Archive for June, 2008

Falconry in Australia

June 30, 2008

Down-Under Falconry


For information about another species of birds and their role in Tarzan movies, see this.

Baby Roadrunner -RIP

June 27, 2008

Baby Roadrunner

Our sad duty today is to tell you that our [the] baby roadrunner has died.  He [or she] was wounded on the back leg.  We can’t tell whether by a cat or a fence or some other accident.  For a day and a night, he hopped around on his good leg in our enclosed front yard where his Mom and Dad fed him and we supplemented that with water and bits of raw meat.

A local rescue place suggested that we bring him in for examination but here is a fact: One-legged roadrunners are faster than two-legged humans.  Besides, we were afraid that the stress of our chasing him would do more harm than good.  And he seemed to be improving.  He was eating and drinking and, after the first night, he began putting weight on the leg.  The next morning we watched him hunting insects.

But an hour or so later, he was dead.

As we have told you before, a baby bird that gets hurt is far more likely to die than to live.  Infant mortality among birds is enormous and any injury makes it far less likely that a baby will survive.  It is why Greater Roadrunners and many other birds often have two clutches of babies a year.  Survival requires abundance.

We know that we’re not supposed to feel too bad, but he lived in our neighborhood and when he was in trouble chose our front yard.  Moreover, we’re humans; the species which understands the world’s absences, and so we miss him and are sad this day.

Baby roadrunner Grave

Ostriches in Court

June 25, 2008

Not often do judges get the chance to defend ostriches, but it does happen.

Conrad Black was the CEO of an American corporation (Hollinger) which owned many newspapers around the world. Hollinger was controlled by another corporation (Ravelston) in which Black owned the majority of the stock. By this device, Black controlled Hollinger which paid large “management fees” to Ravelston which, in turn, paid Black a really nice salary. Hollinger (I’m skipping the details) paid Black and others $5.5 million dollars so they wouldn’t open a competing newspaper in Mammoth Lakes, California (Population 7,000) This was fraud. Black and his co-defendants pocketed the money without telling the shareholders of either corporation of this sweetheart deal.

A jury convicted them and they appealed.

Today the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the jury’s convictions and — at the same time — sprung to the defense of Ostriches.

Ostrich Instruction

In criminal law there is what is known as an “ostrich” instruction. Suppose Jack asks Jill to mail a package for him and gives Jill a large sum of money in return. Jill suspects, but does not know for sure, that the package contains illegal drugs, but mails it anyway and pockets the money. Jill, in effect, buried her head in the sand and a jury could convict her for an illegal drug shipment. An “ostrich instruction” tells the jury that to suspect she was committing a crime and then avoiding the suspicion [by not opening the box, for instance] equals committing the crime.

Here is what the court wrote about ostriches:

The first [issue on appeal]is whether an “ostrich” instruction should have been given. The reference of course is to the legend that ostriches when frightened bury their head in the sand. It is pure legend and a canard on a very distinguished bird. Zoological Society of San Diego, Birds: Ostrich,  (“When an ostrich senses danger and cannot run away, it flops to the ground and remains still, with its head and neck flat on the ground in front of it. Because the head and neck are lightly colored, they blend in with the color of the soil. From a distance, it just looks like the ostrich has buried its head in the sand, because only the body is visible”). It is too late, however, to correct this injustice.

People Keeping Parrots

June 24, 2008

The famous African Grey Parrot, Alex, died recently.  His fame resulted from the studies of language and cognition that Dr. Irene Pepperberg did with him.  You can listen to some samples of Alex talking or watch Alex at work.

Our point today though is not to talk about Alex.  Rather, we wanted to post an ambiguous quotation from Mark Twain.  Here it is,

She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.

Here is a self-portrait by Freda Kahlo, who clearly was the kind of person who kept parrots, what ever that may say about her.


Naked as a Jaybird

June 20, 2008

Where did that come from? “Naked as a jaybird?” The “jaybird” presumably is a Blue Jay although it could be any of the other jay species but who cares? All jays have feathers. None are naked. None are nude. In fact, only the species which invented the phrase is ever naked. That’s us. And some of us revel in being unclothed. We even have camps for it. Here is an old newspaper ad which, you will note, refers both to “Jaybirds” and “blue J.” (That is a strange looking jay in the drawing.)
Naked as Jaybird
Apparently, the phrase is an Americanism. In England they say, “Naked as a robin.” But robins aren’t naked either. Except when first born, no bird is ever naked. According the O.E.D. “Naked as a robin” was first recorded in Shropshire in 1879. It looks as if no one in America was “naked as a jaybird” until 1943. The earliest recorded “naked” comparison came in 1377. People then were “naked as needles,” which makes more sense. No doubt there were earlier comparisons lost in the dawn of time. Adam or Eve probably coined the first. (“Naked as a fig leaf?”)

Someone wrote an entire book on the subject, apparently full of photos of people without clothes. (We haven’t seen it, but doubt that the photographs are very interesting. We once took a “barefoot” cruise in the Caribbean. Each day there was a session for the passengers to ask the ship’s captain questions. Someone asked him if his cruise line did cruises for nudists. He admitted that it did. “What is like?” asked someone. The captain replied, “Most people look better with their clothes on.”) The book is Naked as a Jaybird by Dian Hanson. In it she (he?) writes,

Modern nudism began in Germany with the Wandervögel, or wandering birds, young men and women who took to the countryside, hiking, singing and shedding their clothes in protest against Europe’s dehumanizing industrialization. The year was 1900.

Maybe. It’s pleasant to think of nudists as wandering birds, although it doesn’t make much sense.

Perhaps real wandering birds, encountering naked humans, become “wondering birds.”

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Bees, Part IV

June 17, 2008

(Editor’s Note: This is our fourth mesmerizing installment in the serial about the missing bees. You can read the first installment here and the second part here and the third installment here, if you are new to the gripping mystery.)

Sherlock Holmes as Jeremy Brett

Chapter Seven

After dinner, Holmes and Watson returned to their rooms in the hotel.  At the doors of their respective rooms Holmes said, rather loudly Watson thought, “Watson, we are tired from our journey.  I believe we should sleep late in the morning and meet in the dining room for lunch.”  As he said this, he silently handed Watson a folded piece of paper and whispered, “Read this as soon as you are in your room.”  With that, Holmes disappeared into his own room.

In his room Watson opened the note and felt the thrill of action upon him. The note said, “Meet me in one hour by the corral.  Bring your revolver.  Insure that you are not seen!  The game is afoot!”

As he waited for the appointed time to meet Holmes, Watson took out his laptop to read about the disappearance of the bees.  He typed “colony collapse disorder” into Google and, feeling lucky, was taken directly to the wikipedia page.

But he found that discouraging.  It was a long article, full of long paragraphs and he knew there was not time to read the whole thing before he had to meet Holmes.  “If only,” he thought, “there was some blog that summed it all up for me that I could read quickly!”  He picked up the house phone and dialed the front desk.  The beautiful, mysterious woman from dinner answered.

“I say, is there a good nature blog I could read?” Watson asked.

“The clear sultry voice answered, “We always read The Fat Finch for our nature questions.  It is written by friends and they know what they are talking about.They also have a marvelous on-line store.”

Watson went to that blog and was astounded to read that he and Holmes were in the process of solving the very mystery he wanted to read about.  He quickly read the entries all the way up to the time when he was reading the entries.  That was when he realized it was time to meet Holmes.

Chapter Eight

Meanwhile, the Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the man named “Bond, James Bond” sat at the campfire.  A whip-poor-will called. Bond said, “What was that?”

Tonto responded, “That was the plaintive call of the Whip-poor-will.  That bird is an ‘accidental.’  They are not found in the Rocky Mountains.  You are much more likely to hear the Common Poorwill here, but only during breeding season.  The only place their ranges overlap is in southern New Mexico and southern Arizona.  The Common Poorwill is the only species of bird known to hibernate.  The calls are quite different.  The Common Poorwill’s is slower and ends on a descending note. If you make it out of here alive, you can read this blog entry and see pictures of both.  They look much alike.”

Bond sipped his martini.  The Lone Ranger had stirred, not shaken it before he had time to stop him but still, it wasn’t bad.  He thought of the woman. . . .

The Lone Ranger interrupted his thoughts.  “When you were at Nonsanto’s ranch, you say the smell of tobacco was strong?”

“Yes,” said Bond.  “I remember that quite clearly.  Cuban, I thought. But I still don’t know what that has to do with the word ‘Round-up.’  We know that it some kind of code-word Nonsanto uses but we don’t know what it means.”

“Out here, a round-up only happens in the Spring and Fall when cattlemen move their stock.  And it is summer now so that makes no sense,” said Tonto.

“Perhaps it has nothing to do with cattle,” suggested the Lone Ranger.

“Someone had scratched the letters “IAPV” on the wall in the dungeon where they kept me,” said Bond.  It might have been 008 before they killed her.  If they did.  We don’t know what happened to her.  Nor do we have a clue what the letters mean.”

The evergreens shuddered, black against the grey of the star-filled night sky.  The down-canyon breeze stirred and sparks from the campfire bristled skyward.  A Great Horned Owl called in the distance.  The planet spun on its axis and midnight approached, the time when, according to Shakespeare, “churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion.”

Contagion indeed.

“Y” Chromosome Day

June 15, 2008

Today is the greeting card industry’s celebration of the “Y” chromosome in human beings. Also known as “Father’s Day,” it is a day, in my family anyway, where I am invited to take my kids out to lunch or dinner. Which got me to thinking about ratites. We’ve written about them before, in our series about bird sex as well as the Cassowary poem.

There are four new Rhea chicks at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Here is a photo of the Dad and some of the chicks, taken by Mehgan Murphy of the National Zoo.
Rhea chicks

Rhea fathers raise Rhea chicks. The Rhea species depends on the father Rheas to do this, otherwise it would not survive: Rhea mothers are given to eating their offspring and it is the fathers who protect them. The dads also build nests, incubate the eggs, and take care of the babies for their first six months on the planet. Perhaps the polygamous males are feeling guilty about all the females they court each mating season. But they don’t need to feel guilty; as soon as the female lays her eggs, she is off after other males.

Native to South America, they are named after the Mother of the Gods, Rhea. Rhea, in Greek mythology, was the daughter of the sky (Uranus) and the earth (Gaia). She married Cronus and was the mother of Demeter, Hades, Metis, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon, and Zeus, in that order. Cronus, you will remember, had a guilty conscience. He had castrated his father Uranus and imprisoned him. (Yes, he was both husband and brother of Rhea but that is OK for gods. They don’t have to worry about chromosomes and inbreeding.) Anyway, Uranus and Gaia tell Cronus that one of his sons is going to do to him what he did to Uranus. But Cronus is resourceful, as Rhea gives birth to each of their children, he swallows them alive. (Perhaps that is where the male Rhea got his guilty conscience and leads him to protect his chicks.) Eventually, Rhea gets tired of going to all the trouble of bearing young, just to have her husband/brother eat them so she arranges to hide young Zeus and gives Cronus a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow rather than a young god. Zeus eventually grows up and the rest, as they say, is history. Cronus is given an emetic and regurgitates all the other children. There is a war, Cronus loses and accounts of his end vary. Most are not happy, although in one Zeus makes him the king of Elysium.

Why Paul Heinrich Gerhard Möhring, the German physician, botanist and zoologist who named Rheas, chose the name is unknown. Möhring wrote a book called Avium Genera, published in 1752. It was one of the earliest attempts to group and classify birds. Traces of his organizing efforts are still visible in modern groupings of birds. Which is remarkable, considering that he knew nothing at all about “Y” chromosomes.

The Hoopoe

June 13, 2008

As a part of its 60th Anniversary as a nation, Israel recently chose a national bird. A committee selected 10 possibilities and a nation-wide popular vote was held. 150,000 votes were cast, including about 25% by school children. The winner, with 35% of the vote, is the Hoopoe. A goldfinch and a warbler were the runners-up. Israeli political leaders got in the act too. President Shimon Peres urged his fellow citizens to vote for the dove. (He probably would have preferred the Bearded Vulture [Peres, in Hebrew] from which he took his name but it no longer is found in Israel.) Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was in favor of the Lesser Kestrel. But politicians have only so much influence: The Hoopoe won the election.

It wasn’t an easy choice. Israel sits beneath one of the world’s major avian migration routes. Estimates are that 540 species pass through and over twice a year, numbering more than 500 million birds. The Hoopoe, though, nests in Israeli; the only requirement for the initial list which was later winnowed by Israeli ornithologists to the ten voted on by the nation.

The Hoopoe, whose binomial name is Upupa epops, is named after its “oop-oop-oop” call. Closely related to kingfishers and bee-eaters, it lives in Africa, Asia, and Europe as well as the Middle East. One of its more interesting — or less, if you are close to its nest — evolutionary adaptations against predators is its particularly foul smelling feces which it is capable of squirting at intruders. Believed to be monogamous, the Hoopoe nests in pre-existing holes in trees, cliffs, and buildings.

For a fanciful story on the election read this New Republic story.

My People

June 11, 2008

Golden Eagle in Flight

My people are a multitude of one.
Many lives are within them.
Many lives they have lived as various Beings.
They could have been a bear, a lion, an eagle or even
A rock, a river or a tree.
Who knows?
All of these Beings are within them.
They can use them any time they want.
On some days it is good to be a tree
Looking out in all directions at once.
On some days it is better to be a rock
Saying nothing and blind to everything.
On some days the only thing to do is
To fight fiercely like a lion.
Then, too, there are reasons for being an eagle.
When life becomes too hard here
My people can fly away and see
How small the earth really is.
Then they can laugh and come back home again.

— Nancy Wood, Many Winters


The painting is by Robert Bateman. The poem comes from our friend at Wild Resiliency and is returned now with many thanks.

The Shores of the Great Silence

June 8, 2008

It is a busy morning here. A robin continued its clear singing long past first light, the adult grackles have demanding little mouths to feed out there on the lawn, and the hummingbirds are warming up from their sleep. It is too easy to allow such affairs to become part of the background music — and noise — of our lives. Attention must be paid to these matters.

Which may be why we are behind here. We’re late with week’s installment of our Sherlock Holmes bee mystery and with the second part of our exploration of bird photography. Worse, we’re leaving town for two days for an uncomputerized, undisclosed location to rest the “beehives” which Antonio Machado mentions in this little poem. We’ll be back Wednesday.

Is my soul asleep?

Is my soul asleep?
Have those beehives that work
in the night stopped? And the water-
wheel of thought, is it
going around now, cups
empty, carrying only shadows?

No, my soul is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
It neither sleeps nor dreams, but watches,
its eyes wide open
far-off things, and listens
at the shores of the great silence.

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