A great gray owl on the midnight prowl.
Sophie Blackall’s new book is about giving moody pet cats something worth getting excited about.

AIR MAIL Pilot suspects you have been told at some point in your life—maybe by a parent, maybe by a teacher or librarian, maybe even by a friend—that you are too old for picture books. Nonsense!

Books with few illustrations, or even none, have their place; but no one is ever too old for picture books. AIR MAIL Pilot, for instance, is old enough to remember when TVs came with knobs and dials, like Fisher–Price play sets, and yet AIR MAIL Pilot is still mad for picture books.

Sophie Blackall, an Australian who now lives in Brooklyn, is one of our favorite author-illustrators. She has already won two Caldecott Medals—the field’s highest honor. And her 2020 book, If You Come to Earth, is a flat-out masterpiece. It’s also funny, so don’t let the word “masterpiece” scare you off. Her latest is called Negative Cat. It’s also funny, and based on a surprising true story.

The book begins: “On day 427 of asking for a cat… my parents finally gave in.” The narrator, a boy who looks to be in second or third grade, adopts an orange tabby from the local shelter and names him Max. Unfortunately, Max doesn’t like to play. He doesn’t purr. Mostly, when he’s not just staring at a wall, he poops on the floor, coughs up hairballs, and eats plants. “He’s kind of negative, your cat,” the boy’s older sister complains.

She’s being polite. Max is very negative. The family is fed up and on the verge of returning him to the shelter. But one evening, the boy, who struggles with reading, practices reading out loud to Max. And Max loves it! He curls up with the boy to listen—negative cat is now positive cat!

Good vibes only as the boy reads to his pet cat Max.

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Blackall explains that her family once had its own negative cat, and that she had tried to write a story about it. But she was stumped for an ending until she heard about a program at an animal shelter in Pennsylvania for kids to come in and read to cats.

“Not only were the cats nonjudgmental listeners,” Blackall writes, “they were calmer and more sociable in the presence of readers. Children would read their books aloud, and before long a cat would sidle up, lean against them, and purr. Sometimes a deep bond was formed.”

The real-life shelter is the Animal Rescue League of Berks County. Its program, called Book Buddies, is open to kids in grades one through eight; since 2003, several hundred have participated. The shelter didn’t invent Book Buddies, but helped pioneer and popularize it.

There are two aims: encouraging young readers to practice and providing companionship for lonely cats. According to the shelter, the “cats are soothed by the rhythmic sound of the children reading stories.” It’s a good deal for the kids, too, because the cats don’t care if a word is mispronounced or complain that a book you like is boring or babyish.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals endorses the Book Buddies program, which has spread to shelters all over the country. Maybe your city’s shelter has one, or maybe you could ask to start one! Maybe the local cats will love Negative Cat as much as we did. —Bruce Handy

Negative Cat, by Sophie Blackall, is out now from Nancy Paulsen books

Musk ducks quack the day away in Australia.

Recently rediscovered recordings of a foul-mouthed duck have revealed that, much like parrots, some ducks are capable of imitating human speech.

“You bloody fool. You bloody fool. You bloody fooooool,” a musk duck named Ripper was recorded muttering in 1987 during mating rituals in the Tidbinbilla nature reserve in Australia. Though Ripper has long since left us, the recordings of his sailor-swearing habits amazed Carel ten Cate, a professor of animal behavior at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and inspired him to track down the man who recorded the vulgar duck more than three-decades ago.

“I thought: is this a hoax? I couldn’t believe it,” ten Cate told the Web site The Scientist. “I wanted to convince myself that it was a genuine imitation. I was really flabbergasted.”

Ten Cate tracked down Peter Fullagar of C.S.I.R.O., the Australian government’s agency for scientific research. As part of the research team who helped make those 1987 recordings, he assured skeptics that the recordings—and Ripper’s potty mouth—were real.

“It would be—it is—so unexpected from a species from this group, which is considered quite primitive,” ten Cate said. “Vocal learning is considered quite an advanced trait… I couldn’t believe it.”

When musk ducks aren’t impersonating humans, they are busy defending their territory.

The “bloody fool” recording is part of a group of tapes made by a team of researchers, that capture imitations uttered by Ripper and a few of his fellow musk ducks. In addition to the expletive—apparently a favorite phrase of Ripper’s caretakers at the reserve—the waterfowls can be heard mimicking the sounds of human-like mumbles and even the sounds of car doors slamming.

During his research, ten Cate found two other accounts of musk ducks copying noises around the reserve. “They sounded like a snorting pony, a coughing caretaker, and a squeaky door.”

Verifiable records of musk ducks repeating phrases and sounds are few and far between, ten Cate said, because the birds are notoriously aggressive and rarely kept in captivity. Additional tapes made in 2000 of another musk duck imitating sounds at the nature reserve—like door-slamming noises and calls reminiscent of the Pacific black duck—were destroyed by a fire in 2003.

“It was a bit of a chance event, I think, that this occurred,” ten Cate said of the recordings. It turns out Ripper and his mouthy caretaker had an unusually strong bond, which probably helped make the mimicry possible.

While it’s rare, Ripper is not the only animal to unexpectedly talk like a human. Ten Cate told The Scientist about a seal and an elephant who reportedly learned to imitate their handlers. However, Ripper the foul-mouthed fowl may be the only recorded duck that needs to wash his beak with a bar of soap. —Alex Oliveira

Cows, whose waste is very harmful to the environment, have impressed the world in their ability to be potty trained.

The climate crisis is such a pressing matter that everyone needs to do their part—even cows.

In a bid to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, researchers at the University of Auckland successfully potty trained a herd of cattle in Germany. Joining forces with scientists at a German research laboratory, the researchers managed to train a herd of cows to relieve themselves in a dedicated “MooLoo.” This bovine bathroom allowed researchers to collect, treat, and neutralize the animals’ urine, reducing the pollutants in the cows’ waste.

“The common perception is that cows are placid, lovable, but perhaps not as bright as other animals,” Professor Lindsay Matthews, an animal behavior expert and lead author of the study, told the Washington Post. “The cute thing here is that the animals are causing a problem, because of [intensive] farming practices. And here, we can have them as part of the solution, by using their underestimated intellect.”

It took just 15 days of training sessions for 11 out of 16 calves to master using the MooLoo, a potty training rate comparable to that of three- to four-year-old humans. Similar to training dogs, the calves were given sweet treats when they urinated in the correct spot and sprayed with cold water when they relieved themselves outside of the MooLoo.

A cow exits the MooLoo.

“The fastest cows who learnt the toileting procedure learnt as fast as the fastest children do, so you know, they’re smart,” Professor Matthews said to The Times of London.

There are an estimated 1.4 billion cows on Earth and, due to their frequent urination and gassiness, they collectively produce 55 to 110 gallons of methane each day. The result is not just stinky, but also bad for the planet. The methane seeps into the Earth’s atmosphere, while the nitrogenous components in cow waste is absorbed into streams and rivers, making the water toxic for both humans and wildlife.

“Nitrous oxide is a very potent greenhouse gas, with 296 times as much global warming potential as CO2,” Andrew Knight, a veterinary professor of animal welfare at the University of Winchester, told the Washington Post. Livestock produce “more greenhouse gases than all the cars, trucks, and planes in the world, combined.”

Toilet-training cattle is an impressive step in the right direction. But it will take a lot more than MooLoos to save the planet. Like, maybe, skipping the hamburger next time you go out to eat. —Bridget Arsenault