As I was saying yesterday, mourning doves aren’t among my favorite birds, but they have their attractive qualities, not the least of which is their mournful morning cooing and who-who-whoooing. Grackles, on the other hand, have almost nothing to recommend them.
Eight a.m. and I’m hard at work in my summer office. That would be the front porch, for those of you new to Mannionville industrial and retail complex. Not much people activity, except for me, but lots of bird activity. No sign of the catbirds who live in our bushes but I expect one or more will be along shortly to remind me who really owns the place. But right now I’m being watched by a mourning dove perched on a telephone wire. He or she is busy with grooming its feathers but since that doesn’t seem to require studious attention, the bird’s keeping an idle eye on me as if I might somehow make myself interesting and interrupt the boredom. Mourning doves aren’t among my favorite birds mainly because even though I know better I think of them as just a kind of pigeon, and, while it’s unfair to call pigeons as they’re often called “rats with wings,” the phrase just pops into my head when I look at a mourning dove. Makes it hard to give them the admiration they deserve.
Pigeons, by the way, the gray and brown gluttons you feed in the park type, aren’t officially named pigeons. They’re rock doves. But they’re pigeons, not doves. Cornell’s Ornithology Lab doesn’t bother being polite about it. They flat out call them pigeons. Rock pigeons. Mourning doves, though, are doves, and being watched by this mourning dove reminded me I’ve been saving an article from the New York Times to share with you since March and this morning is a good time to finally get around to it. Here you go:
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.