Thursday, July 28, 2016

I'm with her!

It occurs to me that the first person ever to sense the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidency was Charles Koch. The danger of a brilliant, hardworking, popular woman standing up to him and his empire is why he started an ugly smear campaign directed as much at the First Lady as at the President himself--something unheard of since Andrew Jackson.

The Koch-created think tanks and other right-wing groups started with ugly rumors of murder (!!!) when one of her close friends committed suicide, and have thrown more and more mud at her when any ugly little mind could conjure it.

I will never, ever forget when Rush Limbaugh got away with calling Chelsea--a LITTLE GIRL--the "White House dog." Seriously--imagine that. Imagine that he said it in the first place, but then realize that no one fired his ass for saying it on the air, and that his listening audience didn't shrink but grew! That proved there really was a "vast right-wing conspiracy," and they could get away with anything at all for lo these many years.

My children, in their 30s, are too young to have been able to see Hillary Clinton without all those mud spatters hurled at her by people so scared of her for so long. They'll never see the optimistic, hard-working young woman who tirelessly worked in so many places in so many capacities to make life better for people. How can people who grew up since the 90s not buy into the "no smoke without fire" narrative after so many people have been manufacturing that smoke for lo these many years?

Now, to see people my age--people who lived through all that but have somehow forgotten it--maligning her for conjured up shit, or whining that she sounds too "scolding" or "bitchy" or "nagging" or "too ambitious." I never hear those words attached to male politicians; to hear people saying how much they've looked forward to a woman as president but how disappointed they are that this tainted, scandal-ridden woman of all people could be the first—that makes me want to cry. I am so proud of a woman who kept on getting up and kept on fighting, against all odds. I can't think of anyone else on the planet who has fought so hard for so long, who has worked so hard for so many, against so very many odds. There is no one who more deserves my vote.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Don't bicker about how animals got here. Just take care of them!

Portrait of the Pianist as a Young Toddler

As a child, my daughter had a rare sensitivity to mosquito bites. After a bite, she didn’t get the welt most of us do, and it didn’t itch. But hours later, the entire surrounding area was swollen and hot to the touch, and a histamine-filled blister started forming. By the next day, the blister could be an inch and a half in diameter and rise an inch above the surrounding, swollen tissue. When she was a baby, she reacted like this to every single mosquito bite. Over time, she grew less sensitive to many species, and now it’s overall quite manageable.

But while she was a baby, I once saw a mosquito on her baby finger. I instantly swatted it away, but too late. Over the following hours, the skin on her tiny finger swelled and swelled until it looked like a sausage, so stretched that the skin looked about to burst. We rushed her to the emergency room. 

When I explained what had happened, the doctor on duty argued that this could not possibly be a mosquito bite—it HAD to be a bee sting. He lectured me about the difference between bee stings and mosquito bites in a most patronizing and condescending way. That got my Irish up, which was counterproductive—I held my ground for far too many minutes while the skin on my baby’s finger continued to swell and she cried and cried. Finally, I asked if the treatment would be different if this were a bee sting rather than a mosquito bite, and he said it wouldn’t—no matter what, he had to drain the fluid to help my baby. So I told him to just do it. 

I’ve been thinking about this lately when I hear people arguing about creation vs. evolution. I was raised Catholic, and as a child born in 1951, never perceived any contradictions between the two. In science classes taught by nuns, we learned that Charles Darwin had brilliantly figured out that species evolved in a wondrously complex system. One of our teachers said it would have been a cruel God indeed who could have specifically created every individual disease organism that caused so much pain and death to innocent little babies—I think that was the first time I ever heard the expression "with malice aforethought." No, God created a magnificent, complicated system. She said the Bible’s six days of creation were not meant to be literal—a “day” in Genesis was simply shorthand for an unspecified period of time that could have been moments or billions of years. She told us that our Catholic belief was that God started it all, and when human beings came about, God breathed a soul into us. It hardly mattered whether His starting material was a clod of mud or an ape. I figured the human mind is big enough to question how the world works and search for provable answers using the scientific method, and great enough to wrap around science and faith both.

Many people’s minds, for one reason or another, do not wrap around science and faith both. Modern civilization has a scientific underpinning, but even as religious people of all stripes take advantage of medical and technological advances, some of them remain skeptical of the very science that ended the scourges of polio and smallpox, figured out how to make water consistently safe to drink, and helps them recover from many illnesses.

In the same way that science deniers still take advantage of scientific advances, it seems like those of us who understand and accept the evolutionary underpinnings of biology might more wisely use our energy not to argue about it but to simply accept that many people’s faith will not be budged. Arguing is counterproductive when no matter what we think or believe, we can all see biodiversity as a wondrous and valuable thing. Whether Spotted Owls or Whooping Cranes or Black-capped Vireos are a gift that God specifically created or a species that evolved over eons, we should be working together, liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious, partisan and non-partisan, to protect it. Does it matter whether the motivation is that every species is an irreplaceable component of an ecosystem, or that God commanded Noah to save every single species? Either way, just do it.

Whooping Crane

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers: Final Update

Hello, world!

The Red-bellied Woodpecker nest in my yard is no longer in use, and I’m not sure what exactly happened. The first and only day I saw a nestling peeking out the entrance hole was July 8. The chick looked strong and robust, and seemed about ready to fledge. After the parents fed it, they climbed into the hole and I could hear at least one additional baby being fed, and quite possibly more.

Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding nestling

The next morning, I heard all kinds of unusual sounds in my yard, and when I ran out, the parents were dive-bombing crows in the nest tree and the tree next to it. I couldn’t hear any nestlings. I saw three Red-bellieds fly out of the tree. I’m certain two were adults, but didn’t get a good look at the one that followed an adult to the backyard behind mine. I’m hoping against hope that it was the nestling I got photos and video of the day before, having fledged successfully. But I had no idea what was going on with the crows.

Several times that day I saw a parent—sometimes the male and sometimes the female—come to the nest hole with food, and go all the way into the cavity, but each time I heard no baby sounds and the parent ended up flying off with the food. That happened once or twice the next day, too. And then I stopped seeing any Red-bellied Woodpeckers for over a week. Finally, on July 19, I saw an adult male and female and a third bird—I’m not 100 percent certain of its age, but am hopeful I was seeing the family unit. The adults were feeding in Russ’s cherry tree, and a couple of times one flew off with a cherry, which I’m hoping they were bringing to the young one—dense foliage in my other trees made it impossible to know what was going on.

Red-bellied Woodpecker in Russ's cherry tree

So what happened to the other nestlings? It’s impossible to be certain. The squawking I heard first thing in the morning on the 8th may have been related to the crows—they obviously can’t squeeze into a woodpecker cavity, but could possibly have pulled out a nestling sticking its head out to beg, and possibly could have grabbed a fledgling sitting on a branch. I didn’t hear the noisy sounds a baby crow makes when eating, so I’m at least a little hopeful that the worst-case scenario—one of the babies being ripped apart by a crow—didn’t happen. But I’m pretty sure that not more than one young chick successfully fledged, and I’m afraid something bad happened to the other chicks in the nest. In just about all my photos and videos of the nest, at least one fly is wandering about near the entrance—it’s quite possible most of the babies were harboring botfly larvae—a horrible way for a tiny bird to die.

The box elder tree with the nest lost a limb on one side of the cavity a few weeks ago. On July 21, another storm hit, knocking down a big spruce tree in the yard and ripping off the limb on the other side of the woodpecker cavity in the box elder, but oddly enough, the actual nest cavity may still be intact. When we hire a tree service to deal with a few damaged trees from the big storm, we’ll be removing that section of the box elder’s trunk, and will slice it open to see what the inside looks like. It’s a sad ending to my Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting saga, but even one little baby successfully fledging is a pretty thrilling outcome. It drives home an essential truth—so many things can go wrong when a pair of birds sets out to build a nest, produce and care for eggs, and tend to the chicks, yet every bird on the planet survived that entire process. Each living bird really is a miracle.

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Requiem for a Beloved Tree

In 1918 or so, a young soldier was killed in World War I. His little brother, living in my neighborhood, planted several spruce trees as a living memorial. In 1981, when I was walking down Peabody Street hoping to find a house for sale, I fell in love with one of those trees. I had no idea of its history or anything—I simply fell in love with its magnificence, towering over the neighborhood. It was in the backyard of a little house with a for sale sign, so 35 years later, here we are. 

That tree’s sheltering branches have held all manner of birds, from owls to crossbills. My children ran around the trunk. I gazed at it from my home office window. It’s been a solid presence in my daily life for 35 years.

And then in a heartbeat, or, rather, a 90-mile-per-hour gust of wind, the tree crashed to the ground, uprooted. The storm at 3:30 am Thursday caused a huge swath of damage throughout much of Duluth, leaving over a third of the city without power. I’m writing this on Sunday, Day Four of the disaster, and we’re still without electricity. Minnesota Power said power might not be back in my neighborhood, part of the “epicenter,” until late Thursday, over a week after the storm. They’ve brought in crews from as far as Missouri, but the disaster is more widespread than anything they’ve dealt with before.

The spruce fell from northwest to southeast, diagonally, filling much of the backyard. It fell directly on the power line—there was no way it could have missed that—yet missed the house and even my bird feeders. I like to think that in a final act of courage, the tree fell that way on purpose.

We’re going to use the bottommost section of trunk to make a solid little table for me, and I want to keep the very top branches. I’m not surprised at how bereaved I feel—when we were little girls, my sister and I used to skip around the two elm trees in our yard outside Chicago. One “belonged” to her, one to me. Hers developed Dutch elm disease and had to be removed, and then mine was struck by lightning the same summer. Our front yard was never the same again.

The sixth grade boy next door was devastated that a tree across the street crashed down in the storm. He remembers putting his arms around the tree when he was little, and it’s provided an important hiding place for him when playing Nerf Wars with his best friend. He told me that a lot of people think trees are just trees, but “people like us know better.” That’s the thing about storms—they take us out of ourselves and bring people together, whether to help each other or to grieve together.

This power outage is helping me notice which energy uses I don’t miss and which are vital. Temps reached 93 here on Thursday and 96 on Friday. It wasn’t as horrible as it could have been—we’ve never had air conditioning, and have always been good at cooling down the place at night and closing it up tight in the morning. But our stove is electric and our on-demand gas water heater works with an electric operating system. We’ve been buying a couple of large blocks of ice every day, but this has gone on too long and most of the food in our fridge and freezer is no longer salvageable. 

I’m doing just fine without TV and am using my phone for an internet hotspot, but no TV is such a loss for my 97-year-old mother-in-law who has short-term memory problems, so keeps forgetting why she can’t watch Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, or our evening lineup. One morning she prepared her coffee with cold water—the poor thing couldn’t understand why the coffee was cold and tasted horrible and was shocked all over again when I told her we were having a power outage so the kettle doesn’t work. I’m grateful she’s not on a c-pap or other electrically run support system, but many people are.

A few of my friends who live in the country boast about how they’re “off the grid” even as they depend on backup generators and wood burning stoves that are far, far less energy efficient and more polluting per kilowatt produced than electricity produced by the power company, and contribute to climate change just as badly. Somehow we need to face these problems together, as a community, all of us recognizing our dependence on some kind of energy and how we personally contribute to the problems and must be part of the solution. But right now I’m yearning for an ice cold drink and mourning my tree. I’ll think about solving the world’s problems tomorrow. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Are mockingbirds life-long learners?

Northern Mockingbird

Ornithologists have long maintained that Northern Mockingbirds are continual learners, adding new imitations to their songs year after year. The assumption has been that imitations of different sounds indicate the breadth of experiences a male has lived through, and that female mockingbirds are drawn to the most experienced males. 

The American Ornithologists’ Union and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North Americamockingbird account, revised and updated in 2011, states, “A male’s repertoire often contains more than 150 distinct song types which change during its adult life and may increase in number with age.” The account emphasizes that individuals learn new sounds throughout life, citing several studies, and cites both Don Kroodsma (one of my ornithological heroes) and another researcher who listed four different types of evidence consistent with song learning in mockingbirds: “(1) vocal imitation in the laboratory of conspecific, heterospecific, and nonavian sounds, (2) interspecific vocal imitation in free-living birds, (3) conspecific vocal imitation among free-living birds, and (4) abnormal vocal development under acoustic deprivation in the laboratory.”

The Birds of North America also mentions that
a minimum of 35%–63% of song types in a given spring repertoire occur again the subsequent spring; the rest are new (Derrickson 1985, unpubl. data). Finally, spring repertoire size (the total number of distinct song types recorded from an individual as determined from analyses of extensive recordings) increases with age (Derrickson 1987b).
The male mockingbird’s many different vocalizations, indicating all the things he has experienced over his lifetime, are what win him a mate, which is why I have often characterized the mockingbird as the Othello of the bird world—Desdemona fell in love with Othello for his story-telling about his adventures.

Northern Mockingbird

Now a recent study is questioning whether mockingbirds really do keep learning new songs throughout life. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of questioning that recent study, which was summarized on Cornell’s All About Birds website. So far I haven’t been able to find the original paper, but I did find some papers by the scientist, Dave Gammon of North Carolina’s Elon University. He’s made one very interesting finding:

 Mockingbirds mimic birds whose songs are similar in pitch and rhythm to their own vocalizations. "When a Tufted Titmouse sings, it already sounds similar to something a mockingbird would sing," Gammon said. The Mourning Dove is too low and slow, and the Chipping Sparrow is too high and fast.

That fills an important gap in our understanding of what species mockingbirds are likely to mimic.

But then Gammon’s research gets a little dicey, unless there’s more to it than the article notes. For six months, he broadcast eight novel songs from four outdoor speakers on campus for two hours a day. Half were recordings of birds that don’t live in North Carolina and half were computer generated. More importantly, two of the exotic bird songs and two of the computer-generated songs were similar in pitch and rhythm to mockingbird-specific vocalizations. Gammon expected that the campus mockingbirds would imitate the real and computer-generated songs similar to theirs, but not the ones that were dissimilar.

In fact, they didn’t imitate any of the songs. Gammon combed through hours of recordings from 15 adult banded mockingbirds from that year and several years afterward and found not a single imitation of any of the new songs, though on two occasions he did hear a Brown Thrasher of unknown age mimicking one of the new songs. But it sounds like no mockingbirds at all picked up the new sounds, including young ones. 

I don’t know if this was because the sounds came from loudspeakers rather than actual natural events or what, but I don’t think his conclusion that older birds don't acquire new songs is supported, and for now I can continue to believe that at least some mockingbirds may indeed keep learning songs as they get older. But I'll keep looking for the original paper in case I'm wrong. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Kirtland's Warbler: Endangered Species Act Success Story!

Kirtland's Warbler

In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Sally Albright orders a piece of pie in a restaurant saying, “I'd like the pie heated and I don't want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not then no ice cream just whipped cream but only if it's real; if it's out of the can then nothing.” The waitress asks, “Not even the pie?” and Sally responds, “No, I want the pie, but then not heated.”

In the movie, that particular brand of fussiness is part of what endears Sally to us. We humans are a varied lot, from people who just grab a chunk of pie into their hand and gobble it down to people who are very particular about every little element of their food.

Kirtland’s Warbler is rather the Sally Albright of the bird world. It nests in areas of pine, but not just any pine—Kirtland’s Warbler must have jack pines, and want them in stands over 80 acres in size. The jack pines must be growing on well-drained soil, and not just any well-drained soil—the birds want what’s called Grayling sand, which has very low humus content so water percolates right through and the nests don’t get flooded. And Kirtland’s Warblers won’t accept just any old jack pines—the trees must be no younger than about 5 years old, and no older than about 20 years old. The warblers nest on the ground beneath the pines, and need for the trees to be large enough for their bottom branches to provide protection, and stop using the trees altogether when they’ve lost their lower branches. Ideal habitat for them was historically found within a large swath of the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Kirtland's Warbler habitat

Kirtland’s Warbler was first described for ornithology in 1851, when a migrant was collected outside Cleveland, Ohio. One wintering in the Bahamas was shot in 1879. But ornithologists didn’t discover the actual breeding grounds in Michigan until 1903, in Osceola County. The big, beautiful warbler with the loud voice attracted a lot of research, but not a single nest was found farther than 60 miles from that first nest until 1996.

Kirtland's Warbler

That precise habitat is rather forbidding for us humans—the low nutrient content of Grayling sand makes it inappropriate for agriculture and for manicured lawns both. There had always been plenty of jack pines the right age in that area of Michigan, where forest fires occurred rather frequently due to the dry conditions. Jack pine cones don’t open to release their seeds until they’re exposed to the extreme heat of fires, so they’re among the very first plants to pop up after a forest fire. Unfortunately, decades of forest management that included fire suppression severely limited new growth of jack pines, and by 1975, there were slightly fewer than 200 singing males. Michigan designated the Kirtland’s Warbler the “Bicentennial Bird.” Researchers covering the species entire range managed to find just about exactly 200 singing males that year. Only 167 singing males were found in the census at the low point in 1987. Kirtland’s Warbler was our rarest endangered songbird except for Bachman’s Warbler, which is now extinct.

Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler
Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler on June 6, 1976. That year there were barely 200 pairs. 

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, foresters started managing Michigan’s jack pine forests for Kirtland’s Warblers, using fire as the primary tool to ensure that there were plenty of jack pines the right age. Unfortunately and tragically, a fire in 1980 went out of control, destroying 40 homes and killing a young Forest Service worker. The burn obviously had to change some of our approaches to management in the area, but by the late 80s, that burned over area provided so much appropriate habitat that, combined with Brown-headed Cowbird removal, the Kirtland’s Warbler population started growing. In 1993, the census found 485 birds, more than double the low of six years earlier, and now the population includes over 2,000 pairs—so many that some had to spill out beyond the species’ original narrow range to claim any territory at all. Now we have a few nesting pairs in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Ontario, and Wisconsin.

Kirtland’s Warbler was doing just fine despite its fussy ways until we humans started suppressing fires and destroyed the tight relationship between Brown-headed Cowbirds and bison. Fortunately, this lovely bird with its cheerful song is as endearing as Meg Ryan’s Sally, giving us humans plenty of incentive to act as the species’ own Harry. As long as we can ensure the continuation of appropriate habitat for Kirtland’s Warblers and make sure cowbirds don’t wipe out their reproduction, the Sally Albright of the bird world should continue to thrive, thanks to the Endangered Species Act.

 Kirtland's Warbler