Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Commensalism is the dependence of one species on another in a relationship just a bit south of true parasitism. A number of human commensals are familiar, the rodent genera Rattus and Mus, the Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and Rock Dove (Columba livia)--creatures despised and maligned by most. It's pretty tough, though, not to be charmed by the jaunty little English Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The black bib and bright brown back of the male can be seen bouncing merrily along sidewalks throughout the world. A poet friend of mine calls them “Party Birds.” In falconry slang, the word “Spug” is borrowed from old Scottish. I think either term works well.

The taxonomical placement of the Spug and his 20 or so congeners has been the subject of much debate. Not closely related to the American sparrows, for years they resided in the weaver family, Ploceidae, then found themselves lumped for a time with the family Estrildidae, which includes most of the well-known cage finches. Today most authorities follow Sibley in placing them in the family Passeridae, along with pipits, wagtails and accentors. Most anywhere in Africa and Eurasia one or more Passer species is native, and a number of them have been human commensals for millenia. The Eurasian Tree Sparrow (P. montanus) has pioneered frontiers as far-flung as Missouri, but it's P. domesticus that has shown true genius at the art of commensalism, with a present range that extends from Australia through urban and rural situations in both Americas. Spugs have learned to thrive in a variety of settings, often living their whole lives indoors, successfully breeding in shopping malls and warehouses. There is even a record of a pair successfully raising a brood in an English coal mine 640 meters below the ground.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Eugene Schieffelin, a British expatriot living in New York City, embarked on a little project that would secure his place in ornithological history. Obsessed both with birds and Shakespeare, Schieffelin set out to introduce every bird species mentioned by the Bard into Central Park. Today we remember him as the Victorian ninny who brought us ecological doom in avian form, but what's often forgotten is that Shieffelin was a member of an “acclimatization society,” one of many groups dedicated to redistributing favorite animals and plants. During this time, such projects were all the rage, but were almost invariably failing propositions. Schieffelin's starlings and sparrows thrived well enough, but let's not forget his Eagle Owls, Blackbirds, Nightingales, and all the others doomed to bachelor deaths in the Big Apple.

Young Spugs grow quickly, and can fledge at less than two weeks of age. It is normal for a pair to fledge three different broods in a season, and as many as seven broods have been recorded. Their fecundity and willingness to eat nearly anything helped them spread across the North American continent in a few decades, radiating into new ecological niches, and showing astonishing physical change in well under a century, the big, dark birds of the Pacific Northwest contrasting with their small, paler brethren of the desert Southwest and their brightly-colored Eastern kin.

As they've invaded new spaces, English Sparrows have had their effect on the ecology at large. Far slower than any native passerine bird, their presence has affected the behavior of certain predators. In many American cities, the once bashful Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter cooperi and A. striatus) have taken up urban living, and in the winter are exceptionally common now in many cities, a fact I attribute to the Spug. In 1980 I found a Cooper's Hawk nest in the heart of Salt Lake City. At the time I could find no previous citation of an urban Cooper's nest in the literature. Today they are not uncommon. American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) have also learned to exploit the easy quarry, and in doing so, I believe have become more ornithophagic in general. I've noticed that urban and rural kestrels in my area bring far more native birds to the nest than do those in more pristine habitats. In 1992 I saw a suburban falcon kestrel nail an adult Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) in the air, an act unimaginable from the truly wild, grasshopper and vole-eating kestrels I grew up with.
Commensal birds also displace natives, and are roundly vilified for it. Much is made of the effect English Sparrows and Common Starlings have on cavity-nesting birds, most notably bluebirds (Sialia spp.), whose nests they often appropriate. Of course, this only happens in habitats that have already been severely altered by human development, so it's a little disingenuous to blame the birds for continuing our own effect. The best way to conserve native birds is to leave their habitat alone in the first place. Like all our other commensals, the Spug will be a part of us for the foreseeable future, and I, for one, am happy to have him along for the ride. On this Mardis Gras, let's all drink a toast to the health of the Party Birds!
upper: A BRICK HOUSE--ENGLISH SPARROW & PAPER WASP (1992) acrylic 18" x 16"

Friday, February 24, 2006


I first saw it on the sage steppes of eastern Utah, a distant chocolate band strung from one horizon to the other. Once I reached this stain on the landscape, I found a long, snaking army of Mormon Crickets (Anabrus simplex) several yards wide. Actually a plump terrestrial katydid, the Mormon Cricket exceeds two inches in length, the females bearing an almost equally long, swordlike ovipositor. There are two different forms of this insect: a lighter colored solitary one, and the well known dark gregarious morph. Populations of the latter category tend to rise rather quickly over time, until they reach a density that forces an exodus, and the formation of one of these great bands. The Mormon Cricket was named for the famous incident in 1848 when a large migration threatened the crops of the newly settled Mormon pioneers. The story Utah fourth-graders are taught asserts that vast flocks of California Gulls (Larus californicus) descended from the heavens to gorge themselves on the insects and save the harvest. It’s actually more likely that the crickets disappeared because they simply moved out of the neighborhood, but the gulls still received the undying gratitude of the settlers, and today Utah is the only American state with a state bird named for another state. It also surely has the state bird with the best story behind it. Without a doubt, there were lots of gulls exploiting that food source in 1848. I’ve witnessed several of these cricket plagues in my life, and part of the great pleasure of the experience is watching all of the wildlife drawn to the buffet--not just gulls, but other birds as well, ranging from flycatchers and Meadowlarks to Sage Grouse and sated Swainson’s Hawks, staggering about chicken-like on the ground, crops bulging. Wasps and other predatory insects abound, and mammals like ground squirrels that normally subsist on plants temporarily shift their dietary preference.

Several grasshopper species exhibit population dynamics similar to those of the Mormon Cricket. Especially during one of these population explosions, they are known as “locusts”. This rather vague category includes one of the most important early agricultural pests of the American Great Plains. Until the latter part of the 19th century, the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper (Melanoplus spretus) formed huge migratory swarms billions strong to the east of the Continental Divide. One 1875 aggregation is considered by many to be the most massive insect swarm on record. Eighteen hundred miles long by two hundred miles wide, it blocked the sunlight over most of Colorado and Wyoming. Surprisingly enough, within thirty years the insect was extinct. Today the species only persists in the form of the several centuries old masses frozen into “Grasshopper Glacier,” near Cooke, Montana. The precise mechanics of this extinction are unclear; surely the huge ecological changes of that age, when Midwestern prairie metamorphosed into the American grain belt, were involved. It is often asserted that the grasshoppers bred in riparian areas, which were the most prized land for agriculture, and hence the first to be degraded. One interesting theory holds that they were dependent on the wallows of bison for egg laying sites.

In parts of Africa the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) undergoes periodic booms of a comparable scale. This is the species of the biblical plagues in Exodus. In 1954 a Kenyan swarm containing an estimated ten billion individuals covered some 200 square kilometers, decimating much of the country’s agricultural yield, and the year before last, the species wreaked havoc on agriculture in the western Sahel.

Although modern Americans and Europeans tend to find the eating of insects abhorrent, it’s not hard to imagine our African ancestors joining the storks, kestrels, lizards and others to feast on such a proteinaceous bounty. S. gregaria has surely been an important food source for as long as humans have dwelt in Africa. In the fourth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus told of Libyan Berbers eating a mixture of dried grasshoppers and milk. In Herodotus’ own land, grasshoppers were sold in the markets as “four-winged fowl,” but were relegated to the dining tables of the poorer classes; the aristocracy preferred cicadas. Neither entree was without controversy, however. Some three hundred years after Herodotus, Plutarch deemed cicadas sacred, and considered it impious and odious to eat them. The fourth century Greek poet Aristophanes declared the eating of grasshoppers an abomination. With time this sentiment has held sway in Europe, and with the introduction of European agricultural philosophies to colonial Africa, it crossed the Mediterranean. Today blooms of African desert locusts are all too often seen as nutritional disasters rather than opportunities, and are greeted with chemical pesticides instead of cooking utensils.I discovered the pleasant taste of Melanoplus grasshoppers when I was about five, and still enjoy them roasted on a campfire. Like most insects, they are a nutritious food, high in protein, unsaturated fatty acids, and many important minerals and vitamins. During plague years of Rocky Mountain Grasshoppers, the Plains Indians took full dietary advantage of them. Early white explorers told of huge platforms designed for the roasting of locusts. The Shoshones would build a large fire, then drive locusts into it, to later harvest broiled snacks from the coals. As the region was appropriated by white settlers, attitudes toward entomophagy changed accordingly. In 1875, the year of the great Melanoplus spretus swarm, newspapers across the Midwest told of families starving to death because highly nutritious hoppers had destroyed their crops. So jarred was the populace, that in 1877 the Kansas legislature passed the “Grasshopper Army Act,” requiring all able bodied men to assemble into locust-fighting platoons whenever ordered to do so. This law remained on the books until 1923, more than two decades after the extinction of the grasshopper.

The Paiute Indians from my area used to eat Mormon Crickets, using a herding technique similar to that of the Shoshones to persuade the flightless insects into trenches. Their predecessors, the Fremonts, plucked them from the ground in early morning before they became very active. The Utes ground them into a meal, which they mixed with serviceberries to make a cake which was, by all accounts, delicious. By the time these people were replaced by the Mormons, crickets had become a feared nemesis that could only be confronted by prayer and gulls.
upper: SMOKE-JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON-detail (1994) acrylic 19" x 30"
center: OIL-PALM LOCUST (1997) acrylic 3" x 4"

Thursday, February 23, 2006


The other day, Cindy at Dances With Moths put up a post about the practice of baiting owls to draw them into easy camera range. I was unaware of it, but evidently this activity is gaining popularity in certain areas, and where birders congregate to view irruptive migrants, it's becoming a problem. About the practice, Cindy stated, “This goes against everything I believe in as a bird-watcher and a bird photographer.” I read her arguments with scepticism. My first reaction was, "this fits right in with my every instinct." I've never baited owls to photograph them, but I've tossed plenty of mice, pigeons, and you name it out of car windows in an effort to watch predators do what they do best, and I've never felt like I was harming them in any way. This sort of interaction with wildlife has always been a big part of my life.

A spoiled child of the west, I grew up in an area as sparsely populated as any in the temperate zone. Fences were few and easy to climb. As a boy, I could get on a horse and ride for days in any direction save one without running into other humans. Like many of the kids in my home town, I was an avid naturalist. If a species interested me, I'd capture a young one and raise it as a pet. We took foxes, coyotes, squirrels, woodrats, and scores of bird and reptile species, and in the process learned more about those animals than any college course could have taught us. Many of us practiced falconry, and a number of us have continued that sport into adulthood. Through our hands-on wildlife studies, we gained insights into the natural world that are the privilege of few in the industrialized world. To this day, I'm as likely to try to catch a wild animal, or climb to its nest as to sit silently and study its behavior.
Thanks to the fact that only a handful of kids were collecting animals from an area of thousands of hectares, our impact on the local ecology was minimal. Today a horseback trip along one of my old routes would often be forced to follow suburban streets inhabited by children with little taste for our juvenile pastimes—good thing, too, for today's shrunken wilderness could hardly support their numbers. As the human appetite for land grows, childhoods like my own become available to fewer, and my kind of behavior becomes less appropriate. As the traffic in our National Parks and reserves increases, necessity mandates that we be incrementally restricted in our activities, and more and more this applies to unrestricted wilderness as well. Each trip to a National Park becomes a little more reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's short story, A Sound of Thunder, where time-traveling tourists are taken on a Mesozoic vacation, but restricted to the walkway, where they won't affect history. I foresee great transparent tubes snaking across refuges, from which we can view the highly-managed wildlife without interfering. As our march toward Bradbury's vision continues, I see that I am an anachronism, and that tomorrow's naturalists will need to adopt a spirit of distant reverence that is more in line with Cindy's than with mine. It's a damn shame.
upper: RUFOUS ELEPHANT SHREW & WHITE-FACED SCOPS OWL (1996) acrylic 10" x 7"
lower: RED-TAILED HAWK & GRAY SQUIRREL (1995) acrylic 16" x 28"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Next week I'll celebrate two months of blogging, but today I received my very first flame!


Among North America's most spectacular insects, the giant ichneumon wasps of the genus Megarhysa are found throughout most of the continent. Some females exceed seven inches in length, including the long ovipositor, which can bore deep into solid wood to reach the wood-eating larvae which these wasps parasitize. The eggs are laid singly in the chamber of each victim, typically the larva of a horntail wasp (family Siricidae). The larval ichneumon slowly consumes its living host, saving its vital organs for last.
Unfortunately, giant ichneumons are rare in my area, and I've seen but a handful here. In Toronto I once saw five female Megarhysa wasps ovipositing into the same oak tree, forming a perfect vertical line. My assumption was that their wood-boring hosts preferred either to live on the warmest or coolest side of the trunk. It was overcast, close to noon, and I had no compass, so whether they were seeking or avoiding heat is still a mystery to me.

This painting depicts a very rare urban ichneumon species that parasitizes vertebrates and attains unbelievable proportions.

illustrations: Oviposition (2000) [entire and detail] acrylic 20" x 17"

Friday, February 17, 2006


In a recent post, I discussed some of the factors implicated in the current startling global decline of frogs. In two papers in the February edition of the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Tyrone Hayes and his colleagues, of UC Berkeley, have added some interesting new pieces to the puzzle.

The first paper provides strong evidence that, while tiny concentrations of many chemical pesticides have deleterious effects on frogs, mixtures of the compounds may be far worse than the sum of their parts. In a four-year study which raised tadpoles of Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) in water with various combinations of pesticides typical of waters near midwestern cornfields, mixtures showed far greater effects than did single chemicals. When a mixture of all nine chemicals (four popular herbicides, three insecticides and two fungicides) was present at 0.1 ppb (one of the lowest concentrations measured in the field), tadpoles took 30% longer to metamorphose, and a 35% mortality rate was measured. While the metamorphosis period was longer, the affected adult frogs were considerably smaller than average, making them dependent on new prey, and vulnerable to new predators. The pesticide cocktails also caused thymic damage, making the frogs particularly susceptible to bacterial meningitis. In a separate study of African Clawed Frogs (Xenopus laevius), the thymic damage was shown to be caused by elevated levels of the stress hormone corticosterone.

Hayes has studied the feminizing effect of minute concentrations of Atrazine, the most popular agricultural herbicide used in America, on male frogs for years. In his second paper, he shows further details of how the powerful endocrine disrupter blocks the effects of androgen, and stimulates estrogen production.
illustration: SOUTHERN LEOPARD FROG & TRICOLORED HERON (2000) acrylic 13.5" x 7"

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Here's a very nice depiction of an oak tree outside of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University as viewed from 10 million light years away, and zooming in exponentially, ending with a view of the quarks within a carbon atom in a leaf cell.


The seventeenth edition of I and the Bird, a birding blog carnival, is now up at Wildbird on the Fly. Take a peek.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


The sparkle of a bird's song often outshines its other audio signatures, the gentle whistle of an overhead V of ducks, each bird contributing a position cue to every other member of the flock, or the huffing wingbeat of the oropendola and hornbill, heavy tropical air whining through ventages where degenerate wing coverts fail to seal the gaps between primary shafts: signals to other members of their forest species. The male oropendola embellishes his courtship song with percussive wing flapping, as do many others: the geology hammer-clacks of New Guinea's birds of paradise, the firecracker in a bug-zapper snaps of the neotropical manakins, and of course the accelerando floor tom of the Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbella).
It's those noisy wings of the grouse and his kin that posed a conundrum for me as a young falconer. There is nothing more attractive to a bird of prey than that explosive whir. At first blush it seems silly for a bird to carry the sound of a dinner bell, but there are benefits that balance out being the object of a hawk’s lust. The really noisy galliform birds like quail and grouse crouch low and freeze in cover when threatened. There they are only vulnerable to raptors with human assistants. When flushed, that explosive wingbeat startles most terrestrial predators enough to stop them in their tracks for a moment; it often leaves this mammal clutching his chest like Fred Sanford. I once flushed a turkey-sized Great Curassow (Crax rubra) from her nest at close range, an experience as close to stepping on a landmine as I care to get.

All of these birds have precocial young that leave the nest and follow their mother within hours of hatching. A flashy takeoff is useful in distracting trouble away from vulnerable chicks. I’ve seen several grouse species engage in “broken-wing” acts, and those noisy wings add much to the effect. Many pigeon species will do the same thing to lure a threat away from their nest, laying upon the ground like an invalid, while revving that peculiar whistling, wing-clapping takeoff. A number of nightjars and owls use similar devices. I've watched Common Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) and Madagascan Nightjars (Caprimulgus madagascariensis) try to lure me from their nests with broken-wing displays augmented by wing-clapping. Protective males of the former species have flown about my head, clapping their wings. It's likely that these birds use such “applause” in courtship displays, as well. I've seen their distant cousins, the Long-eared Owls (Asio otus), wing clap during nuptial flights, as well as in distraction and intimidation displays around the nest.
The nuptial regalia of several African and South American nightjar species feature extremely long tail or wing feathers. So far I haven't lucked into seeing their displays, but when imagining them, I hear the long shafts make lascivious ruffling sounds appropriate for the occasion.
The spectacular courtship of the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) can be heard through much of the United States. The hen perches on the ground while the male circles overhead, calling to her and making long, periodic stoops at the Earth. Each time he pulls out of a dive, his wings emit a howl that can be heard from a mile away. It's a sound I've heard scores of times, but expend great effort each year to re-experience. The similar sound of a falcon coming out of a stoop at close range is one of the many lures that keeps falconers engaged in that sport, often against their better judgment.

The flight of many swifts is almost a perpetual, transverse stoop, and the primaries of the faster species buzz like an arrow's fletching. Few experiences are as exhilarating as perching high on the side of a cliff, with dozens of swifts rushing by within inches, rendering a harmony something like the last sound heard by George Armstrong Custer*.
upper: MONTEZUMA OROPENDOLA DISPLAYING(1993) acrylic 20" x 15"
second: GREAT HELMETED HORNBILL (1998) acrylic 30" X 19"
third: PENNANT-WINGED NIGHTJAR (1998) ink wash 23" x 17"
fourth: TWO STORIES--COMMON NIGHTHAWK (1994) acrylic 22" x 30"
lower: WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS (1993) (detail) acrylic 22" X 30"
*Yeah, I know...Custer was killed by bullets, not arrows.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


As a boy I took pride in my skills at catching the Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) that were plentiful in three ponds within a few miles of my home. In the spring of '72, I was surprised to find but a few frogs emerging from hibernation. I never saw a leopard frog in the area after 1973. A decade later, I learned that herpetologists throughout the Americas, and Australia too, had witnessed similar phenomena.

Today the continuing decline of frog species is well known, but still poorly understood. What is known, is that a panoply of factors are involved. Chemical pollutants like PCBs, organochlorides and other herbicides like Roundup and Atrazine, and insecticides like Malathion and Esfenvalerate have all been shown to kill frogs in extremely small concentrations. Acid rain has been implicated in crashes of Natterjack Toads (Bufo calamita) in Southern England and Red-legged Frogs (Rana aurora) in central California. UV radiation and the aquatic fungus Saprolegnia ferax have devastated populations of Wetern Toads (Bufo borealis) and others in the Cascade Mountains. The flatworm Ribeiroia ondatrae has exploded in numbers, causing leg deformities in many populations. Invasive plant and animal species have hurt many amphibian populations, including fellow anurans like the American Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana) and the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus). In western North America, the introduction of trout, bass, and other game fish has led to the disappearance of native amphibians from many waters. Pressure from commercial hunting for frog legs has devastated populations of the Pig Frog (Rana grylio) in the United States, the Edible Frog (R. esculenta) in Europe and R. tigrina and R. hexadactyla in India and Bangladesh.

In 1998, biologist Karen Lips was surprised to find quantities of dead frogs in her study area in Panama. Since frog corpses don’t last long in the jungle, she presumed what she saw was but a microcosm of what was actually happening. Inspection of the dead amphibians revealed that they had all been attacked by a chytrid fungus, which was christened Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Members of this fungal family normally subsist on decaying organic matter. This was the first known instance of one attacking living vertebrates. Within a year, researchers had isolated B. dendrobatidis from dead frogs of several species in Australia, as well as in the United States, Costa Rica, and even a number of zoos. It was also found in preserved specimens of Arroyo Toads (Bufo microscaphus californicus) from a 1991 California die-off.
Just how this fungus managed to spring up nearly simultaneously in several locations thousands of miles apart is still enigmatic, but in a paper in today's issue of the journal Nature, J. Alan Pounds and his colleagues have tied the infections to global warming.

Pounds has been studying frogs in Costa Rica's Monteverde cloud forest since the '80s, when 20 of the 50 resident frog species in his 30 km2 study area vanished within a few years. Included in this list was the famous Golden Toad (Bufo periglenes), whose sudden extinction still perplexes observers. Since that study, at least 110 subsequent frog extinctions have been linked to B. dendrobatidis, including 65 species of harlequin toads (Atelopus spp.). Pounds found that 80% of the extinctions he studied coincided with abnormally warm years, a connection he also noted in his original 1994 Conservation Biology paper. Over two decades, he has put together a weather model of daily and annual trends at Monteverde. He posits that regional warming has caused the forest's cloud bank to sit higher on the mountainside, and become denser. This density causes a narrowing of daily temperature fluctuation within the cloud forest, improving conditions for B. dendrobatidis, which prefers a range of 63º-77º F. A more pronounced wet/dry season has also been observed.

Pounds' paper provides one more insight into the complex puzzle that is the current global frog devastation. Habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, ozone depletion and warming are all having their effect on Earth's biology. Frogs seem to take it all a bit harder. By watching what's happening to them, we can better understand the complete picture of contemporary ecological change.
upper: Dendrobates duellmani (1999) acrylic 7" x 7"
center : Emerald Toucanets & Spiny-headed Treefrog (1995) acrylic 22" x 30"
lower: Hyalinobatrachium valerioi (1999) acrylic 7" x 7"


Born in Salt Lake City
Eighty years ago today
In a fast-moving cross-country car
Or so you told us.
Were you alive, you'd be toothless, bloated
A disappointment
Not the young and handsome
Neal we know
Disheveled, drunk and Devil-may-care
Eternally tossing that hammer
Up into the air...
photograph of Neal Cassady by Allen Ginsberg

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Last Thursday the Wisconsin Senate voted 33-0 to criminalize demonstrations held within 500 feet of a funeral. Gov. Jim Doyle is expected to sign the bill tomorrow, and 14 additional states are considering similar legislation. If the new law is challenged, it's likely to be found unconstitutional, but it's hard for me to call it wrong-headed.

The bill was a direct reaction to the crazed Rev. Fred Phelps, of Topeka, KS. Obsessed for years with homosexuality, the good Reverend has developed a theology that attributes pretty much everything to God's hatred of gays. Phelps and his congregation have taken to picketing the funerals of AIDS victims and Iraq casualties (God is mad because the U.S. military is too tolerant of gays—a recent Phelps banner read, “Thank God for IEDs”). I'll be the first to stand up for Rev. Phelps' right to publish his ideas, however ugly, in print and on his charming website, www.godhatesfags.com, or to mount demonstrations at public events, but to accost the grieving at a funeral comes awfully close to Oliver Wendell Holmes' “shouting fire in a crowded theater” analogy.

All this is concurrent with the international incident that began with twelve now infamous cartoons originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September. The cartoons were solicited by the paper's culture editor, Flemming Rose, who felt that Europeans were too timid in their criticism of the Islamic world. He asked members of the Danish cartoonist union to lampoon the religion, and the rest is history. Rose claims he was trying to open up the discourse, but if he didn't foresee the consequences of poking a stick in the eye of a culture that already feels under attack from all quarters, he's a fool. More likely, he's a scoundrel. The video images of rioting Muslims have been broadcast around the world, helpful to no one but the European right wing, and the situation continues to spiral. Davoud Kazemi, of the conservative Iranian paper Hamshahri, reacted by announcing a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon. Great idea, Davoud! That's sure to improve the situation! Give that guy a Peabody! In response, the right-wing online Swedish paper Sd-Kuriren announced their own contest for best cartoon disparaging Islam. Get ready for continued hilarity, folks!

Freedom of speech is easy to espouse, difficult to endure. In 1989 people were free to walk about Tienanmen Square with banners proclaiming, “Hurray for Deng Xiaoping!” with impunity. It's the ugly and damaging speech that tests our ideals. Legislation is largely an exercise in drawing rather arbitrary lines on a continuum, and the stories recounted above reside on an uncomfortable gray patch. They are all examples of speech meant not to enlighten, but to hurt. We'd all be better off without it, but when a government starts separating the good speech from the bad, it takes a broad step toward Totalitarianism. At the risk of sounding like Rodney King, it's our responsibility as citizens to communicate constructively.

Last week the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote a letter taking the Washington Post to task for publishing a Tom Toles cartoon critical of Donald Rumsfeld, that depicted the U.S. Military as an injured, limbless patient. I'm willing to give the Chiefs the benefit of a doubt, to assume they didn't get the joke, and were acting only in solidarity with injured veterans, but any governmental reprimand for journalistic criticism doesn't inspire hope.


A wide, triangular rise divides the Green and Big Sandy Rivers of western Wyoming, a great gray expanse of Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) rolling up toward the distant Wind River Mountains to the northeast. Much of this sage steppe has remained unchanged for centuries, and it harbors what is probably the world's largest population of North America's largest grouse species.

The Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a spectacular creature. Dependent on sagebrush, it rarely strays far from the plants. Large numbers of the birds are diagnostic of a healthy sagebrush community. Despite their large size, they are powerful fliers that can reach speeds of 70 mph, with far more stamina than any other grouse species I've seen. The cocks, which can exceed eight pounds in weight, gather in communal leks beginning in March. Here they display for the hens for several hours each day, in the morning and evening. Spreading the pheasant-like tails which gave them their scientific name, they erect white neck feathers to form a huge ruff that nearly obscures their head. A pair of air sacs on the chest resemble bouncing apricots as the birds pass air in and out of them, making series of peculiar sounds that can be heard a mile away from a large lek. Early twentieth-century accounts speak of congregations of 500 cocks or more, and this area still has leks of well over 100.

Hiking through the shoulder-high sagebrush, one is hardly aware of the geology beneath one's feet, but the rise is formed by the Pinedale Anticline, a Cretaceous formation that holds one of the richest known oil and gas reserves in the lower 48. Toward its southern end, the anticline flattens into a wide valley known today as the Jonah Field. Fifteen years ago, this was the area's main wintering ground for Sage Grouse. Great flocks of thousands of the birds accumulated to forage in the low valley. Just over a decade ago, Fortune 500 company EnCana Oil & Gas began drilling here, and today the field has been largely taken over by a veritable city of extraction. EnCana has brought good jobs to the nearby towns of Farson and Pinedale, and the standard of living for the local human population has risen noticeably. But the Sage Grouse are all but gone from the Jonah Field, exiled to the surrounding steppes, where there is still plenty of good habitat—for now. As the Bush Administration increasingly turns its focus to domestic oil production, Sage Grouse habitat on the entire anticline is in peril; ninety-seven percent of it is currently under lease.
Last spring the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service assembled an advisory panel to investigate a possible listing for Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Before turning in the panel's review, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald edited the document, removing numerous citations showing grouse decline, and adding such comments as, “all these data are badly flawed in some way...” and “they will eat other stuff if it is available.” Ms. MacDonald, a Bush appointee, is an attorney with strong property-rights and pro-industry beliefs, and no background in biology. She is the direct overseer of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Director Steve Williams had access to both the edited and unedited versions, and decided against the listing at the end of last year.

In the meantime, EnCana is putting its own mitigation plan into effect. The gas field at Jonah comprises but 3% of Sublette County, and the company's plan involves increasing the grouse population in the rest of the county. They have committed $28 million dollars toward this end, presumably so wintering grouse can buy sagebrush leaves at local restaurants.

The results of a five-year study on Sage Grouse population dynamics in the area, which was funded by EnCana and the BLM were released last week. Matt Holloran, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wyoming, found a 51% drop in cock Sage Grouse on breeding grounds within three miles of drilling activity, and a 21% decline in hens. This is hardly surprising; the “booming” sound produced by lekking roosters is an important aspect of the ritual, and the sound of the Jonah field machinery can be easily heard from three miles away, drowning out anything else from any closer. Holloran predicted localized extinctions in his study area within 19 years if drilling continues at its present rate. His study called for set-asides of 200 to 400 square miles. EnCana is withholding judgment on the study, pending a review of Holloran's methodology, but Julie MacDonald lost no time in charging that it was “not science.”

Two weeks ago, a news release from EnCana touted a Sage Grouse habitat enhancement program on their North Parachute Ranch in Colorado, which involved thinning of “too thick sagebrush” with heavy machinery. The release essentially said that Sage Grouse still exist on the 44,000 acre ranch, a year and a half after EnCana acquired the property.
upper: WINTER SAGE GROUSE (1988) Acrylic 17" x 17"
lower: LATE SEASON SAGES--GYRFALCON & SAGE GROUSE (2005) Acrylic 15" x 7"

Sunday, February 05, 2006


We saw him campaign as the “Compassionate Conservative.” We saw him land on an aircraft carrier as a lost member of the Village People. Now, after careful market research, the Bush White House staff proudly present his latest incarnation: George Bush, Science President.

Bush's new character was launched last week with the unveiling of his “American Competitiveness Initiative,” which will ensure a strong grounding in math and science for the nation's children. This is good news for you, good news for me, and good news for America. Bush will secure Federal funding to train 70,000 new AP teachers at respected learning centers like the Discovery Institute and Bob Jones University. No longer will science be the domain of undisciplined, loose cannons like James Hansen. His ilk will be replaced with a proud corps of freedom-loving, God-fearing Lysenkos who know how to toe the line. Their rigorous training will enable them to find the evidence for whatever conclusions the national interest demands. Let's see those Asians top that! Yes, there's a proud tomorrow on the horizon for America.

God bless this blog.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


The latest edition of I AND THE BIRD is now up at Dharma Bums. A celebration of wild birds, the people they fascinate, and the interface between the two.