

“Sure, but if I break the contract, he forfeits the second half of the stipend. Not just future payments, but all the money he made from naming me Clyde Pac-Man. And it’s… not a small sum. Owing that kind of money would ruin him.”

Jessica wasn’t laughing anymore. She considered Frederick and Merideth Packer’s impressive home. She had never known Mr. Packer (Mr. Pac-Man, she reminded herself) or his wife to work for a living, but assumed they were old enough to retire. Jessica had not considered the possibility that they’d retired young. Now that she thought about it, there were quite a few old arcade games in their finished basement. She remembered seeing several editions of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man in the collection, too. There were even some of the newer versions on nicer consoles. She envisioned the plaque on the wall stating that he had achieved the highest possible score in the game back in the 90s. She knew Mr. Packer was the first one to do it and was vaguely impressed by this feat, but, since Jessica was never much of a gamer, she didn’t give it much thought. Clyde’s admission cast a whole new light on the basement.

“And I know it’s kind of sexist,” Clyde winced, “But the contract says you’ll have to take my last name. If you do, we get payments, too.” He looked up hopefully.

Jessica wobbled her head on her shoulders. “Okay, I could just do like you do and say my name is Packer. I’d use the legal version only when I had to. Nobody would know! I mean, all this time I never knew your legal name, so it can’t be that bad.” She considered the potential awkwardness of their upcoming trip to the courthouse. Filling out their marriage certificate with Namco branding would definitely raise eyebrows. She would certainly endure quizzical looks at the DMV when she updated her license with her new married name. She just hoped she would never get carded.

“Fine, but…”

Jessica flinched. What now?

“If we have kids someday…” Clyde tread carefully.

Jessica blushed scarlet. This was a conversation that she wasn’t fully prepared to discuss. One thing at a time, she thought. She and Clyde had only discussed children in the broadest, most hypothetical terms. The day of their engagement was surely not the most appropriate time to discuss having children.

“No, seriously. There are rules. If we have children, a girl has to be named Pinky and a boy has to be Clyde. Or Namco. That’s the unisex option.” Clyde let out a long, slow breath. “This contract… it’s pretty solid. Namco lawyers are no joke.”

Jessica had run out of words.

Clyde swallowed hard. “I just want you to have all the facts upfront. I understand if you can’t — ”

“Afternoon, lovebirds!” chirped a jogger as he dashed past. The couple’s jeans were getting soaked from sitting on the dewy grass in the park. Jessica dropped her eyes to admire the sparkling new ring on her left hand where a halo-set diamond graced a delicate eternity band. The little channel of diamond dots winked up at her. Clyde waved politely at the jogger without looking up.

“Well,” said Jessica, “we will just have to have fruit salad at our wedding reception.”

Also available to read on Medium and Reedsy

Why generalists make the best content writers

You are an expert in your field, or close to it. You know your business inside and out. What makes your business stand out, your edge over the competition, the nitty-gritty specs for your product — you’ve got it all down cold.

Your customers, on the other hand…

And now you need to produce content to get those customers to understand why you’re the best of the best.

Your first instinct is probably to just flat out tell them you’re the best. Direct, but ineffective.

Then you think again and decide, no, let’s show them with all the technical specifications and minutiae differentiating you from your competitors. Way too effective.

Think a third time!

Your customers don’t care about all that. I mean, they do, but they don’t actually know that. They don’t care about the granular details of your business. They want just enough information to push your product ahead of your competitors, and not a speck more.

A good content writer will be able to walk that line. And the truth is that a generalist — or at least a non-specialist in your field — can do it more easily than an expert.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Hire a generalist because…

They won’t give too much information

Last week, I went mattress shopping.

All I know about mattresses is that I have a queen and it needs to be replaced. After that, all I care about is how comfortable it is and whether or not I can afford it.

The salesperson at the mattress store (let’s call him Matt) spoke at length about the chemical composition of the latex topper, the exact force of the springs, the source of the organic bamboo quilt, and the geographical distance between the spring manufacturer and the assembly facility.

Those things are really important… to the mattress company. Not me. I’m just a sleepy person who needs a bed.

Matt clearly knew what he was talking about and I had a lot of respect for his industry expertise, but it was an unhelpful waste of time. You definitely don’t want your site to be an unhelpful waste of time.

If your writer doesn’t even know the nitty-gritty, they can’t get bogged down by it.

They know the right questions to ask

If I’m going to drop a grand on a mattress, I don’t want to be blinded with teeny tiny details. Don’t use excess details to confuse me into parting with my money — tell me what I want to know and nothing more.

Did I ask about spring coil density? Did I somehow imply that I cared whether the topper was organic bamboo and that this would be my deciding factor? Noooope.

I just wanted to know if it was going to be comfortable, stay comfortable, and whether or not I’d wake up with a backache.

Matt was so busy telling me about the gauge of steel used that he forgot to use that information to actually answer that question. I went home and googled what I needed to know and guess what? His direct competitor had my answer. Yikes, right?

It did involve the coils, but I wasn’t asking about steel gauge, I was asking about what makes a mattress good quality. He was so close, but misinterpreted the question I was asking. Matt lost my interest when he went off on a tangent.

A generalist content writer is curious in the same way your customers are.

They also speak to computers

Don’t forget about SEO! Lord knows content writers can’t…

Generalist content writers’ greatest asset is SEO. Instead of deep industry knowledge, they rely on their ability to speak to search engines to make your content pop and rise to the top. They know that with the right phrasing and correct keywords, a solid article can put your product page in front of more eyeballs.

The trick to this?

It’s the last 2 bullet points.

But don’t hire a generalist if…

Your clients are also experts

If you’re a mattress spring salesperson, you don’t want a generalist telling mattress factories that springs are part of mattresses. They know that. These are the people who actually care about spring force. They care about the steel gauge and the diameter of the coils.

If you’re not telling your customers what they want to know, they’re going to bounce.

And if you‘re confident that your customers are as knowledgeable as you are, lean in. Impart your expert wisdom. We’re right back to where we started — answer the right questions and give the correct level of detail.

Accuracy means life or death

Latex toppers are, I guess, part of mattresses. If your chemical company relies on perfect precision or else the whole factory is going to explode, then, um, make sure whoever you’re educating about chemistry doesn’t misinform.

Don’t be vague or else you’ll explode!

Okay, so it’s probably not as dramatic as all that — perhaps you’re writing a user’s manual for some specialized spring-making equipment. For this, you need an expert. Someone who really knows the tiny details and spares none of them.

Sometimes you need perfect accuracy more than you need enjoyable content. So it goes.

So get out there and sell those mattresses!

The tl;dr is this: don’t get fancy.

Know your audience. Speak to them. Ask the right questions and give pertinent answers. Give just enough information to give you an edge and no more.

Sounds easy, but sometimes when you know too much, you forget what people are really asking.

So leave the legwork up to that generalist and go take a nap. You know which mattress will give you the best snooze.

Previously published on Medium