The Quack
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Illustration by Daniel de Latour
World + People, Nature

The Quack

Nature’s Miracle Cures
Szymon Drobniak
Reading
time 11 minutes

Not only monkeys and mammals are capable of curing and preventing the diseases that afflict them, but also birds and even insects. Foolish people prevent them from doing so, but wise people observe them.

I tread through the forest with high, heron-like steps. I try to brush as gently as possible against the wet hazel catkins and dripping branches. The forest smells of water and moss. I’m holding a map with mysterious little crosses marked on it—I feel as if I were playing some kind of outdoor game. Each cross is a miniature world of one bird couple, a rectangular box made of pinewood hiding a nest woven of grass, moss and feathers, always as unique and one-of-a-kind as the female that builds it. This is the setting for a mini-epic that quietly unfolds over the course of about one month—from the initial weaving of the delicate structure and the appearance of the impossibly small and fragile eggs to the feathered fledglings leaving their wooden home in mid-June.

The cool Swedish month of May has just begun—so most of the birdhouses will be empty, and I won’t find parents perched on the edges of their little nests. At this stage of the season, I could be basking in the sun on the porch of my Swedish home and eating a sweet semla from a nearby patisserie, waiting for the real action: the hatching of baby birds and the ensuing flurry of field research. But—somewhat uncharacteristically—I venture into the oak forests in the month of May to look inside the birds’ freshly set-up households. I’m on the trail of tit witches, shamanesses and crazy herbalists well versed in remedies for diseases and infections plaguing their feathery micro-worlds.

I catch a whiff of the fragrance from afar. It exudes lazily

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What Could Doctor Dolittle Learn from His Animals?
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A Kamchatka Brown Bear near Dvuhyurtochnoe. Photo by Robert F. Tobler/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Nature, World + People

What Could Doctor Dolittle Learn from His Animals?

Agnieszka Fiedorowicz

They never go to the doctor, but they still know how to cope with diarrhoea, fight parasite infections, and even induce labour. Many animals exhibit a kind of behaviour called zoopharmacognosy – they know how to self-medicate, for instance by eating fruit, clay, or taking ant baths.

Chausiku, a female chimpanzee, was clearly sick. She left her son, Chopin, under the care of another female and wandered away from the troop. She began to pull off the shoots of a certain plant and chew on them, sucking out the juice. Michael Huffman, a scientist who had just started working in the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, was astounded by Chausiku’s behaviour: chimps had never been seen to eat that plant before. He asked another member of his team (a man named Mohamedi Seifu Kalunde from the nearby Tongwe people) about the plant, called Vernonia amygdalina. He was told that the bitter-tasting plant was regarded by the Tongwe as a powerful medicine, used to treat stomach ailments and parasite infections. “But could a chimp actually know about its medicinal properties?” the scientist wondered. 24 hours later, he was certain: Chausiku knew what she was doing, and it worked. Her condition improved. She regained her appetite and resumed care of her infant.

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