Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, December 13, 2019

Color Perception

How my cataract distorts color
On the right is how my right eye, with the new lens replacing my cataract-ridden lens, sees this photo. On the left is about how my left eye, which still has the cataract, sees it. 
Just about every child wonders at some point how other species, and even other humans, perceive colors. Do a blue sky and white clouds look the same to everyone who isn’t colorblind? Sure, we humans all have pretty much the same eye structure, but in the same way that a joke could be hilarious to one person but fall flat to an identical twin, maybe colors look different to different people, too.

I was pretty sure I had a good handle on color—I’ve always been able to appreciate the different shades of red in a Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and I love the lovely tropical greenish yellow of a Chestnut-sided Warbler in autumn and the subtle shades of pinks and purples in a Common Grackle in full sunlight.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Common Grackle
This Common Grackle, sitting in perfect light, is showing off his iridescent colors. This is how he really looks, without any color adjustments. If he also displays some UV colors, we can't see them. 
But now that I’ve had one of my cataracts removed, I’m discovering that the colors I see are different through that eye with its crystal-clear lens than through the eye still obscured with the cataract. I’ll be getting the second eye done on Wednesday, but during this interim period, I can actually use the magic of Lightroom and Photoshop to make two copies of the same photo, and then use a color sliders to show how the eye with the cataract sees it differently from the newly cataract-free eye. This is purely subjective and not at all scientific, but by switching eyes, I made the two photos on the left look the way my left eye sees it compared to how my right eye sees the same thing when I go back and forth between eyes.  I seem to see a more dramatic shift with the chickadee photo above than with this Blue Jay photo.

How my cataract distorts color
Left is how the Blue Jay looks through my left eye, which hasn't had cataract surgery yet. 
Meanwhile, last week, the British Ecological Society published a paper by Cedric P. van den Berg,  Jolyon Troscianko,  John A. Endler,  N. Justin Marshall, and  Karen L. Cheney in Methods in Ecology and Evolution titled “Quantitative Colour Pattern Analysis: A comprehensive framework for the analysis of colour patterns in nature.” We humans and many primates are trichromatic, meaning we have three kinds of cones in our eyes—sensitive to red, blue, and green hues—that allow us to see colors along the ROYGBIV spectrum. Most mammals, including dogs and cats, are dichromatic with just blue and green-sensing cones in their eyes. Arctic reindeer have a special cone that detects the UV light that lichen emit.

Bees are trichromatic, but also pick up UV light. Many insects, fish, reptiles, and birds have four kinds of cones, and the mantis shrimp can have up to 16 kinds of cones. Color perception is important for such essential tasks as detecting prey animals or vegetation types, noticing predators, and signaling their own kind for competitive, mating, or flocking purposes.

To better understand the function of colour signals in nature, the researchers developed quantitative analytical frameworks to estimate how animal and plant color patterns appear against natural backgrounds as viewed by ecologically relevant species. The program they developed takes a photo of how we see something and adds brilliant colors to the areas outside our own visual spectrum.

Of course, what we can see in any photo is limited to colors within the wavelengths our human retinas can see, so this is just a visual representation to help our understanding, not at all the way animals actually see the world—our imaginations really are limited to the colors within our own spectrum. The photos they’ve produced are brilliantly wonderful, but the popular press picking up those photos are saying “This is how birds see the world,” and “This software shows you exactly how different animals view the world” when it isn’t. We have no idea what colors look like outside our own visual range, so although this wonderful work is important and cool, it simply does not show “how birds see the world.” Until we humans can evolve retinas with more kinds of cone cells, the colors birds and other animals see will ever remain a mystery to us mere humans.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Book Review: When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin


Russ and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin from 1976 to 1981, while he was working on his Ph.D. and I was teaching. I spent one or two days every weekend birding, went birding every spring morning before school started, and spent a lot of my summer mornings birding—it was simply what I did. I was part of a small birding circle, and when I wasn’t helping with Madison Audubon field trips with one or two of my friends, one day each weekend I’d be off on a more focused birding jaunt with my more competitive birding buddies. Being both an introvert and timid about driving, I never set the agenda or invited others, leaving that to the people who were driving.

One of my favorite birding friends, Randy Hoffman, was a lot like me—introverted and rather shy. Randy was at least a few steps ahead of me in his birding skills, but like me didn’t like birding as a competition—he simply liked getting out there and seeing birds. Unlike me, Randy was also a superb general naturalist, far more knowledgeable about plant communities and big picture stuff, and extremely generous with his knowledge, so the few occasions that I did get to go out with him were wonderful and memorable. In May 1978, when he found out I still had never seen a Barred Owl, to took me where he knew we’d find one. And when he pointed it out and I still didn’t see it at first, he wasn’t the least bit arrogant or superior about it. I learned a lot about sharing my good birds and how to treat other birders as equals from Randy Hoffman.

Barred Owl

Randy wrote a fantastic book back in 2002, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, titled Wisconsin’s Natural Communities: How to Recognize Them, Where to Find Them, which somehow I didn’t learn about until just last month. It’s heavy on text which is fine with me—Randy is a very fine and vividly clear writer, and the maps and occasional illustrations are very helpful. He describes the natural communities of the state and gives excellent examples of places we can go to enjoy each one. Randy writes in the introduction that the book is written for:
amateur naturalists, hunters, bird watchers, hikers, campers, anglers, and others who appreciate the natural world and want a deeper understanding of what makes a healthy natural community. It is also intended for landowners or land managers who want to manage their land in the best way possible for the health of the natural community. The book is designed to help you understand the workings of these natural communities and to provide a foundation for recognizing the interconnections between different species in a community and between species and their habitats.
Last month, Randy came out with another great book, When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin. This one is self-published, available on Amazon in paperback or as a kindle-ebook. Like every self-published book and, nowadays, too many by major publishing houses that have cut back on copyediting, it could stand a bit of editing, but Randy is a clear enough writer that the book is still excellent—what I consider, like his Wisconsin Natural Communities, to be an important book for birders of Wisconsin and surrounding states.

When Things Happen breaks the year into 36 periods, three per month. It’s not really a phenology, because Randy doesn’t focus on first and last occurrences of anything, and has few illustrations. Instead, he offers in rich detail and depth is what is happening throughout the state in each time period. He starts each section with the day length in Racine in the southeastern corner of the state and Superior in the northwest, and often mentions meteor showers and other regularly appearing sky-watching phenomena. Depending on the season, he may talk about the sap running in trees and its value for humans and wildlife, give the peak blooming times for various plants, explain when does are most likely to drop their fawns, or tell us what to look for when trying to identify lichens. Where illustrations or sound recordings would be important, he gives excellent resource recommendations.

The meat of each section is an essay about some natural phenomena happening right about then, or simply something to think about—the essay for December 11-20 is about generosity and giving, focusing on ways we can give back to nature via conservation. These essays conjure the magical times I spent birding with Randy back in the 70s, with him sharing his knowledge in such an inviting way. In forthcoming blog posts over the coming year, I will highlight some of what he shares. Meanwhile, When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin by Randy Hoffman is a splendid book to be savored, month by month.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Cataract Surgery: Day 2

Shorn little Pip
Pip is even cuter through my cataract-free eye!!
Here's today's update:
  • When I woke up, my eye was all gooped up. I get a bad reaction to dilation drops, so I think that was the problem. After my shower, it was just peachy. 
  • My pupil is almost back to normal. The dilation has to be pretty serious so the ophthalmologist can see what she's doing during surgery, and it takes over a day for the pupil to go back to normal. 
  • My pigeon floater is back!! For years I've had a floater in my right eye that is shaped like a soaring pigeon, wings held in a perfect V. I've looked for but haven't seen it since surgery, but today the little guy is back! Yes, floaters are a nuisance, but I've grown fond of this one. I switched ophthalmologists four years ago, and one of the things that told me I'd made the right choice was that she could see why it looked like a pigeon. Except that one, floaters haven't been very noticeable or a problem, and so far I haven't seen a single one since surgery.
  • I can use my binoculars!! I picked a distant object with clear lines and used the center focus knob to get it perfect through the left barrel, then used the diopter adjustment to get it focused through the right barrel. Now both barrels are perfect for my two eyes. I may have to do this once or twice more until my eye is fully healed, but it's SO nice to be able to use binoculars without glasses, so I can have the eyecups extended to block out peripheral light. I haven't been able to do that since I gave up my contact lenses over two decades ago. 
  • I don't need glasses at all for comfortably doing all but one of my normal activities. My left eye does the work when I'm looking at something close up (like my laptop) and my right eye takes over for distance things, like watching TV or looking out the window at birds. The one exception is working at my computer on my desk-treadmill. For this, at intermediate range, neither eye focuses well, and yesterday I got a headache trying. Today I tried with my computer glasses. It didn't quite work--they're perfect for my left eye, but oddly enough, help my right eye, too--only just a little, so both eyes are trying to do the work, but the right eye is off in a weird way.  I was still getting a headache until I figured out to keep that eye closed. So right now I have a folded tissue working as a patch inside the right lens of my glasses, so am writing this with monocular vision. This issue will be resolved perfectly after the other eye is fixed on the 18th. 
  • It's cloudy now, but it was very sunny when I filled the feeders a while ago. But now that my pupil is closing again, it wasn't uncomfortably bright without sunglasses. Just beautifully bright. 
  • WOW! I just used my camera. The viewfinder eyepiece didn't require hardly any tweaking, and I can see SO much better through it now, both from the clearer vision and because I'm not wearing glasses, holding my eye further back. 


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Cataract Surgery: Day 1

Boots
My son Joe's cat, Boots. His eyes look so bright now!!
I started writing this at 10 am after my cataract surgery this morning. Vision in my right eye is very blurry, but I’m not having any trouble seeing my computer with my dominant, left eye. 

Monday and Tuesday, I had to put antibiotic, anti-inflammatory eyedrops in my right eye four times each day—I’ll be using those same drops for two or three more weeks now that surgery is done. When I arrived at the surgical center at 7 am, I had to put on a hospital gown over my clothes, a cap over my hair, and coverings over my shoes. A nurse took my blood pressure and set me up for an IV. Then she started putting in eye drops, one or two at a time, but ultimately a whole slew of them, anesthetic and antibiotic drops as well as drops to dilate the pupil—those were strong enough that my pupil may remain dilated for a couple of days.

After the pupil was all the way open, the nurse led me to the room where surgery would take place. I got up on the surgical table with a pillow under my knees and my head cradled very comfortably in place. The nurse anesthetist put a warm blanket on me and started the light sedation through the IV. My ophthalmologist told me exactly what she was doing all along—it was very interesting. They put some sort of cover sheet over my eye, held in place by a very delicate adhesive. Then they cut out an opening to work on the eye, added more anesthetic drops, and used a weird contraption that I couldn’t see to hold my eyelids open. The light set up to illuminate the eye for surgery looked strange—it glowed brilliant pink and blue, with the rest of my field of view a swirly silver. My ophthalmologist said different people see different colors, and sometimes the colors appear different when the second eye is done—I’ll check that out in two weeks. I’d never before had any kind of procedure done on my eyes except regular exams. This all felt weird but not at all uncomfortable, much less painful. 

And now it was time for the actual surgery. My ophthalmologist made a tiny incision in the cornea and inserted a needle-thin probe into the lens. That probe transmits ultrasound waves to break up the cataract-ridden lens—I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids, but I don’t think I could have heard it even with them. Then she suctioned out the fragments. Again, I didn’t feel any of this. For a minute or so, I had no lens in my eye—the pink and blue from the light stayed the same color only now with very soft, amorphous edges, the swirly waves everywhere else in my field of view moving about as if a silver satin sheet was being rippled about. Then she inserted the new lens, which was rolled up, through the teeny tiny incision. Now the swirls moved even faster for a moment, and then suddenly the lens was in place, the pink-blue light clear again, the silvery swirls steady.

And that was pretty much that. When the light went out, the pink and blue disappeared. They had to take off whatever it was holding my eyelids open, take the protective sheeting off my eye—the adhesive was strong enough that it was like taking a bandage off—and unhook the IV. I mostly squinted with the right eye—it was blurry and uncomfortably bright as the nurse brought me back to the room I started in. She put a couple more drops in to prevent swelling and infection and to keep the eye numb longer, checked my blood pressure, and gave me a few more minutes for the effects of the light sedation to disappear. One of the things in the kit my ophthalmologist gave me was a very protective pair of sunglasses—what with both the new, bright lens and the wide open pupil, that was essential. We were home by 9:15 or so, just 2 ½ hours after we left.

Vision out my right eye was extremely blurry at first, but even with that, from the moment I walked outside, I could see that the sky was a brighter and truer blue with my right than my left eye, and the clouds much whiter. The first hour or so, it looked like there was a clear translucent film covering my eye. But hour by hour, the blurriness was dissipating. As I write this now at 9:00 pm, I have only a trace of blurriness left, and except for that, I can focus better at a distance than I could yesterday with my glasses on, and everything is much, much brighter, colors not just more vivid but more true. Without my having had any idea of it, that yellowish brown cast had impacted my color perception. I’m thrilled to see what colors really look like now.

Vision out of my right eye is both badly out of focus and very blurry when I look at my laptop screen—I have the monofocal distance lens, so I fully expected it to be out of focus till I get reading glasses, but the dilated pupil seems to exacerbate the blurriness of everything at close range right now. But one really weird thing—my brain is letting my left eye focus on the screen but letting my new cataract-free eye set the color. When I look at my word processing program with just my right eye, it’s a blurry mess, but the background is very white. When I look using just my left eye, it’s very well-focused, but dingy off-white. When I use both eyes, I get the best of both worlds—all the clarity from my left eye and all the brilliance from my right. I have no idea why this is happening, but it’s an unexpected delight.

I won’t be taking pictures until the Christmas Bird Count in ten days, but tomorrow I’ll adjust my binocular diopter adjustment to the temporary difference between my eyes and will check out how well I’m seeing my backyard birds. Meanwhile, so far so good!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Cataract Surgery

Laura's new binoculars!

On Wednesday, December 4, I’m having cataract surgery—something the vast majority of people who make it into their 60s or 70s get. Indeed, some people get their cataracts removed when they’re in their 40s or 50s. 

I've had cataracts my whole life, though I never knew that until the 1980s, when I bought my first top-line pair of binoculars. They cost over $800, which amounted to pretty much our family's entire discretionary income that year, so I naturally wanted to be sure they'd been worth it. I kept looking at things near and far, and then checking how well aligned they were and how perfect the optics were by closing one eye and then the other. Oddly enough, everything was a bit dimmer and more yellowish-brown through one eye than the other. I was afraid the binoculars might be defective, which would involve sending them back and waiting for a replacement, but just to be sure, I reversed the barrels, looking through them with the opposite eyes, and discovered that it wasn't the binoculars—it was my eyes. One was dimmer than the other. I asked my ophthalmologist at my next visit, and he said that I had congenital cataracts, with that eye much worse than the other.

Ophthalmologists wait until the cataracts are what they call “ripe,” and as old as mine are, they weren't ready until this fall. As Hamlet said, “The ripeness is all!” My ophthalmologist always does the non-dominant eye first, which in my case is the right one. She'll do the left eye in two weeks.

I had to make one major decision before surgery—what kind of lens I want implanted. The standard, which was the only option for a long time, is a monofocal intraocular lens focused for distance; now you can choose monofocal lenses focused for intermediate or near vision, and some people choose one for distance for one eye and one for closeup or intermediate for the other.

And nowadays, multifocal intraocular lenses are also available, working much like bifocals or trifocals. One of my close friends has ReZoom multi-focal lens implants, which have concentric circles with a different correction in each. The one problem she notices is that in certain light situations, she looks through two rings of correction and can see a bit of a shadow along a sharp edge. But her brain has learned to accommodate for that. Those rings also can cause glare around bright lights, and seem to affect her distance perception, so she doesn’t like to drive at night.

Me, I’m going with the monofocal distance vision in both eyes. I’ve been nearsighted my whole life, so this will take some adjusting for me—for the first time ever, I’ll need glasses for mid- and close-up vision, and will have to get in the habit of wearing reading glasses on a chain like a stereotypical little old lady in tennis shoes. 

I know lots of people who’ve had this surgery, and almost everyone has been pleased with the results. Cataracts have a brownish discoloration; when that’s gone, everyone says the world will look brighter again. For me, that brightness may be more surprising than it is for most, because my congenital cataracts almost certainly made colors appear off my entire life. I can’t wait to see what Cuban Todies really look like!

Cuban Tody!!

As both a birder and a photographer, I’ll have to deal with some practical issues. This year’s Duluth Christmas Bird Count is on the 14th, after my right eye should be pretty well healed, but a few days before my left eye is done. That means the two eyes' vision will be wildly divergent, one focusing near and one far. For a while before getting bifocals, I used to wear a single contact lens, giving me that kind of vision—I adjusted pretty quickly to focusing on near things with one eye and on distant things with the other. On bird count day my right eye will focus on the birds, and I’ll be able to see my cell phone to record birds with the eBird app using my left eye. But to use my binoculars, I’ll have to set their diopter adjustment for the different focal lengths of my two eyes. After the second surgery, I’ll have to redo that again when both eyes have close-to-identical focal lengths. And after the second eye is done, I’ll have to adapt to putting on reading glasses in the field when I want to use eBird or review photos via the LCD screen on my camera.

To take those photos in the first place, I’ll have to make an adjustment on my camera's eyepiece for my new vision. I don't review my photos on the screen very often in the field, so I'll focus the eyepiece for my vision without glasses—it'll be wonderful to do all my actual birding—watching birds and using both binoculars and camera—without glasses. Getting older has some unpleasant costs, but cataract surgery will almost certainly make my outlook the brightest it's been in my whole life.

Laura Erickson

Friday, November 29, 2019

November Drear

Gray Squirrel

November is, for me, the most dismal month, and I’m very glad it’s coming to an end. Cold and blustery weather seems the default, but even when it’s calm and in the 40s, the skies seem murky and dark more often than not. Snow, the quintessential winter precipitation, doesn’t usually last long in November—after the blizzard, temperatures can reach the 40s and melt it all or leave a horrible ice crust on top. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is no comfort. He ends with:
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?   
Winter is not here in November. It’s very much autumn until the Solstice in December, the coldest month is usually January, and the coldest day ever in Minnesota didn’t happen until February. So when a chill wind blows in November, it’s not foretelling spring, but winter itself. No wonder November feels so dismal. 

Even as just about all the lingering autumn birds have disappeared, most winter finches have yet to arrive. We still have our faithful chickadees and other local residents. Downy Woodpeckers and both nuthatches are plentiful in my neighborhood, at least one Hairy Woodpecker is usually still about, and every day or two I spot or hear a Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpecker.

But the number of species and number of individual birds visiting my yard in late November is about as low as it gets, contributing to how bereft November leaves me. I love my Veteran’s Day birthday, but it comes with a reminder of advancing years like a ticking clock. I’m hoping right now is still late afternoon, or at most early evening, but midnight comes to all of us, and November reminds me of that more than any other month. 

But November comes with its own unique warmth and joy, too, as my backyard neighborhood settles in for the winter. Those chickadees peering in my window always make me happy, and this year I have some other critters tugging at my heart, one of them specifically tugging at my shoelaces.

We started limiting our feeder offerings last year thanks to a rat problem in our neighborhood. This year we had virtually no chipmunks—I think the rats killed them off. And the number of squirrels went down, too—probably more because of other people cutting back on bird feeding than outright murders committed by the rats. But during fall migration, I couldn’t help myself from feeding the migrating Blue Jays flooding through the neighborhood, especially because a couple of them seemed to recognize me. I’d whistle and put some peanuts on a tree stump when I knew jays were around, and they’d immediately fly in. A dozen peanuts in the shell would be gone within five minutes. The disappearance went even faster after crows figured it out. 

My neighborhood squirrels may be acrobatic and fast, but crows and jays are quicker every time. Yet I’m a sucker for little brown-eyed mammals. Several squirrels run toward me whenever I go outside, and sure enough, I toss peanuts directly to them. Now my jays are gone, but the squirrels come from a couple of neighbor yards whenever I go outside.

Mammals are almost as intelligent as birds, and so, like my chickadees, a couple of my squirrels have figured out that if they can catch my eye while I’m indoors, I’ll go out with some peanuts. All the lower branches of my good old box elder have fallen now, but one tiny dead branch sticks out at eye level when I’m at my desk treadmill, and a couple of different squirrels go there to sit and stare at me—if they make eye contact and I get off the treadmill, they’re on the back porch before I get there with the peanuts. One runs right up and takes its peanut right out of my hand, while the other holds back a bit. One time I didn’t see the tamest one when I was tossing peanuts to a couple of others, but suddenly I felt a tug on my shoelace. 

I sympathize when squirrels eat too much out of feeders, and I know some people can’t stand them. But when my bird numbers are down and my heart is hungry for warmth on a chill November day, my squirrels fill a deep-rooted need that can help sustain me through the long winter ahead.

Gray Squirrel

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Woodson Art Museum's Birds in Art Exhibit, 2019

Birds in Art Catalogue title page, 2019

On November 7, I drove with my little dog Pip to Wausau, Wisconsin, to see this year’s Birds in Art display at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. This is one of my favorite annual events, and this year I also got to spend time visiting with a dear friend, Troy Walters. Troy used to be on the staff at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River where, for a while, he and I taught an annual birding Elderhostel together. I hadn't seen him since my Big Year in 2013, so it was fun catching up. 

Troy Walters and Pip!

Seeing the Birds in Art exhibit was also a bit like catching up with old friends. This juried exhibit includes one roomful of art by the year’s Featured Artist, who this year was Alan Woollett, from Kent, England. I first saw his work in 2011, and it’s been richly fun to recognize his paintings most years after that. The one that was used on the cover of this year’s exhibit catalog is a stunning portrait of four Atlantic Puffins. The original, about 9 by 27 inches, took my breath away. Because of the dimensions, half of the painting is reproduced on the front to back covers of the catalog, and half as front endpapers.

Birds in Art Catalogue cover art, 2019

Birds in Art Catalogue end papers, 2019

The title page illustration details Woollett’s arresting Secretary Bird (shown at the top of this post). I purchase the catalog every year. It’s always gorgeous, but this year’s may be the most beautiful one ever.

By now I’m familiar with the work of a lot of the artists in the Birds in Art exhibit, and it’s fun to see the same names from year to year. Except for the featured artist’s display, the exhibit includes just one work of art, which must have been produced in the past year, by each artist. Many artists have been selected more than once, and a handful are true perennials. Lars Jonsson of Sweden has had something included every single year since 1982.  Larry Barth of Pennsylvania has had a piece in the exhibit every year since 1980. Robert Bateman of British Columbia goes even further back, his paintings displayed every year since 1977. And two artists have been in every single Birds in Art exhibit since its inception in 1976.  Guy Coheleach, who now lives in Florida, painted a stunning Great Horned Owl in a snowstorm for this year’s entry. Maynard Reece was born in 1920. His gorgeous painting this year of a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers was titled “Into the Sunset.” He wrote in his artist’s comments, “At ninety-nine years old, I believe painting has kept me alive as I, too, head into the sunset.” 

One painting that arrested my attention was from a newcomer artist, Cathy Weiss of Washington, whose three Lappet-faced Vultures were magnificent, their eyes wild alive and expressive. I’ll be looking for her work in future years.

I started going to the Birds in Art exhibit in the late 70s, though I skipped most of the 80s when my children were little. The annual catalogs include beautiful reproductions of each artwork in that year’s exhibit. I have the catalog for every year going back to 1989, and wish I had a complete set. These books may spend most of their time on a shelf, but every now and then I pull them down to be inspired all over again.

As I recall, the exhibit usually closes by early November, but this year it won't close until December 1. The Woodson Art Museum is open every day except Mondays and major holidays, and admission is always free. It’s well worth a visit before this year's Birds in Art exhibit ends.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Piping Plover Day

Piping Plover

Today, November 18, 2019, has been designated Piping Plover Day in Illinois, honoring Monty and Rose, the plovers that raised two chicks on Montrose Beach in Chicago this past summer, the first time since 1955 that this endangered species nested within the city. The governor’s proclamation reads:
WHEREAS, two endangered piping plovers, “Monty” and “Rose,” became the first piping plovers to nest in Chicago in 64 years this past summer; and,   
WHEREAS, there are only 70 pairs of endangered Great Lakes piping plovers remaining; and,   
WHEREAS, Monty and Rose reared two chicks in one of the busiest parts of one of the busiest beaches in Illinois; and,   
WHEREAS, nearly 200 people volunteered their time throughout the summer of 2019 to protect these birds, educating hundreds if not thousands of beach goers; and,   
WHEREAS, Monty and Rose nested in Waukegan in 2018 and a film has been made about them which will debut on November 18; and,    
WHEREAS, plovers are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change and habitat loss;   
THEREFORE, I, JB Pritzker, Governor of the State of Illinois, do hereby proclaim November 18, 2019, as Piping Plover Day in the state of Illinois.  
The festivities started yesterday, with a Montrose Beach cleanup. Today there are several bird walks and also a beach cleanup at Waukegan Beach in Lake County, where Monty and Rose nested last year. In true Chicago style, that group will finish the day at a bar, raising a toast to Monty and Rose. Of course, neither they nor their young will be sharing in the festivities, due to both their being underage and to their having flown the coop—they migrated south in August.

Perhaps the biggest event today will be the very first screening of a documentary about Monty, Rose, and their young, and what so many Chicagoans did to help them bring off this historic feat. The film, produced by Bob Dolgan, is scheduled to have five screenings altogether between today and December 11—all have been sold out for quite a while. The sixth and last scheduled screening, on January 13, may still have seats.

To learn more about this wonderful pair of birds and everything that Chicagoans did to protect their nesting efforts, check out the Chicago Audubon website

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Malignant Complacency and Complicity


The scariest movie I ever saw, which still has the power to make me shudder just thinking about it, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The image that stays with me is how the tendrils from what looked like innocent potted plants silently, insidiously grasped at sleeping people, sucking their humanity out of them, leaving them looking the same but devoid of their very souls.

Lately I’ve found myself thinking about the real-life tendrils that suck the souls out of people. I remember my profound disillusionment the first time I became aware that people who have a strong moral compass still have to be circumspect about their words, knowing how much is at stake if they clearly and openly speak truth to power. I often tell how, when I was a college freshman in 1970, preparing for the first Earth Day, professors fed us students solid information about various pesticides and pollutants and which corporations were producing them and dumping them in the environment, but they were also pleading with us not to tell anyone where our information came from. Their departments and colleagues, and sometimes they themselves, depended on grants from those very corporations.

It’s no coincidence that it was an environmental activist, Jack Weinberg, who coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” It had nothing to do with which generations people over 30 belonged to at that point in the 60s. No, it was about those tendrils that reach out and grab adults of every generation as the jobs and communities we depend on suck us into complicity with the very forces that may be dooming our futures.

Sammy our Ford Pinto bearing wedding sign

In 1972 when Russ and I got married, we did our honest best to protect the environment, beginning with my sewing my own wedding dress and Russ's trousers. Our thank-you notes were printed on recycled paper. We never bought paper napkins, using only cloth. We found a laundry detergent that was phosphate free, and toilet paper that seemed to be the least impactful on forests. We started recycling long before there was street pickup for it, when it involved us packaging up and bringing items to different places. We researched which car model would get the best gas mileage before we bought our 1971 Ford Pinto, and then we used that car only when absolutely necessary, taking our bikes or public transportation to get around East Lansing and then Madison, Wisconsin. Russ and I even walked to the grocery store, almost a mile away, lugging groceries home in our arms so we wouldn’t squander any more gas than we had to.

When I became a birder in 1975, I got a more visceral appreciation of the environment I was trying to protect. I did my day-to-day birding by foot, spending most of my time birding at woodlots near the MSU campus and then at Picnic Point, a few blocks from our Madison apartment. Most weekends I spent one day out with my birding buddies, but we carpooled, sometimes packing 7 into a sedan.

Russ and I were just reaching the Age 30 milestone when we moved to Duluth in 1981. We’d have loved to live in the north woods, but we decided against it because that would involve a drive for Russ to get to work and for us to get to town for doctor appointments, Audubon meetings, shopping, and other errands. Country living also adds a huge expenditure of fossil fuels squandered on mail delivery and on plowing and maintaining those country roads on a people-per-mile basis. So we picked an old house right in town, easy walking distance to school, the post office, and grocery store, and just a mile from where Russ worked. He walked or biked just about every day. But now if we went shopping together, we had to take the car, because we couldn’t leave the baby home alone.

We’d bought cloth diapers while I was pregnant. The hospital sent us home with a supply of disposables. When we ran out, we started using the cloth diapers. But by the third day, Joey had developed a raw, red diaper rash. I’m sure there were ways we could have found to prevent rashing with cloth diapers, but we weren’t about to experiment on our newborn baby, and went back to disposables. That made us increasingly conscious about all our paper use and made us do our best to conserve paper in other ways, but still, switching to disposable diapers was our first major compromise with our environmental principles.

Those little compromises have a huge cumulative effect, but when our personal needs or desires are environmentally costly, we can offset at least some of the bad effects by sacrificing in other areas. That’s the reason I wrote my book 101 Ways to Help Birds. Researching it brought home to me the huge ways that birds and other natural resources are impacted by our personal actions, transportation choices, and the products we buy.

All the problems we face today—fires, flooding, storms, warming and rising seas, and so many other issues affecting birds, insects, and other wildlife as well as us—have been exacerbated by us falling asleep as tiny tendrils of materialism, finances, other social pressures, and job responsibilities entangle and tug at us. On top of those, getting and keeping a job makes most adults learn to keep their heads down and not make waves, going along to get along, at least to some extent. Healthcare and a regular paycheck are urgent needs, so virtually all young adults eventually find themselves making the same kinds of compromises previous generations did, many of them working for the very same soul-sucking companies that have done so much damage already. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers ended badly for humanity. We can take comfort that it’s fiction, but with so many insidious tendrils reaching out and ensnaring us in the world as it is, it’s hard to imagine how things can get better. What we’re facing right now is a case of malignant complacency and complicity that has metastasized throughout our society and our world.

Dan Rather said cynicism pollutes objectivity. Cynicism also protects us from disillusionment, because how can you be disillusioned when you have no illusions? But cynicism also robs us of hope, and we can’t attack any problem without hope. That hope must be supported by the courage and will to take action, and the willingness and sacrifices to work with others.

We’re none of us perfect, but we all can do more than we’re doing right now to cast light on and cut through those intertwining tendrils that grab us while we're not paying attention. It's time to wake up and remember a line from another movie, this one based on reality, about ordinary good people fighting and beating a huge and overpowering web of corruption. In The Untouchables, Sean Connery's character asks something we all must demand of ourselves right now. "What are you prepared to DO?"

Black-capped Chickadee

Monday, November 11, 2019

Okay, Boomer

Blue-winged Teal

Today is my birthday. Usually in anticipation of a new age, I like to focus on cool elements of the number itself. For example, 67 is a prime number, so last year I could say I was in my prime, but now, at 68, I won’t be able to say that again until I turn 71. Meanwhile, 68 is the largest known number to be the sum of exactly two primes in exactly two different ways: it's the sum of both  7 + 61 and 31 + 37. All higher numbers that have been checked are the sum of three or more pairs of primes.

To please my sense of whimsy, 68 is called a “happy number,” which means that if you repeatedly square its digits and add them up, you eventually get 1. That is, when you square and add the digits of 68 (6² + 8² = 36 + 64) you get 100; squaring those digits and adding them up you get  1² + 0² + 0²,  which equals 1. It would be nice to think that means that this year will be a happy one.

Looking at 68 in a less numerical way, in the restaurant industry, 68 is sometimes used as a code meaning to put something on the menu; that's the opposite of 86-ing something, which means to take it off the menu.

Blue-winged Teal

The 68th bird on my lifelist was a lovely little duck, the Blue-winged Teal. I saw my first when I was taking my first ornithology class the summer I started birding. That ornithology class has been the source of my annual birthday birds ever since I turned 41, a trend that will continue for the rest of my life unless I beat my family's genetic odds and manage to reach 91.

I was born in 1951, at the peak of the Baby Boom era, and it’s amusing and weird to be turning 68 at the exact moment when “Okay, boomer” is peaking as a meme meant to somehow shame us old people in a new and trendy way simply for being our age.

The reason “Okay, boomer” went viral last week was that the New Zealand Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick was giving a speech in favor of stricter carbon emissions standards when she was rudely interrupted by a representative of the National Party, which refuses to acknowledge the damage climate change is already doing, much less the catastrophic damage it will continue to do, exacerbated specifically because so many people in power in New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere have for so long ignored science. Swarbrick was in the middle of her speech and justifiably wanted a quick way to shut him up so she could finish. I just wish there was a clever word summing up people who deny science and twist information to promote short-sighted, selfish goals rather than one that insults a whole generation.

In the years when Russ and I were twenty-something students, we lived in several apartments and always took painstaking care to leave each one cleaner and in better shape when we moved out than it was when we moved in. That seemed a simple matter of right and wrong—the Golden Rule. It's a rule that people of all ages follow, but also a rule that people of all ages violate. People our exact age left some of our new apartments a horrible mess for us.

Blue Jay

Following the Golden Rule to ensure that our air, water, and land are clean for future generations, and protecting our natural resources for the future, would seem to be no-brainers. I’ve always talked about how Blue Jays planted oak forests after glaciation—collecting and burying fertile acorns wherever melting glaciers gave them an opening. The jays may not have thought this through—they simply cache away food stores that they themselves might want. So their providing for future generations may have been done without thought—a literal no-brainer. 

Arguably, we humans have more brain power than birds, but some used those brains to fight tooth and nail against the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts back in the 1970s and to weaken them since their passage. Propaganda campaigns to make people think that climate change is controversial among scientists are promoted by the same energy companies that are gearing up to take advantage as polar ice melts. Selling advertising to them is how millennial Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire. In a world where profit trumps everything, intelligence at any age is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When Greta Thunberg did her big tour, the photos that most moved me depicted the 16-year-old girl and 84-year-old Jane Goodall together. These two people so far apart in age are both dedicating their lives to making this planet better for the future. Is Thunberg doing it for the selfish reason that she herself will be living well into that future? Is Goodall's concern about the future somehow more selfless because she doesn't have more than a decade or two left in her own life? Nope. Both of these people are following the Golden Rule, treating the planet, its creatures, and future people as they'd like to be treated, and going so much above and beyond the call of duty makes them both heroes. Which generation they each belong to is irrelevant.

Dividing people into arbitrary age categories fosters distrust and squanders our energy as we look for scapegoats rather than for real-world solutions. As species disappear, oceans rise, and pollution grows apace, we must resist this divide-and-conquer strategy and start planting our acorns together, as Blue Jays do. It's a no-brainer.

Blue Jay