The “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”, founded in his bedroom by eight-year old Theodore Roosevelt, got off to a shaky start:
While other children might have been content with a small collection of seashells or some neatly pressed flowers, Roosevelt’s collection included some truly grotesque finds. When he acquired a live snapping turtle---an aggressive pond-dweller covered in algae and decorated with a gruesome frill of leeches---the entire household rebelled.
Jostled by the swarms of fashionable shoppers, the boy continued along Broadway, glancing through the storefront windows, until he passed a familiar grocery, where something caught his eye. Amid the usual cartons of fruits and vegetables was an object strangely out of place, splayed out on a slab of wood. It was the dull mass of a seal, dead less than a day. Placed on display to attract paying customers, its corpulent body drew the child’s attention.
Sliding his hand along the seal’s glossy-smooth pelt and peering deeply into its clouding eyes, he was overwhelmed with interest. Its eyes were so big, and they were fringed with delicate eyelashes just like his own. Curious onlookers stood back, only a brave few leaning in for a closer look, but the little boy remained transfixed. It was probably a harbor seal, still fairly common in New York Harbor. So transfixed was the boy by this exotic creature that he raced home for a notebook and ruler, returning moments later to measure the carcass and jot down a few notes on its color and appearance. The eight-year-old boy then wrote a detailed natural history of seals based entirely on that one dead animal.
How big a dinosaur? Really big. Titanic, in fact. As in Titanosaur. Its hind legs are 17 feet long and weigh over 700 pounds, each. It pelvis is 9 feet long, 9 feet wide. It’s so big, according to the New York Times, it almost didn’t make it into its new home at the American Museum of Natural History. As it is, it doesn’t fit in the space allotted to it. Its head sticks out the door. Which makes for a nice effect.
By Jan. 2, the titanosaur was ready to go, but without a head. With no skull, fossil paleontologists had initially estimated that the head was about four and a half feet long, Mr. May said, but subsequent study led to a last-minute revision, and the skull lost more than a quarter of its length.
Then there was another glitch. The truck carrying the metal base down from Canada was stopped at the border over a paperwork issue, pushing construction back by a day.
Last week, museum workers steered the huge components, like the femur, on wooden dollies, out from a garage and through the museum’s corridors. The pieces on parade were met with expressions of bewilderment and amazement in a variety of languages, though the lingua franca was the quick deployment of cellphones for photos and videos.
Then came an urgent call from the garage. The pelvis would not fit through the doors…
If coyotes and deer are surviving and thriving in the city, you’ve got to expect that raccoons are there and making a go of it too. After all, they’re wilier than coyotes and more dexterous and adaptable than deer and they like being around people. Not because they like us. They like our garbage. All that food we throw away makes any place where there are humans an all-night diner for raccoons. All night, please note. Raccoons are mainly nocturnal. See one out and about in the daylight, steer clear and call wildlife control. Odds are it’s rabid. One of the things about raccoons that makes them not as warm and cuddlesome as they appear and are often made out to be in movies, stories, songs, and cartoons---they’re a “rabies-vectors species”. They’re also mean and ornery and have chips on their shoulders. It’s having hands that does that. Makes them feel superior to other animals. The other thing they like about being around people is that people build shelters for them. We call those shelters houses or garden sheds or garages, et cetera. The raccoons call them home. And they long ago figured out that the foodstuff that’s easy pickings in the garbage cans outside is available with not much more effort inside.
Raccoons are often thought of as forest-dwelling creatures, but they can reach a very high density in cities, said Samuel I. Zeveloff, a professor of zoology at Weber State University in Utah and the author of “Raccoons, A Natural History.”
“They’re truly incredible in their adaptability,” Professor Zeveloff said. Raccoons are omnivorous and opportunistic, easily switching from eating grubs or bird eggs to devouring human and pet food, and from living in tree hollows to inhabiting attics and chimneys. This flexibility, combined with a relative lack of predators, can lead to rapid population growth.
But what experts call raccoons’ “synanthropic trend” — their capacity to thrive among humans — can also feel invasive. Female raccoons looking for a den to deliver their kits, as the offspring are called, can squeeze through vents and chimneys, tear through screens and lift up shingles with their dexterous forepaws.
So you really don’t want them in the neighborhood.
Folks in Brooklyn have learned that. Raccoons are moving in. And these aren’t hipster raccoons. They’re not there to hang out at coffee shops and talk about the novels they’re planning to write.
A truck pulled up at a small house with a brick porch and a garden on a recent afternoon, and a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt climbed out. A woman led him to the backyard. When they emerged a few minutes later, he was carrying a wire-mesh cage.
The woman handed the man a check, and he put the cage into his truck. As he drove away, he murmured comforting words in the direction of his cargo. On this day it was a male raccoon, lured into a trap with a handful of cat kibble.
Where, exactly, was the man taking the animal? “I’m not going to reveal that,” he said. “No one is going to reveal that.”
The episode did not happen in the countryside or the suburbs, but in the middle of Brooklyn, in South Park Slope.
The woman, Wendy Hooker, a retired designer of window displays, had first called the trapper in August after seeing a dozen raccoons “wilding” in her yard, as she put it. This one, caught in December, was among the last of the bunch.
“They were trashing my grapevine, beating my cat,” Ms. Hooker said. “It was like a frat party. They were insane.”
For a few years, William and Malya Levin could hear the loud movements of a raccoon above their Park Slope apartment. “It sounded like a large dog,” Mr. Levin said. Then they endured the stench of what they believed was a kit that had fallen into a cavity in a wall and died. Later, the Levins knocked a hole in their kitchen wall to extract another kit. (They called the exterminator Nice Jewish Boys Who Kill Bugs, which removed the raccoon and said it had been taken to a rehabilitator outside the city.)
Raccoons have mauled a chicken being raised in a Crown Heights backyard and frequently fight with feral cats. When threatened, they growl, hiss and screech.
In Sunset Park, when residents of a walk-up discovered a raccoon family living in an unused chimney, the mother fled down a fire escape, screeching, and then two of her kits hurled themselves off the roof. The kits survived, but “it was a traumatic night,” one resident, Michael Fleshman, said.
There’s another problem:
In Carroll Gardens last year, at least two raccoon families moved onto one block. Antonia Martinelli, who chronicled the invasion on her blog The Momtropolis, noted the animals’ unnerving habit of staring in people’s windows from fire escapes. But it was “the sheer amount of waste, mounds and mounds of it,” that Ms. Martinelli said drove her neighbors to contact Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon. Raccoon feces can carry roundworm.
And once they’ve moved in, they’re hard to get rid of. Trap them---and it’s not recommended you do that yourself. Law sense you can’t, in fact. You’re supposed to hire a licensed trapper---and what do you with them? Laws says they’re to be euthanized “in a humane fashion”, a good idea if they’re showing signs of being rabid---outside in the daytime, staggering about, settling in one spot and not budging when challenged---or acting out dangerously’
But many trappers, as well as homeowners who do the job themselves, say they transport raccoons to parks or wilderness areas and set them free instead, because they don’t have the heart to do what is legally required.
Taking them to a park or out into the woods makes sense. They’re woodland creatures, after all, right?
The problem, experts say, is that from there, the animals tend to wander into the nearest neighborhood. People see wooded areas as the animals’ natural habitat, where they belong. But these are city raccoons that tend to make a U-turn for civilization when dropped off in nature, said Stanley D. Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist at Ohio State University who has studied urban raccoons for two decades. “When you take them and drop them off in a natural environment, they’re going to look for buildings,” he said. “It’s what they’re used to.”
And so, it appears, the spread of raccoons is being aided by the very people employed to combat it.
The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge lies on the city’s southeast edge. Along with Floyd Bennett Field and the Marine Park Golf Course across the bay, it serves as perhaps the biggest raccoon dumping ground in the city.
“We don’t kill them,” said an exterminator from Queens who said he could not provide his name without his employer’s authorization. “We take it to the refuge.”
There is evidence of the consequences in Broad Channel, a Queens neighborhood of wooden homes on stilts, near the refuge. “The neighborhood has been invaded like crazy,” said Peter Perugini, a trapper with Above All Pest Management in Nassau County.
Mr. Perugini said he had removed raccoons from four Broad Channel homes last year and euthanized them. He described “lots of property damage.” One family, he said, had been forced to rip off their roof and pull out the insulation because it was caked in feces.
Even when they stay put, they cause trouble.
In the refuge, shore-nesting birds and diamondback terrapin turtles have suffered as a result of the raccoons’ arrival, said Russell L. Burke, a Hofstra University biology professor and terrapin expert.
Just three decades ago, there were no raccoons in the area, he said. He added that now, “the terrapin population is crashing.” Raccoons ate 95 percent of the terrapin eggs at the refuge in 2015, he said.
So, what’s to be done? This article by Annie Correal I’ve been mining at the New York Times, Raccoons Invade Brooklyn, has some examples. It’s a good long read as in good and long but more as in good with lots of anecdotes and information and sketches of city life. One on the many fun things I learned: there’s an exterminator business in the City called Nice Jewish Boys Who Kill Bugs.
The late Lonesome George, the last Pinta Tortoise. Photo by Mike Weston via Wikipedia.
Possibly only temporarily extinct:
The dodo is dead. The passenger pigeon has passed on. But Lonesome George, the iconic Galápagos tortoise whose death marked the end of his species, is in post-mortem luck.
A scientific expedition has discovered some of his close blood relations alive and well. With careful breeding, biologists now hope to revive George’s species and reintroduce the tortoises to the island on which they evolved.
It would be a signal achievement in a place that gave rise to our understanding of evolution and speciation.
Originally there were at least eight species of Galápagos tortoise, scientists now believe. (One was discovered only this year.) At least three species are now extinct, including tortoises on Pinta Island. The last one, George, was discovered wandering alone in 1972 and taken into loving custody. His death, in 2012 at more than 100 years old, was a powerful reminder of the havoc visited by humans on delicate ecosystems worldwide over the last two centuries.
Tortoise numbers plummeted from more than 250,000 in the 16th century to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s. In the 19th century, whalers, pirates and other seafarers plucked the animals from their native islands for use as ballast and food on long journeys. Tortoises can live in a ship’s hold for more than a year without food or water, making them the perfect takeaway meals.
There are two types of Galápagos tortoises: saddlebacked and domed. The sailors much preferred the smaller saddlebacks, which were easier to lug around and said to taste better. They were also easier to find: Domed tortoises live at higher elevations and can weigh 300 pounds. Saddlebacks evolved at lower elevations and feed on drier vegetation.
Saddlebacked tortoises disappeared from Santa Fe Island and Floreana Island, a favorite hangout for sailors posting letters for other ships to carry home. With George’s death, the Pintas were gone, too.
But now the story of extinct Galápagos tortoises has taken a strange, and hopeful, twist.
More than a century ago, it turns out, sailors dumped saddlebacked tortoises they did not need into Banks Bay, near Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. Luckily, tortoises can extend their necks above water and float on their backs. Many of them made it to shore, lumbered across the lava fields and interbred with Isabela’s native domed tortoises.
All you regular readers who kindly and patiently indulge my fancying myself a bird blogger from time to time know how dependent I am on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s terrific online field guide All About Birds. Won’t surprise you then that this story and the accompanying slide show at the New York Times T Magazine thrilled me no end and that now I’m determined that on one of my slogs up to Syracuse in the spring I’m going to make a side trip to Ithaca to see for myself the Lab’s new Wall of Birds:
Last night, Jane Kim revealed a 2,800-square-foot painted mural depicting 375 million years of avian evolution for the 100th anniversary of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. It’s quite a departure from the average scientific-illustration commission. “If it were a 8.5-by-11 illustration in a magazine, it would have turned into something very different than when you have a 70-by-40-foot wall and you have the opportunity to show things to scale,” she says. That’s right: 270 species (including representatives from each of the 243 modern bird families, plus 27 dinosaurs and pre-prehistoric beasts) are all depicted at actual size, spanning from the 30-foot Yutyrannus and a nine-foot ostrich to the broadbill and manakin that are mere inches long. “For me, the size is what is really impactful, having a gigantic world map, and being able to put all these birds that you don’t get to see together, life-sized, next to each other — it’s really remarkable,” she says.
“I love murals because they really are the most three-dimensional two-dimensional medium, because they’re on architecture,” Kim says. “Here, you’re passing important markers in avian ancestry.” Mapped out on the world’s plane, with each bird nested in its geographic habitat, the mural is “supposed to be a very precise depiction of each bird, and used as an educational tool, so I had to depict things really accurately,” Kim says.
In the two and a half years the mural has taken to complete — though it was originally conceived in 2011, during Kim’s internship at Cornell’s Ornithology lab as part of the graduation requirements for her scientific illustration certificate program at Cal State Monterey Bay — Kim quickly learned the limits of any artistic license she may have wanted to take. “Ornithologists are not an easy audience — they’re incredibly observant and love their subject, and can identify when something is wrong with the painting, and pinpoint on the inaccuracies,” she says. “Each one of these birds was scrutinized.”
I hope you appreciate this. Pulled off to the side of a very busy road and jumped out of the car to pluck these two leaves from trees lining the sidewalk. Did it for research for a post I’m working on. One of my “Let’s pretend I’m a nature writer” posts.
Those weren’t the last leaves on those trees, by any means. Most deciduous trees around here are bare but there are still more than a few that are not only holding onto their leaves, they’re still green or partly green. Mainly maples, but along that stretch of road there were some ashes, aspens, and birches, as well.
It wasn’t so much the case that I needed to identify the leaves in the sense of learning what the were for the first time. I recognized them as soon as I got up close. But I needed to see them up close to know what trees haven’t yet dropped all their leaves so I would have an idea of what trees might have still been in leaf in the foothills of the Catskills when I drove through them on my way to Syracuse a few weeks ago. Those few weeks ago, a hundred miles west by northwest from here, the fall foliage had peaked and what little color was left was pale yellow. Like the yellow of this pair. The larger leaf on the left is from a black maple. The other’s from a sugar maple.
I didn’t need to take them home or get out the guide books when I did. But I wanted to be sure about the black maple. And I wanted to take this picture to show off the fact I have guide books. They’re a big help in pretending to be a nature writer.
Reason I chose to attend this session is that it’s going to be moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson and he’s going to interview Pepper the Social Robot. But a couple of things about the rhino program have me almost wishing they’d leave Tyson and Pepper waiting in the wings while we’re told more about those things.
I would like to hear more about those organized wildlife crime networks.
Who’s in them? How are they organized? Exactly what to they do?
Something else I would like to hear more about.
“Ninety percent of poached rhino horns end up in Vietnam.”
Mammals are not the only things that the park must seek to curate. Out past where the sedges and bunchgrass near Abbotts Lagoon give way to rolling dunes, engangered plants have been struggling to survive an onslaught of invasive European beachgrass. Familiar to residents and seashore visitors, the European grass has been making its glacial advance since it was first planted in the late 1800s, and crowding out everything in its path. This includes the Tidestrom’s lupine, a plant that is delicate and low to the ground, with small purple flowers and soft, silvery leaves that feel like velvet.
From January to July 2011, the park bulldozed over a hundred acres of beachgrass-covered dunes, as part of a large-scale restoration experiment. All of the vegetation was churned deep under the sand, and the rhizomes, the stubborn root-like tendrils of the grass that can extend more than nine feet below the surface, were either destroyed by the excavators or pulled out. Without the grass’s tenacious grasp, the dunes dissipate and blow flat, and the team of biologists then waited to see what native plants, if any, decided to take up residence there. But the process must be “natural,” and scientists won’t place the plants themselves. When I visited the site in 2012, small fields of the endangered Tidestrom’s lupine had taken root and were blooming.
In fact, the majority of Point Reyes’s grasses are not native, but were brought from the Mediterranean, both on purpose and accidentally, smuggled in the digestive systems of livestock. When the fallow deer grazed the hillsides, they were Mediterranean deer, eating Mediterranean grass. Many of America’s most iconic plants and animals are not native. The ubiquitous tumbleweed of the American Southwest is a monumentally invasive species from Russia, a stowaway in nineteenth-century grain shipments. The apple tree, of course, is also not native to the Americas, even though nothing is more American than apple pie. In every sense we are a country of immigrants.
Hunting the Creatures from the Green Hills of Africa: Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer, left), an engineer with the British Army, and American big game hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) pause while tracking a pair of man-eating lions to admire the beauty that conceals the horror of colonial Africa in the "based on a true story" monster movie disguised as a period piece, The Ghost and the Darkness.
Family movie night at the Mannion ranch has never been a strictly educational event. We don't watch movies as homework. Sometimes we'll watch a movie because it's related to something one or the other Mannion guys is studying in school. Sometimes because it's connected to a discussion of history or current events we had at dinner. But the point is to have a fun and relaxing time. We try to pick movies we know are good but that doesn't mean they have to be high art. We'll watch schlock, fluff, camp, schmaltz, doesn't matter. As long as it's competently and intelligently made. Tonight's feature, for example, The Ghost and the Darkness, isn't high art. It's not schlock, fluff, camp, or schmaltz, either, although it has moments of all four. It's a pretty good monster movie disguised as a period piece.
There are two monsters in The Ghost and the Darkness. A pair of man-eating lions that terrorize the work camp of British railroad company building a bridge across the Tsavo River in what is now Kenya in 1898. It's based on a true story and director Stephen Hopkins shot it as if it's a realistic historical drama, taking advantage of the African scenery---I don't think Out of Africa features as much pretty nature photography---both to distract us from implausibilities in the plot with the verisimilitude of breathtaking landscapes and to emphasize the horror by showing it as inseparable from the beauty of the place. Hopkins' cinematographer was multiple Oscar winner and nominee Vilmos Zsigmond who's worked with Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye), Steven Spielberg (Sugarland Express, Close Encounters), and, recently, Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra's Dream, and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). He also did the cinematography for Deer Hunter. But more tellingly, in relation to what he does with the camera in The Ghost and the Darkness, he shot Blow Out for Brian de Palma and Deliverance for John Boorman. Deliverance is still a master class on how to make the beauty of a place intrinsic to its violence and horror.
What this amounts to is The Ghost and the Darkness looks like a better movie than it is.
I don't mean it's all shiny on the outside and empty on the inside. I mean it's more enjoyable if you don't let yourself think too far ahead of where the camera's going or back on where it's been and just let your eyes carry you along. Even the performances are better seen than heard.
Except that they all have wonderful voices, Michael Douglas, John Kani, and Tom Wilkinson might as well be in a silent movie for all they say that needs to be listened to for us to understand their characters.
All three play men who are more than eccentrics. They're in different ways and to different degrees madmen.
Douglas' great white hunter is crazy like a fox crazy but still crazy.
Kani’s Samuel, the chief foreman on the construction site, is mad in a resigned, amused, giving into others’ madness way. His attitude is, the world is crazy, the white men I work for are the craziest part of it, so I might as well laugh as cry.
Wilkinson’s demanding, emotionally sadistic, and self-infatuated head of the railway is a cheerfully malevolent megalomaniac who just can't help admiring himself for what a dandy bully he is.
They tell us everything there is to know about these men through some high caliber mugging and with their great big individually styled smiles.
They are three of the smiling-est madmen you’ll ever see in the movies.
As the movie's hero, British Army officer John Henry Patterson, Val Kilmer doesn't do much smiling. He's not given much to smile about. He's not given much to do except hold the camera and be watched as he looks determined and stoic and somehow conveys that he's someone who can engineer and build bridges and hunt big game with skill and courage and come home and write a bestselling book about his adventures, all of which the real Patterson actually did.
Now here’s the thing.
The Ghost and the Darkness is what we Mannions want a family movie night feature to be, intelligently and competently made offering and a fun and relaxing night of movie-watching. It’s suspenseful, thrilling in spots, and even occasionally truly frightening. But for us it was something else that I said we aren’t actively seeking when we decide on a movie.
Like I said, The Ghost and the Darkness is based on a true story and while that means what it means about any movie making that claim, that the filmmakers are reserving the right to make things up as they see necessary to tell a rattling good yarn with pictures, it happens that the true story was written by Patterson himself and without any embellishment it is a rattling good yarn.
Hopkins and screenwriter William Goldman have made some things up. Douglas’s character, for instance. But, as Oliver Mannion discovered in doing a bit of research after the credits rolled, some of the more incredible moments in the film are toned down from even more incredible things that really happened.
Patterson himself was an incredible character. He was every bit the adventurer and hyper-competent overachiever he’s depicted as in the movie. His extraordinary career included service in World War I in then British Palestine where his successful command and organization of local forces there earned him credit as the father of the Israeli army. His wife, Frances, played by a luminous Emily Mortimer, who appears necessarily briefly in the movie, was herself an interesting and admirable character---one of the first women in Great Britain to earn a law degree.
And the lions, the real lions, whose articulated skins are now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, were every bit as frightening and deadly as the lions in the movie. They were intelligent and cunning and may not even have been man-eaters. As a rule, Lions don’t usually eat humans, and these two may have been killing their victims for sport. In other words, they may have been big game hunters themselves.
They didn’t look like the lions who play them in the movie though. The real Ghost and the Darkness didn’t have manes.
Tsavo males look different as well. The most vigorous Serengeti males sport large dark manes, while in Tsavo they have short, thin manes or none at all. “It’s all about water,” Patterson says. Tsavo is hotter and drier than the Serengeti, and a male with a heavy mane “would squander his daily water allowance simply panting under a bush, with none to spare for patrolling his territory, hunting or finding mates.”
That’s from an article by Paul Raffaele at Smithsonian. The Patterson quoted is Bruce Patterson, a contemporary zoologist at the Field Museum who is no relation to John Henry Patterson. Here’s the link, Man-Eaters of Tsavo.
The Ghost and the Darkness, directed by Stephen Hopkins, screenplay by William Goldman. Starring Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Mortimer, Bernard Hill, Brian McArdle, and Om Puri. 1996. Rated R. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon, as well as on Netflix.
New genetic analyses confirm that a pair of highly similar-looking South American woodpecker species once thought to be closely related are actually only distant cousins. By copying the appearance of a larger, socially dominant woodpecker species, the subordinate mimic species reduces the aggression that it receives from other potential competitors, enhancing its access to food resources…
The bird’s call and behavior tipped off the researchers that this species may have been misclassified. When Robbins encountered a helmeted woodpecker during a trip to Brazil in 2010, he was stunned that its vocalizations sounded nothing like other Dryocopus species in the region. Co-author Kevin Zimmer had also noted the helmeted woodpecker’s behavior was unlike that of other Dryocopus euncountered during his 20 years of field research in Brazil.
The shy and little-known helmeted woodpecker shares the red crest, black back, and barred underside of two larger woodpeckers—Dryocopuslineatus and Campephilus robustus—all of which occupy the same habitat and share similar food preferences. Though it had been previously classified in the genus Dryocopus due to its remarkable similarities in appearance with Dryocopuslineatus, genetic analysis by Benz and his colleagues confirms that the helmeted woodpecker is actually not closely related to other Dryocopus woodpeckers at all and belongs in a different genus, Celeus.
After examining specimens in the AMNH collection, Benz concluded “The helmeted woodpecker is basically a typicalCeleus in Dryocopus clothing.”
Or I can just stay home and dream of there while watching the downy and hairy woodpeckers in the neighborhood:
New Yorkers need not travel any farther than Central Park to see an example of ISDM, as the unrelated but incredibly similar in appearance hairy and downy woodpeckers (Picoides villosusand Picoides pubescens, respectively) have been eliciting double takes from birders for years.
Mining the notebooks. On the porch. Thursday morning. July 23, 2015.
Heard a buzzing in the air close to my head just now and thought, That sounds like an awfully big bee.
Wasn’t a bee.
A hummingbird had come to visit. He was hovering about six feet above the porch floor, looking straight at me with what I took as an It’s about time look, as if he’d been there for a while, waiting for me to notice. So I noticed.
“Hello, how are you doing?” I said, being neighborly.
He seemed to nod, not so much in a return neighborly fashion, but in a Good, you’re paying attention. Now I can get on with this way. And then he did a little sideways dip to his right, rose straight up, hovered there a few seconds, and then shot off sideways to his left, his tail leaving a bit ahead of the rest of him so that he looked like he was being tugged off by an invisible hand that caught him by the feet.
Looked like something out of a cartoon.
I’m convinced he was showing off.
With a touch of arrogance.
Hummingbirds are a touch arrogant. And more than a tad belligerent.
“True to the aggressive nature of its family, the rubythroat is quick to fight,” writes Crawford E. Greenewalt in National Geographic’s Song and Garden Birds of North America. “Almost any aerial intruder into this bird’s established territory risks attack, regardless of size.”
I wasn’t surprised to see the hummingbird hanging in the air there. This guy has been flittering about the house all summer. A couple of weeks ago he spent several minutes investigating the holly bush by the front stoop and last month he came right up to the living room window and studied the place as if thinking about making an offer on the house. I was surprised he’d come in so close. I could have reached out and snatched him out of the air, if I had hands as fast as Bruce Lee’s and he was the slowest hummingbird in Upstate New York, without having to rise an inch from my chair. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. If I had put my hand out, he might very well of landed on it. Hummingbirds aren’t shy around human beings. They’ve been known to feed out of people’s hands. It’s probably not because they trust us and like our company, as I’m convinced catbirds do. It’s that they’re confident we can’t lay a finger on them, they’re too quick and aerobatic.
Like I said, arrogant.
I’ve been calling him a him but I couldn’t tell that by looking at him this morning. I couldn’t see his throat patch. I couldn’t see any of his coloring. He looked brown. He looked brown when he came to the front window too. That’s because the sun was behind him. Ruby-throated hummingbirds’ feathers don’t carry pigments. Their iridescent colors---their green backs, the males’ red bibs---are structural, “like a rainbow or a drop of oil on wet pavement,” says Greenewalt, “not pigmentary, like a red tie or a blue dress.” The light has to be on them for their colors to appear. When I saw our hummingbird at the window I wondered what species he was, but I should have known. There are sixteen species of hummingbirds that call North America home but only one of them, the ruby-throat, lives in the eastern half of the United States.
I’m assuming this character who came to visit is the same bird that came to the window and I saw hovering around the holly bush, where the sun was on him and his colors, including his bib, did shine. If there are females in the vicinity, they’re probably not spending their time nearby. Hummingbirds don’t really mate. They hook up. Greenewalt again: “The female who has been courted and won leaves the male to his philandering and begins building her nest immediately,” raising her young on her own. The males are incorrigibly promiscuous, feathered Don Juans, Greenewalt calls them, “with interests limited to food, fighting, and courtship.”
Fighting, Greenewalt believes, is something they do for sport.
Like most other birds, hummingbirds establish territories which they defend vigorously. Their belligerence, however, goes far beyond the simple needs of defense. I suspect that hummingbirds engage in aerial jousts most for the fun of it.
Food, though, has to be a constant concern. Since they’re almost constantly in flight, hummingbirds burn calories at a tremendous rate and need to refuel every 10 to 15 minutes, feeding 50 or 60 times a day. Theirs is a high-carb diet. “The daily intake of sugars, the principal food, may amount to half the bird’s weight.”
Greenewalt expands upon their metabolic efficiency.
For its size a hummingbird outperforms any warm-blooded animal. While hovering, it has an energy output per unit of weight about ten times that of a man running nine miles an hour. If a 170-pound man led the equivalent of a hummingbird’s life, he would burn up 155,000 calories a day and evaporate about 100 pounds of perspiration an hour. If his water supply ran out, his skin temperature would soar above the melting point of lead, and he would probably ignite.
Greenewalt adds, “There is much to be said for our relatively sedentary existence.”
Ruby-throated hummingbirds aren’t just marvelous aerial acrobats. They’re terrific long-distance flyers, as well. Come September, our ruby-throat will head south to take up winter residence in Mexico or Central America. To get there he’ll fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. A quarter to almost a third of a hummingbird’s body weight is wing muscle.
The hummingbird depends almost wholly upon its wings to move from one place to another; in fact, its legs are so underdeveloped that it cannot walk in the ordinary sense. I have seen a hummingbird sidle along on a perch, but even for the shortest distances it is more apt to use wings than feet.
I like Greenewalt’s capsule description of the hummingbird temperament, “In their day-to-day living hummingbirds are fearless, pugnacious, curious, and seemingly fully aware of their aerial capabilities.”
So I’m probably right. The ruby-throat who looked to be showing off this morning came around because he wanted to show-off.
CHATHAM —Harbormaster Stuart Smith has rescued a lot of people over the years.
He’s freed boats from sandbars, towed them to shore when they’ve had mechanical troubles. He’s even towed whales back out to sea.
But he never thought he’d be called on to rescue a shark. It may be a sign of just how much people’s attitudes about great white sharks have changed, but when Smith arrived at the Old Southway inlet Monday afternoon, 40 or so beachgoers were crowded around a 7-foot greatwhite shark and they were pouring water on it.
“Everybody there was trying to save that shark,” Smith marveled.
I should know this, but I think the Old Southway Inlet is in fact well west of Lighthouse Beach where we usually swim when we’re on the Cape, so even if we were there this year, we probably wouldn’t have seen the rescue. I need a good map---Google isn’t giving me one---but I don’t think it was even there the last time we went swimming at Lighthouse Beach. The sharks have always been there. They come for the seal dinners. But I always assumed they stayed out of the inlets. Too shallow. Too many fishing boats on their way in and out of Pleasant Bay. But, according to Outside magazine, inlets are good places for humans to stay out of because sharks don’t:
If you have the choice, swim in the sound–a body of water protected between two pieces of land–where the lack of waves means sharks are less likely to mistake you for a fish. Conversely, avoid inlets, where the frenetic activity of estuaries meeting the sea both attracts sharks and makes it difficult for them to see and hear clearly.
I’d call the stretch of water off Lighthouse Beach a sound by Outside’s definition, but an oceanographer might say it’s an inlet, so who knows: We could have been swimming with sharks every day. One of the most disturbing passages in a book full of disturbing passages, Juliet Eilperin’sDemon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, tells how the waters off the beaches of Cape Town, South Africa, are teeming with sharks swimming with the humans:
Between 2005 and 2008, spotters reported 530 white shark sightings off the city’s most popular beaches. This not even a comprehensive count of the number of great whites that movie into and out of False Bay, since scientists have detected many more movements through both aerial spotting and acoustic tagging of individual sharks. Peter Chadwick, who directs the World Wildlife Fund’s Honda Marine Parks Program in South Africa, has seen the animals during his scientific missions: “The great whites are swimming amongst the bathers and the surfers. We see it from the air and everyone’s blissfully unaware, and quite happy.”
In 2005, [Allison Kock, a shark biologist and currently Head Scientist at the Save Our Seas Foundation] placed acoustic tags on seventy-eight great whites circling Seal Island near the city’s shore. Monitors registered a hit every time a tagged shark swam by them, making it easy to determine where the sharks spent their time during different parts of the year. Yet when Kock started downloading the data from the monitors, she couldn’t quite believe it when they revealed they had registered such an immense number of hits. “It was a complete mind blow that over 50 percent of the animals tagged at Seal Island were coming inshore, and they were staying inshore for months,” she says. At the very time that people are going to the beaches off Cape Town, the great whites are headed there as well. It’s the unintended consequence of the conservation measures South Africa has adopted over the past couple of decades. South Africa was the first nation in the world to protect great whites, in 1991, and its protection of Cape fur seals has helped the sharks as well, by providing the animals with additional prey. As the sharks thrive, their numbers are growing.
The paragraph that follows is not reassuring:
Kock’s and Chadwick’s data also underscore a simple point: if great whites deliberately hunted humans, they would be having a field day every summer off the Western Cape, consuming the many surfers, swimmers, and kayakers in their midst. They don’t, but the chances of an accidental shark attack still loom large.
Presumably something similar’s been going on off the coasts of North and South Carolina. Something to consider the next time we’re on Cape Cod.
A bluebird? I asked doubtfully when he called in from his home north of Boston to report this latest avian adventure. Not a blue jay?
He was indignant.
No, not a blue jay. He knows what a blue jay looks like. A bluebird.
As in bluebird of happiness?
As in bluebird!
An Eastern Bluebird?
The Eastern Bluebird is the state bird of New York but they can be found all over the Northeast. I’ve spotted more in Pennsylvania than I have here. Can’t recall ever seeing one in Massachusetts but that’s just a matter of luck. They’re there. They just don’t spend much time in suburban neighborhoods. They like the woods and open fields. And orchards. Uncle Merlin doesn’t have an orchard.
It was blue. It was a bird. What else could it be?
Could be Bluebird then. Little blue bird with a white front and a red bib?
No. All blue.
Bright blue? Dark blue? Purpley blue?
What good are you then?
Question I ask myself every day.
What if I send you a picture?
You took one?
He's very bold.
He's still there?
I can't chase him out. He acts like he owns the place.
Does he? I was developing a suspicion. And he's blue?
Yes, he's still blue.
Blue, not gray?
I think I can tell the difference between blue and gray.
Because in a certain light, catbirds can look blue. Blue-ish. Kind of gun metal blue.
This one's definitely blue and he's not making catbird sounds.
Send the picture.
Ah ha, I said.
Ah ha what?
Know what that is?
You're supposed to tell me.
But it's blue.
Like I said. Trick of the light. Anyway, it looks gray in the picture.
There was a short silence during which I surmised he was studying the picture himself, deciding the bird did indeed look gray, and figuring out how not to admit I might be right that it was a catbird.
It's not meowing like a catbird.
They have other calls and they can be quiet. They’re thoughtful birds. Know how you can really tell it's a catbird though, besides the black cap, the shape of the bill, and the shape and length of the tail?
What you described. He's acting like he owns the place. That's how they are. They think we're trespassing. The ones living in our holly bushes routinely come sit on the porch railing when I'm out there and glare at me, like they're waiting for me to take the hint. How did he get in the house?
Art let him in.
Art the Wonder Dog?
Art opened the door for him, invited him in?
No. He couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted to be in or out so I left the porch door open for him and the bird flew in past him as he was standing in the doorway, half in and half out.
I see. It's Art's fault you left the door open.
What was I supposed to do, keep hopping up to run to the door every time he whined? Of course it was his fault. He knows it too. That's why he's hiding.
Under the porch. He won't come back in because he knows he's in trouble.
So you have a bird who won't go out and a dog who won't come in.
Life is one fresh hell after another, isn't it?
Goodbye. Gotta go. My mother 's calling.
Half hour later he called back.
The bluebird's gone.
Whatever. He let me pick him up and carry him outside.
I'm surprised. They can be bold but I never saw one that bold. Was he hurt?
He didn't appear to be. He flew right off when I set him down in the backyard.
Probably went to tell his friends about his visit. Make sure you keep the door closed or you'll have a whole family moving in.
Art come back in?
No. He's still under the porch. And I have to go to work. Evil little dog.
Another half hour went by before he called again.
You at work?
Still waiting for Art?
He came back in finally?
I might have been mistaken about where he was.
Oh? What makes you think that?
Well, I got tired of waiting for him so I went upstairs to start getting ready to go.
Sunday night. 11 p.m. 72 degrees. On the porch. Night warm and still. No breeze. Some haze. Usually, even with the porch light on, I can see some stars. Only light in the sky right now could be a planet but is probably a plane heading this way but too far away to see it’s moving. Quiet. None of the usual night music. No traffic. No voices carrying from anywhere. No geese arguing and complaining down by the river. No peepers! Past their bedtime? The only sound at the moment is over my shoulder. The buzzing of a bee.
Since when are bees nocturnal?
Do hives have a night shift?
It’s attacking the porch light, furiously trying to get through the lamp glass to the bulb. Been at it for the past 15 minutes. Driving the both of us nuts. Time for me to head in anyway. To end its frustration I turn off the light as soon as I’m through the door.
The buzzing continues. But now it’s above and ahead of me, coming from the ceiling light.
Little blighter followed me inside.
Did some research. Turns out there are a few species of bees that are nocturnal, but what there also are are zombie honeybees:
There's more trouble for your hard-working backyard honey bee. Researchers have confirmed the first cases of "zombee" bees in Washington state and in the Portland area. Infection by a parasite prompts the bees to embark on what's being called a "flight of the living dead."
The initial Washington detection came from an observant beekeeper in the Seattle suburb of Kent.
"The odd thing is they're attracted to light. Bees normally aren't attracted to light. And they're flying at night. Bees don't normally fly at night," says Mark Hohn. He keeps bees as a hobby.
Hohn sent some of his casualties to entomologists at Washington State University and San Francisco State. They confirmed infection by a tiny parasitic fly.
"After it lays its eggs in the bee, the eggs hatch," Hohn explains. "Then the maggot is inside the bee. It's actually eating the inside of the bee and it affects their motor skills."
Eventually, the disoriented bees flutter to the ground and die.
No better antidote to the pre-dawn blues than reading about the birds you’re up before.
This is one of those pieces of advice the giver would do well to remember to take more often himself, but here's what I recommend. Have a couple of field guides and bird books in the house, keep them within easy reach; when you find yourself wide awake in the predawn dark and the goblins and trolls start to work, grab those books and start reading about birds. It won't be exactly like the arrival of the eagles but it's much more of a solace to soul and mind than hopping on the internet and reading about the latest outrage or calamity or political idiocy you can't do anything about. Imagining birds will take you out of yourself, turn your thoughts towards what's good and beautiful in life, and keep you marginally hopeful and sane until the first real birds start to sing.
Around here the birds first up and singing are usually the robins. They're soon joined by cardinals followed by sparrows and chickadees. All interesting birds and worth reading more about despite their familiarity. But I'm not reading about them or species less common to the neighborhood and about which I'd normally be taking the opportunity to learn more about. Vireos, for example. I'm not up on vireos. And there are all those warblers to identify and keep sorted out. But I'm not reading about them. I'm reading about birds that are as familiar as the robins, cardinals, sparrows, and chickadees. Maybe more familiar because they're usually far more conspicuous.
For some reason, this morning, I've been reading about blue jays.
Most familiar of all is the petulant shriek of jay jay jay. Henry Thoreau remarked on the “unrelenting steel-cold scream of a jay, unmelted, that never flows into a song, a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold; hard, tense frozen music, like the winter sky itself.”
It's not as if I've never looked up blue jays before. But it seems that no matter how many times I've read about a species in the past, I'm always surprised by a fact striking me as new. And just now I was struck by this fact about blue jays.
Blue jays aren't blue.
At any rate, the pigment in their feathers is brown. That they appear blue is a simple trick of the light.
As are most things.
I probably knew that and forgot it or at least read it before and it didn’t stick. There are so many interesting facts about birds it’s impossible to keep every new fact in my head. New facts crowd others out of the mental nest. The ground around the tree where all my bird lore roosts is littered with broken egg shells of unfledged information.
Here's another “new” fact about blue jays.
They like to imitate the calls of other birds.
This was mildly disappointing to learn and I'll tell you why.
Up until this morning I thought we had hawks in the neighborhood.
We probably still do. They just don't visit as frequently as I thought based on how often I hear them or hear what up until now I assumed were hawks.
Routinely I'll hear a red tailed hawk scream and I'll go to the window or step off the porch into the yard and scan the sky, half-dreading and, I should be ashamed to admit, half-hoping to see one swoop down to pluck up one of the chipmunks who call our property home and I'll be surprised and disappointed to see that the sky is empty of raptors.
That's odd, I'll often think. It sounded so close, almost like it was right near by and practically at ground level, no higher up than the tops of the trees.
Darn blue jays.
None of my books say why they imitate hawks probably because the answer's obvious. It's a good way to scare off other birds, including actual hawks. Going by what is most easily observable about blue jays in any neighborhood---they like to hog the bird feeders-- I'd wager they mainly do it to have the cafeteria all to themselves.
Next time I hear a "hawk" that close and low I'll know to not bother looking up into the sky. I'll look into the branches of the nearest trees or across at the neighbor's feeders for a blue jay being a wise guy.
Five fifteen. The robins are having their say. Time for me to get on the road for Syracuse. If you're awake and in need of some comforting reading and you don't have your own guide books handy, visit Cornell's wonderful and handy website, All About Birds.
Couple of wild turkeys attacked my car this morning. I’m not kidding. Two of them charged the car intent on doing it grievous harm. I was driving along a stretch of road that winds through patches of open woodland but is a connector of suburban neighborhoods sprawling out of (or into) the city of Newburgh. It’s scenic but it’s not a country lane and at that hour, around nine, is still busy with commuters. In other words, it’s not a road turkeys ought to have any business on. But there they were, the pair of them, strutting about in the middle of my lane. I saw them in plenty of time to stop and waited for them to finish crossing. Turns out, they didn’t want to cross. They wanted a fight. And I mean it when I say they charged the car. They came straight at me, necks pumping, bare blue and silver heads bobbing, gobbling like somebody pulled the lever hard several dozen times on a The Farmer Says See ‘n Say, murder in their beady eyes.
I hit the horn.
They kept coming.
I started to inch forward.
They kept coming.
I rolled a little farther forward with more obvious purpose and they got the idea. Part of it. The moving out of the way so they didn’t get run over part. The they’d picked a fight with several tons of indifferent metal part still eluded them. They ducked around the right front fender and started pecking at the tire.
I drove on but when I looked in the rearview mirror they were going after the car behind me.
I’d never seen the like of it before. Wild turkeys gone wild. I’ve always thought of turkeys as passive and stupid birds. A turkey farmer once told me turkeys are so dumb you can’t let them out in the rain. “They feel the water coming down, they look up, open their mouths to drink and forget to close them and drown,” he said. I was at his turkey farm to pick up one of his birds for Thanksgiving dinner and although my conscience doesn’t trouble me much on the matter of meat-eating it was comforting to think that my meal didn’t. But my experience with turkeys isn’t limited to the barnyard variety. For years a flock foraged through Mom and Pop Mannion’s backyard and those birds never seemed to have much on their minds. And turkeys are a common sight in the fields and along roadsides around here. Around everywhere these days. That wasn’t true not that long ago. They’d been pretty well hunted out of the Northeast by the middle of the 19th Century. Took some time but they recovered. By 1973 when National Geographic’s Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America was published, twenty-three states had open seasons and hunters were bringing more than 75,000 turkeys annually for dinner. Since then there’s apparently been enough of population boom that my Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America,last year’s Father’s Day present, doesn’t even mention their history of near-extinction. It deals with their comeback with a perfunctory note that they’re “common and increasing.” The way they were brought back is interesting, though. Conservation, habitat restoration, and hunting restrictions figured, but, going by my guide books, it appears that mainly what happened was that people would capture some turkeys here and take them over there and it’d turn out that the turkeys liked it there wherever there was and thrived. Apparently they just needed room to spread out and weren’t able to work this out for themselves. What this amounts to is there are a lot of wild turkeys to see and I’ve seen a lot of them in my life and before today I never saw one, let alone two, get so mad at a car it had to strut out into traffic and try to show it who’s boss.
When I got home I checked my field guides and Cornell’s indispensible website All About Birds to see if turkeys had a reputation for belligerence I wasn’t aware of. I found no reports of habitual attacks on automobiles or human beings, for that matter, but while they aren’t particularly aggressive they are protective. According to National Geographic:
They guard against foxes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, crows, and owls. One observer saw a turkey mother rise to meet a hawk, knock it to the ground, and pursue it until the raptor withdrew, leaving plucked feathers behind.
And turkey on turkey violence is routine. During mating season, competing toms will peck each other’s heads bloody, trying to drive off rivals.
I don’t know if those two angry turkeys were toms thinking my car was muscling in on their turf or if they were hens defending a nearby nest or if, whichever their gender, they were just pissed because they’d gotten clipped earlier while crossing the road and were expressing a now general grievance against automobiles.
At any rate, thanks to them, today I thought more and read more about turkeys as living birds (rather than as sandwich makings, holiday dinners, and Thanksgiving decorations) than I ever had in all my years of thinking and reading about birds and I learned a few things.
One of the things I learned is that turkeys roost in trees. I’d have thought, if I’d thought about it, and I probably never did, that as ground birds turkeys roosted on the ground. But, nope. At night they fly up into the lower branches of trees and then hop their way up to higher and safer perches. This means that some of the big, dark hulking birds I see roosting in tree branches at dusk that I’ve always assumed were turkey vultures might be turkeys instead.
Another thing I learned was that the hens take the initiative in mating. Toms strut and squabble and fight and puff themselves up to show off and attract hens but then they forget to follow through. As National Geographic puts it, the hens seem to know it’s up to them, as if they “sensed that otherwise the vain males would on on strutting forever.”
Plenty of human males behave this way, don’t they? It’s an unacknowledged trope of many beer commercials.
There must have been something in the weather that put wild turkeys in a mood today. Saw something else I don’t remember ever seeing before or, more likely, I haven’t seen in such a long time that I’ve forgotten the last time: a turkey in flight.
In the afternoon, on a different road, a turkey came shooting out of the field to my right and flew across my path at a low enough altitude that if I’d been only a few hundred feet farther along would have meant a meeting between the turkey and the windshield.
From National Geographic again:
Strong flyers, turkeys can clear treetops swiftly and sail a mile or more with only occasional wingbeats. More often they fun, as much as 15 miles an hour. Audubon, on a good horse, trailed several turkeys for hours. He could not overtake them.
I knew turkeys could fly. Wild turkeys, of course, but barnyard turkeys too. They just don’t bother much. They’re too fat and lazy and safe from all but human predators. So I’m afraid I have to report. The writers of WKRP in Cincinnati were taking poetic license.
Saw Wild New Year’s Day. (Review in the works. Preview: Very good. Go.) Seeing it did not make me want to hike the Pacific Coast Trail as Reese Witherspoon’s character does in the movie. Reading the book the movie’s based on, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, in which Strayed recounts her hike up the PCT, did not make me want to hike it either. Although I could and have happily walked a day away, I mostly travel in circles of no more than a few miles in diameter and I stop to loiter often as I circumnavigate familiar patches of the map of my life. Like Thoreau I’ve traveled a good deal in my own neighborhoods. I’m not a long-distance hiker and I’ve never had much of a desire to go backpacking. Getting around is more to my liking than getting from here to there. Reading the book did remind me that someday I have to see Yosemite National Park and hike around there even though Yosemite features in the book only as a place Strayed regretfully had to by-pass on her hike because of heavy snows on the PCT. Seeing the movie and re-reading the book (which I’m in the middle of doing) did make me miss taking hikes, any hikes of any lengths along any trails, paths, or roads, even just down to the post office. I miss the walks, I miss being able to walk farther than twenty-five yards at a stretch, I miss being outside and in motion, I miss seeing the world as it can only be seen on foot, I miss not simply direct encounters with nature but being in nature, being part of the natural landscape and not as a visitor passing through but as a regular resident. I miss having that to write about. I miss having what Strayed calls “the accumulation of trees” to report on. I miss writing my own version of passages like this:
I forced my feet back into my boots and continued on, ignoring the pain as I ascended past an eerie pair of electrical towers that made other-worldly crackling sounds. A few times throughout the day, I saw Bald Mountain and Grizzly Peak to the northwest---dark green and brown mountains covered with smatterings of scraggly windblown trees and bushes---but mostly I walked in a bushy forest, crossing an increasing number of primitive roads cut with the deep treads of tractors. I passed old clear-cuts that were slowly coming back to life, great fields of stumps and roots and small green trees that stood no higher than me, where the trail became untenable in places, difficult to track among the litter of blown-down trees and branches. The trees were the same species as those I’d hiked past often on the trail, but the forest felt different, desultory and somehow darker, in spite of the intermittent expansive views.
I’ve always missed being able to write that well.
But that’s why we’re lucky to have books, like Wild, which you don’t have to read before you see the movie, but which you might like to before or after you see or saw it or whether or not you will or you did anyway. It’s available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.