Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, July 31, 2006


I don't think it's hyperbole to call my friend Frans Lanting the best nature photographer around; I don't know another who equals him. He and his wife Chris Eckstrom, a fine nature writer, have collaborated on many books and other projects, and over the past few years they've been focused on an undertaking of unprecedented ambition: a book on the history of life on earth.

The book, LIFE A Journey Through Time, is finally finished, and will be released in September. Not satisfied with presenting the concept through the book medium alone, Frans has also collaborated with minimalist composer Philip Glass to create a multimedia event which premiered Saturday night in his home town of Santa Cruz. An exhibition of photographs will also open in September at Naturalis, the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, the Netherlands, and begin a world tour from there.
UPDATE--Aug. 10: I received a copy of the book this morning, and am happy to report that it's magnificent. Highly recommended, and well worth the price!


A number of blog carnivals are going up in the next few days, or may already be up, depending on when you read this. Is July over where you are yet? If not, head over to Words and Pictures, anyway. It's practically over in the UK, and Roger has posted edition #11 of the Invertebrate Carnival, Circus of the Spineless.

Is it August 2nd yet? If so, it's time to check out the best blogging on the life sciences. Tangled Bank #59 is due to go up on Science and Reason.

If it's August 3rd or later, be sure to drop by Alis Volat Propiis. I'm betting that edition #29 of I and the Bird, the Birders' Carnival, will be there.

If you happen to be in New England this week, or, for that matter, any time between now and September 10, be sure to drop by the Bennington Center for the Arts in Bennington, Vermont. American Artists Abroad will open there on August 5th, with paintings and sculptures by 37 of America's finest representational artists, and their impressions of foreign lands.
illustration: VERREAUX'S SIFAKA (1996) acrylic 14" x 20"

Sunday, July 30, 2006


Everyone's talking about the Cambrian Explosion, it seems. While evolutionary biologists discuss the actual rate of adaptive radiation, a handful of creationists have hailed it as proof of...something...I forget exactly what. The Cambrian Explosion was, of course, that event from half a billion years ago, when suddenly—well, relatively suddenly—over the course of about 8 million years, a great diversity of metazoan life appeared on Earth, with representatives of most of the phyla that have ever turned up on the planet. For most of the preceding 3 ½ billion years, life on Earth had been unicellular. The cause of this explosion is poorly understood. Is it an illusion suggested by gaps in our knowledge of the fossil record? Was it caused by climatic or geological changes, or the evolution of Hox genes or sexual reproduction? Or was it simply a response to opportunities that could only be exploited by multicellular life? How about a combination of factors? Whatever the case, it gives me a chance to dust off this old illustration I did for a geology calendar that my friend John Christensen and I never finished designing back in the '80s: each week was to represent 10 million years—the whole of metazoan life on Earth compressed into one year. This was to be the illustration for January, and it depicts some of those cool Cambrian denizens cavorting in a shallow sea before a stromatolite reef. So without further ado, let's introduce them:

From left to right, the arthropod Marella scuttles across the sea floor, as the priapulid Ottoia emerges from its burrow to attack the mollusc Hyolithes. A pair of onychophorans (Aysheaia) graze on sponges as three Odaraia swim by in the company of a little Sarotrocercus. Behind the sponge is the phyllocarid Pseudoarctolepis. Nearby, the peculiar mollusc-like Wiwaxia and the trilobite Tricrepicephalus creep along. Closer in is the arthropod Habelia, and closer still, another Marella. A Canadaspis feeds upon a dead trilobite. The peculiar, worm-like Amiskwia swims near the surface, while in the background, the Great White Shark of the Cambrian, the two-foot-long Anomalocaris carries a fresh-caught trilobite in its arms. In the center sits the arthropod Branchiocaris, and the flatworm-like chordate Pikaia crawls alongside another Hyolithes. To the right of Branchiocaris is the little Burgessia. In the foreground, another Wiwaxia creeps along as a Marella gleans the carapace of a Naraoia. Behind Naraoia is the trilobite Asaphiscus. Further back are three forms of sessile animal life: a pair of articulate brachiopods, several Dinomischus, and the early echinoderm Gogia. In the foreground, an acrobatic Opabinia struggles with its prey, the polychaete Canadia. Last of all, a pair of tiny Lejopyge trilobites ride air bubbles on the surface, while the little arthropod Plenocaris perches in the foreground.
illustration: BURGESS SHALE FAUNA (1989) acrylic 15" x 20"

Saturday, July 29, 2006


As we approached the crowns of a submerged copse of trees, I heard a dyspeptic lowing, like a steer with frothy bloat. My arms burned from hours of hard paddling and I was relieved to have reached our destination. We were in Peru, on the flooded Yarapa River, not terribly far upstream from where it merges with two other rivers, the Ucayali and the Marañon, to form the Amazon. Two gringos were being led to a nest of Hoatzins (Opisthocomus hoazin) by a local who found us the night before, and seduced us with Hoatzin tales. Octavio had grown up here, and he made his living guiding tourists. Taking on such a guide is always a gamble, but Octavio proved to be a first-rate naturalist (pleasant surprise), and an even better boatman (no surprise). We began paddling upriver an hour before dawn. Despite rowing solo, Octavio's canoe spent much of the trip stopped, waiting for us to catch up. We heard the crazed, mournful call of a pottoo (Nyctibeus sp.). All along the banks, crimson eye-shines betrayed the presence of dozens of Common Caimans (Caiman crocodilus), and further up the river we saw a crocodylid so huge it could only have been a rare Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger). By the time we got to the nesting area we were well into the day. We sliced through a lagoon filled with spectacular Victoria Lilies (Victoria amazonica), their six-foot leaves upturned at the edges to reveal pink, spiny undersides. At the far edge of the lagoon was the nest. It was just past the peak of the wet season, and we floated on twenty feet of water where we could have walked six months earlier. We heard the mooing of the adult Hoatzins for fifteen minutes before we first spied one of the birds. The size of a Plymouth Rock hen, it was equally skilled at flight. Its buffy plumage was set off by a bright blue, naked face and rufous wings like a peacock's. The most striking feature, though, was the long, Medusine crest, feathers snaking up like tentacles.

The classification of the Hoatzin has been the subject of argument for centuries. Many have assumed it to be related to the pheasants, while others (including me) suspected an affinity with the cuckoos and their kin. I've seen no wild birds as clumsy as Hoatzins save the Madagascan couas (cuckoo cousins). They also bear a strong resemblance to the touracos, which were long assumed to be cuckoo relatives. Based on DNA hybridization, Sibley and Ahlquist agreed, placing them in the order Cuculiformes, along with the cuckoos and anis. In their recent radical taxonomical overhaul, Fain and Houde placed them in the new clade Metaves, along with pigeons and flamingos. Whatever living birds are the Hoatzin's closest relatives, they're not close at all.

Hoatzins are fun to watch. Their shyness does not take on an aspect of wildness. Looking very much like chickens, they wobble uncomfortably on their perch, putting off taking flight as long as possible. If they can, they'll clamber away awkwardly, preferring to keep lots of branches between themselves and a viewer, and it's quite tough to get a good photograph of one. Part of the reason they fly so poorly is morphological. Where the chests of most birds are occupied by a deep keeled sternum and massive pectoral muscles, in the Hoatzin, this region is devoted largely to an enormous crop, where resident bacteria break down cellulose in the leaves these birds eat: a fermentation tank, much like the rumen of a cow. This fermentation process imparts a foul smell to the birds, a fact that probably compensates for their incompetence at escaping enemies. Breeding Hoatzins live in groups of several birds, all of which attend the nest, which probably frequently contains offspring from three or more adults.

We finally reached the nest, an untidy stick platform seven or eight feet above the water's surface. Octavio climbed from his canoe into the tree, while the adults scolded from afar in a decidedly unintimidating manner. As he approached, three young birds of various ages left the nest. The oldest bird could fly nearly as well as an adult, and wasted no time in leaving the area. Next came bird #2, the only one I managed to photograph. It climbed onto a branch, tiptoed about clumsily for a moment, then scrambled off, knock-kneed, into the foliage. The youngest bird was quite small. It dove from the nest, directly into the water, and was not seen again. At this point, we decided it was best to turn back, and allow the family to reconstitute. I have no idea how long it took, but the youngest Hoatzin surely rose again to the surface, and climbed back up the nest tree, assisted by Archaeopteryx-like claws at the bend of each wing. These claws degenerate quickly, and are barely discernible by the time the bird can fly, but for the first couple of weeks of its life, the Hoatzin is a most unbird-like climbing and diving creature, possibly carrying on the lifestyle of a long dead Mesozoic ancestor.
All photographs taken by CPOBvK in Yarapa region of Peru, 1997

Friday, July 28, 2006


Last night, Salt Lake City got to see a couple of real legends for free at the weekly Twilight Concert downtown. The evening's headliner was the great Earl Scruggs. What we know today as bluegrass music was born in 1945, when Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. The nascent genre was distinguished by a number of factors, among them a strong backbeat rhythm maintained by the mandolin, high tenor harmonies sung a fifth over the melody, and a heavy dependence on pentatonic scales, but it was Scruggs' aggressive, brassy, three-finger-picking style of banjo playing, more than anything else, that made the band's sound unique. Today it's uncommon to hear a banjo played in any other style. After leaving the Bluegrass Boys in '48, Scruggs formed the Foggy Mountain Boys with fellow Bluegrass alumnus, guitarist Lester Flatt, and continued making music in the Monroe tradition. Flatt and Scruggs went their separate ways in '69, and Flatt died ten years later. Last night, Scruggs played with a 7-piece band that included a drum kit and electric guitar, but both were understated, and the performance fell solidly within the bluegrass tradition.

Since the '40s, many others have followed the Bluegrass Boys' lead; for the first couple of decades they stuck pretty close to the script. In the experimental days of the '60s and '70s, liberties were taken, some of them more successful than others. David Grisman (who performed brilliantly at a Twilight Concert a few years back) and his acolytes have stretched the boundaries of the genre beyond recognition, usually with splendid results. A school of traditionalists, exemplified by the Johnson Mountain Boys, has added a new level of dynamism while maintaining reverence for the old structure. The most successful contemporary school of bluegrass, though, was initiated in large part by last night's warm-up act. Chris Hillman started playing mandolin in California bluegrass bands as a teenager in the late '50s. A demand quickly developed for his skillful playing, and soon he found himself playing with well-known musicians. In 1964, he was convinced to switch to bass guitar and join the Byrds, who would burst from the gates as an immediately famous folk band. From there, they moved in the direction of psychedelia, then, when David Crosby was replaced by Gram Parsons in 1968, back towards Hillman's bluegrass roots. Within a year, Hillman joined Parsons to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, and began really applying the Burdizzo to bluegrass. Over the succeeding decades, Hillman and his cohorts have been grinding the rough edges from the genre, leaving a bland, drab, but wholly inoffensive entity in its place. Sadly, this mutation has largely taken over, and most of what passes for bluegrass today is to Scruggs what Pat Boone was to Little Richard.

Nothing offends me more than inoffensive art. The purpose of art is to challenge the public--better yet, to accost it. To grab it by the ear and smack its head against the wall. I like a pleasant little tune or a pretty little painting as much as anyone, but a life's body of work composed of nothing else would have been better spent cleaning toilets. Too often, artists are asked to serve as devises for public relaxation, as if much of the public weren't already relaxed to the point of anesthetization. If you really need to relax, try a couple of good belts of cheap tequila in rapid succession. It's a lot more fun, and its zombifying effects are less dangerous than music and painting designed to bore you out of your cares.
illustration: BAT-EARED FOX PORTRAIT (2006) acrylic 20" x 10"

Thursday, July 27, 2006


“We're with the Humane Society. I see you haven't stopped experimenting with animals.”


Last Spring, I wrote a post about (among other things) how insect wings probably evolved from gills, and might have seen an intermediate use in sculling across the water's surface. This morning, there's a nice post on the same issue over at Pharyngula, that goes into far greater detail in the morphology and genetics involved, and, predictably, uses the notion to illuminate what a red herring the Creationist concept of "irreducible complexity" is.
illustration: FLAME SKIMMER (2004) acrylic 10" x 8"

Monday, July 24, 2006


Oh sure, we celebrated the 4th of July here in Salt Lake City--fireworks, parades...the whole deal. But it was little more than a warm-up for the real event: today, the twenty-fourth of July. On this date, in 1847, Brigham Young and his followers entered the Salt Lake Valley, ending a migration across most of the continent that lasted some dozen years. The church was founded in 1830, in Fayette, New York, by Joseph Smith, who claimed that God spoke to him, ordering him to restore the true gospel to Earth. Peculiar cults, especially ones that engaged in illegal activities like polygamy, were no more popular then than they are today, and Joseph and his followers soon found themselves moving west, stopping along the way just long enough to remove the tar and feathers—first to Ohio, then Missouri, than Illinois, where a number of church members were jailed. A mob was allowed to enter the facility and Smith and several others were murdered. The mantle of leadership was taken up by Brigham Young, a brilliant and authoritarian ruler, who led the group from Nauvoo, Illinois west. One hundred fifty-nine years ago today, the Mormons rolled out of my childhood home of Emigration Canyon. At the canyon's mouth, they gazed upon a wide flat plain of rabbitbrush, and Brigham was said to utter the phrase, “This is the place.”

Salt Lake is a city like no other. How a ratty little eighteenth century Jonestown before the invention of Kool-Aid was able to survive and eventually thrive into the modern day is hard to fathom. The odds were certainly against them. The settlers' first planting was attacked by a plague of huge katydids, and even out in the middle of the desert plain, the U.S. Government continued to persecute them. John Williams Gunnison, whose name graces rivers, cities, counties, islands, rodents and birds throughout this region, came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1849 with the U.S. Corp of Topographical Engineers. His group, the Stansbury party, was ostensibly here to survey the land, but there was surely an element of espionage expected of them, too. While snowed in that winter, Gunnison began documenting the Mormon culture, and eventually wrote a fine book on the subject, The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition. Gunnison saw Brigham Young as little more than a shyster, and as much as said so in his book. Still, he suggested to President Fillmore that he leave the Mormons be. Persecuting them, he said, would only increase Young's power. If only contemporary presidents got such lucid advice. In 1853, Gunnison and his men were massacred near the Utah/Colorado border. The attack was officially blamed on Paiute Indians, but there is still some suspicion that this was one of several church-sanctioned hit-jobs.

Relations between the Mormons and the U.S. Government continued to be tense for some time. Young offered the occasional obsequious gesture. The state capital was named Filmore, and its county Millard. In 1862, the U.S. Army built Fort Douglas on the east side of the valley. It's my understanding that it's the only fort in the U.S. that was built with its guns trained on the city, not away from it. The Mormons have always been pragmatists in the end, though, and in 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff had a revelation that God didn't want Mormons to practice polygamy, after all. These sort of counter-revelations have appeared to subsequent prophets. Church doctrine always held that blacks were descendants of Caine, and therefore couldn't hold full membership, until a 1978 revelation cleared that little misunderstanding up. Today the church is a powerful force in the U.S. Government--Mike Leavitt, Mitt Romney, the Udall family...the list of high-profile Mormons is impressive. Over 12 million Mormons walk the Earth, more than half of them outside the U.S. I've never been to the capital of any country, from Ndjamena to Antananarivo, without spying immediately recognizable pairs of Mormon missionaries.

A popular pastime of us Salt Lake gentiles is sitting around carping about how much sway the Mormons hold around here, but I, for one, would find it really sad if this town got to the point where you couldn't tell that its very existence is the result of an amazing story. I'm happy to see them continue to run things around here; the Mormons certainly aren't all bad; they still have a great sense of community, and despite the fact that most of their members are staunch conservatives, Mormonism is fundamentally a Socialist organization, with a number of very good social programs. Sadly, though, they still pressure their members very hard to reproduce like insects. Back in 1847, when they settled in the harsh Salt Lake desert, with enemies on all sides, that policy was essential to their survival as a culture. You Mormons were told to be fruitful, and you were. You've succeeded as a culture. Look around you. It's time for another counter-revelation.
illustration: DISCIPLINE--FERRUGINOUS HAWK (1995) acrylic 40" x 30"

Thursday, July 20, 2006



A friend of mine just found these at a damaged freight outlet: Oil paints in caulking tubes! I've never heard of such a thing, and am sure that all sorts of artistic possibilities have just been opened up for me, although to be truthful, I can't think of a single one at the moment. Any suggestions? (Watch it, pal.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Who was Acidman, and why should we care? For the answer to this important question, check out Carnival of the Vanities, the original blog carnival. Last week I submitted my first post to COTV, which, on the occasion of its 200th edition, still hasn't even got its own logo. Doesn't seem very vain to me. Be that as it may, you can see my Acidman-ignorant post and all the others at Accidental Verbosity.

Meanwhile, over on the left side of the blogosphere, Brainshrub is hosting Carnival of the Liberals #17, where Paul has posted his ten favorite magenta-tinted posts from the past two weeks.

Across the Atlantic and the cold North Sea, to Stockholm, where the archaeological blogger Martin Rundkvist is hosting the 58th edition of Tangled Bank, the carnival of the Life Sciences, at Salto Sobrius.

Now back across the cold North Sea to England, where Katie of Bogbumper hosts I and the Bird #28, which is, of course, the blog carnival devoted to birds and the people they fascinate. It is due to go up Thursday morning, which is practically right now, GMT.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


In what could be the most shocking revelation since Boy George came out of the closet, an interesting paper in the latest issue of the journal Science describes teaching behavior among Slender-tailed Meerkats (Suricata suricatta). The Afrikaans name “Meerkat” is used for three monotypic genera of South African mongooses, so in this post I'll use instead the name “Suricate,” which is attached only to Suricata, the subject of the paper, and the most social of the three. It is found throughout the southern quarter of Africa, and lives in colonies of as many as fifty individuals. I should have a Suricate painting for you, and it shames me to have never even painted a member of their fantastic family. The Asian marten I'm forced to illustrate this post with is a sorry stand-in. Anyway, according to the paper, Suricate colonies are dominated by a single pair that is responsible for more than 80% of the group's reproduction. This was a bit of a letdown for me to read, since I had been under the impression they comprised two or three cooperating pairs and their offspring, a kind of social structure that is far less common. Suricate groups occupy small territories centered around the communal burrow, and individuals rarely stray outside the area. Their diet consists mostly of arthropods, but they also eat eggs and small vertebrate prey. The authors of the Science paper, Thornton and McAuliffe, report that at about one month of age, pups begin to join older animals on foraging sorties, where they are typically presented with killed prey items. As the pups become more experienced, these are replaced by live and incrementally less disabled prey (the interesting example of a scorpion with a bitten-off stinger was cited) and finally by fully functioning quarry. The authors assert that this behavior falls within the definition of teaching put forth by Caro and Hauser: "(i.) an individual, A, modifies its behaviour only in the presence of a naïve observer, B; (ii) A incurs some cost or derives no immediate benefit; and (iii) as a result of A's behaviour, B acquires knowledge or skills more rapidly or efficiently than it would otherwise, or that it would not have learned at all." Of course it is difficult to interpret what motivates the older animals to mangle prey items a bit less as the pups' education develops. Do they make judgments based on actual assessments of the pups' skills? Hard to say. The evolutionary benefit to the teachers is more clear when coupled with the information that the colony consists essentially of a single family.

The paper presents a nice set of observations on Suricate behavior, but despite press accounts to the contrary, it offers little new information about animal behavior in general. Rather, it represents another step in our shifting interpretation of animal behavior. When I was in college, in the late 1970s, the cardinal ethological sin was anthropomorphism. Although their vehemence may have been in part a policy meant to dissuade undergraduates who were too eager to go overboard in that direction, my professors were uniformly intolerant of any comparisons between the motivations of humans and non-humans. I saw it then (and still do) as a carry-over of our unfortunate tendency to separate ourselves from the rest of nature. The very idea of the word “nature,” meaning all that is not human, is kind of twisted, but that line we draw affects everything we do, from our daily personal routines to our national wildlife management policies. In the past couple of decades, though, the ethologists have come a long way, and today, many of them are all too happy to see instincts and emotions as the same thing. The behavior that Thornton and McAuliffe described is not anomalous in the least. It's receiving attention because they made a strong case for calling it what it is: education. Anyone who's had a litter of kittens raised in their home, or who's spent a lot of time in a blind on a raptor's nest has seen similar teaching behavior. So important is hunting education to falcons (Falco spp.), that without it a hungry young bird will simply look at a pigeon and scream to be fed. Falconers understood this centuries ago, and developed a routine called “entering,” that mimics the education provided by a parent falcon.

It's often surprising how different percption can be in two closely related species, so we should expect our own perceptions to differ from those of other vertebrates. Still, our behavior is guided by the same principles as the other members of our phylum. Our actions are largely influenced by emotions like love, joy, anger, guilt, envy and sorrow. These motivations are not the province of our species alone, nor, does it seem, is education.
lower: SMOKE JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON (1994) acrylic 19" x 30"

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Four hundred years ago today, Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, and for the succeeding four centuries, those of who practice his craft have done our futile best to approach the bar he set. No painter before him or since surpassed his collective skills at drawing, perspective, composition, understanding of light, color and anatomy, and sensitive knowledge of gesture in the human face and body, nor has one showed more artistic courage. As a boy I spent many hours poring over a Bible owned by my parents that was richly illustrated with Rembrandt paintings. My earliest lessons at drawing and painting were my many sessions copying those illustrations. I could have asked for no better mentor. As I grow as an artist, I only appreciate better the enormity of his genius. Welcome to your fifth century, Meneer van Rijn! Here's gratitude for showing us what can be done with a canvas and brush.

upper: SELF PORTRAIT (1657) Rembrandt van Rijn
lower: SACRIFICE OF ISAAC (1653) Rembrandt van Rijn

Friday, July 14, 2006


"You kids think I got nothin' better to do than mop up your slime trails all day?"

Thursday, July 13, 2006


A couple of months ago, a friend and I negotiated that badly designed new section of Salt Lake City highway known colloquially as “the Spaghetti Bowl,” where Interstates 80 and 15 intersect. Fortunately, she was at the wheel, because at the very point where the driver's attention is paramount, I spotted an adult Peregrine tiercel (Falco peregrinus) perched on a tower beside the freeway. I saw the bird for but a moment as we rode the tangled ribbon of mechanized motion, borne on concrete towers as high as sixty feet, and snaking over several man-made water-bodies: as urban and artificial a wetland as one could imagine. The next day, I spent an hour or so riding my bicycle around the area, searching for falcon whitewash and remains of prey. Thirty years ago, it would not have occurred to me to look for a nesting site in such a location; I thought of falcon eyries as the the apogee of wildness, until I visited Munich as a teenager. In the center of the thousand-year-old Bavarian capital is the Marienplatz, a huge, busy, and picturesque square, dominated on its eastern edge by the twin towers of the Frauenkirche, a spectacular fifteenth-century church with half a dozen Common Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) nesting in openings in the masonry. That year a pair of Peregrines fledged four eyasses from the top of the west tower. The young falcons spent each evening chasing pigeons right over the heads of the oblivious crowds.

By the 1970s, Peregrines had probably been nesting in old European cities for centuries, but in America they were just learning that behavior. Salt Lake was graced with its first Peregrine eyrie, on the face of an elegant old hotel, in the early '90s. Both birds sported yellow seamless bands, betraying them as captive bred; as did practically all “wild” U.S. Peregrines of the day.

Last year I rode through an unfamiliar Salt Lake neighborhood, when I heard the screaming of a large falcon. I modified my itinerary and steered in the direction of the sound, which led me straight beneath a little 14 foot freeway overpass. I couldn't believe a falcon would nest in such a spot, and indeed, one didn't. The sound emanated from a loudspeaker mounted under the bridge: an ill-conceived scheme to discourage roosting pigeons. My search at the base of the Interstate junction proved fruitless as well, but I remain ever ready to accept urban ornithological surprises. A century ago, Salt Lake erupted from a high desert valley, banishing Coyotes and badgers, Horned Larks and thrashers. In the early days, the city itself must have been a dreary place for a naturalist, but since that time, the fauna has been busily adapting to the original insult. Robins were the first pioneers, followed by a few woodpecker and warbler species. Scrub jays, chickadees, and House Finches were also quick studies. Presently the city witnesses a boom of Black-biled Magpies (Pica hudsonica), Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and introduced California Quail (Callipepla californica). In a previous post I wrote about the astonishing speed with which American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) have colonized the city, their population surging far faster than reproduction alone could accomplish. The new flocks must attract transient birds.

The popularity of that concrete wetland under the Spaghetti Bowl has grown exponentially during its five years, as some waterfowl have become increasingly urbanized. Thirty years ago, the sight of a few braying Canada Geese overhead was a rare treat for most Americans. A few decades of concerted habitat management later, you can't swing a male model without hitting one of the birds, leaving many of those same Americans cursing as they scrape up the scuz. Today the Spaghetti Bowl is home to many birds species, like Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis), Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis), Forsters Terns (Sterna forsteri) and others that I never saw in the city prior to 1990, along with a variety of ducks, geese, coots, and other lesser surprises. I'm not the life list kind of birder, but chronicling the bird life of this spot would be worth the effort.

White Pelicans (Pelicanus erythrorhynchus) are common in the American West, and at the height of the migration you can literally watch millions of the huge birds flock over Salt Lake, but their nerve never materialized until recently. During last fall's migration they filled the Spaghetti Bowl's ponds. Gunnison Island, in the Great Salt Lake, is home to a huge pelican colony. The lake is far too salty for fish to survive, so for centuries the birds have flown twice a day to Utah Lake, fifty miles away, to fish for themselves and their offspring. This behavior, too, is changing. For the past couple of weeks, as many as 14 pelicans have fished each morning in a little duck pond in the park by my home. As you can see in the photo, even the lawnmower fails to perturb them.

I mention these stories only to shed some light on one dynamic of nature; this shouldn't be taken as excusing urbanization's speedy spread. Some creatures learn to adapt to the radical change of a city, but only a minority, and the diversity of fauna across the span of urban habitat worldwide is truly puny. In the recent internet conversation about Eagle Owls' (Bubo bubo) invasion of Great Britain, some American commentators suggested the species would behave like American Great Horned Owls (B. virginianus), and it appears that both species adapt rather easily to city life, but such assumptions shouldn't be made too quickly. To adapt to living in a city, a bird needs to have (1) habitat requirements that can find a compromise in its new home and (2) the psychological inclination to make that change. The fact of two young Killdeers (Charadrius vociferus) being fledged last week from a parking lot in my neighborhood should give little solace to their dwindling congeners the Piping and Snowy Plovers (C. melodus and alexandrinus). Prairie Falcons (F. mexicanus) still outnumber Peregrines 15 to one here, but I don't ever expect them to nest in the city. Any falconer who's worked with both birds knows how much more offensive a creature a human is to the former species. Among the the many tens of thousands of vertebrate species, I've gotten to know but a very few personally; still, my guess is that the Prairie Falcon's attitude is not only more typical, but more justified.
upper: THE PLUMING POST--PEREGRINE FALCON & ROCK DOVE (1989) acrylic 30" x 20"
lower: Pelicans photographed by CPBvK July 12, 2006

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


The 35th edition of The Carnival of the Green is up at The Ester Republic: Ten posts covering topics of sustainability. Have a look!

Saturday, July 08, 2006


A while back, I saw this sort of meme thing on Snail's Tales: What's the Oldest Book You Own? While a couple of my library's components exceed it slightly in age, the coolest old book I own has to be my 1870 copy of Creative and Sexual Science (with a subtitle which would exceed my bandwidth were I to transcribe it) by Professor O.S. Fowler. It's not clear where the good professor taught, but his declared areas of expertise were physiology and phrenology. He used his understanding of these fields, and of the Bible, to describe all aspects of human sexuality in this 1,050 page volume. The phrase “creative science” seemed confusing and pejorative to me. Today, I think we'd replace it with “the life sciences” or “natural sciences.” Fowler saw his science as the study of creation, and the “creative laws” that governed it. He explains, “God instituted them to be obeyed not trampled on; learned not ignored.”

In Part I-Gender, Fowler draws on his knowledge of phrenology to describe in detail the various physical and mental qualities that make an admirable man or woman, and describes how various human attributes can be determined phrenologically. No Victorian book on this topic would be complete without a rundown of the various human races and their peculiarities, and Fowler does not disappoint. He discusses hybridization of crops and livestock, stating that they combine the positive masculine attributes with the best maternal ones, but then goes on to say:
"Human and animal hybrids are denounced most terribly in the Bible; obviously because the mixing up of man with beast, or one beast species with another, deteriorates. Universal amalgamation would be disastrous."
He uses this as a basis to condemn interracial marriage: “How wicked thus to humble Caucasian pride of character with African inferiority of position!...Mixing races, forbidden by Nature, should not be perpetrated by man. Caucasian commerce with negresses is inherently vulgar, as are white and black marriages.” Much of the Part I, indeed much of the whole book has a tone of exhortation, urging the reader to live as God commands, as described by Fowler.

Part II-Love is probably the dreariest section. Fowler devotes most of it to waxing poetic about the wonders of love, always with stern Christian admonitions. Much of it sounds disturbingly familiar to contemporary ears: “Marriage is a divine, not Human, Institution. In and by creating it, God demands its exercise.”

Fowler continues his format with headings describing the progression of love: Selection, Courtship, Married Life, and Generation. These are fascinating sociological glimpses into Reconstruction Era American life and social expectations.

Part VII-Maternity is my favorite. It includes the beautiful old illustration of the female reproductive system pictured at left. Note the absence of a clitoris. In this section, Fowler tells expectant mothers what is expected of them, and how best to ensure their offspring will be healthy and virtuous. He presents a long series of fascinating anecdotes describing the many dangers to the unborn fetus. Here is a selection:
“A woman, some months before the birth of her child, longed for strawberries, which she could not obtain. Fearing that this might mark her child, and having heard that it would be marked where she then touched herself, she touched her hip. Before the child was born she predicted that it would have a mark resembling a strawberry, and be found on its hip, all of which proved to be true...An acquaintance, while riding out, saw some strawberries spilled by the side of the road, which she wanted very much; but her sister, who was driving, only laughed at her entreaties to stop, and apprehensions that her child might be marked, and drove on. The child was marked on the back of its neck, with a cluster of red spots, in shape resembling spilled strawberries...Eliza Chickering has an extra thumb, both together resembling a lobster's claw. Its joint and muscles cause it to work inwardly, the two closely resembling a lobster's claw [Fowler's language]; and during her youth it was bright red, like a boiled lobster. Her mother says she bought a large, fine lobster while enciente, which was stolen. This disappointed her extremely; and this lobster's claw on her daughter's hand was the consequence...W.H. Brown, who has a mark on one of his legs resembling a mouse, says that his mother, while carrying him, was in a room in which a mouse was confined, which they were trying to kill, and which, jumping up under her clothes, frightened her terribly...A female acquaintance rode by a tree full of ripe, wild plums, which she craved, but could not obtain. Her child, born some months after, had a fleshy appendage resembling a wild plum, hanging from his thumb by a stem of flesh...A pregnant Michigan mother longed for butter, which could not be obtained, because it was winter, and there were more emigrants than eatables. Her child was born with a running sore on its neck, which yielded to no remedies, till, remembering her disappointed longing, she anointed it with butter, which soon cured it...An amputated thumb, now preserved in spirit, was found among the placenta, separated from its stump before birth, by its mother seeing her husband's thumb cut off with an axe, which excited her sympathy to the highest pitch...Mrs. Lee, of London, Ont., saw Burly executed from her window; who, in swinging off, broke the rope, and fell with his face all black and blue from being choked. This horrid sight caused her to feel awfully; and her son, born three months afterwards, whenever anything occurs to excite his fears, becomes black and blue in the face, an instance of which the Author witnessed..In Waterbury, Vt., there lived a man who always appeared as if intoxicated; obviously caused by his mother's being terribly frightened by seeing a drunkard while carrying him. His intellect was good...In Woodstock, Vt., a pregnant mother visited a menagerie, and became deeply interested in its animals. Some five months afterwards she gave birth to a monster, some parts of which resembled one wild beast, and other parts other animals; which soon died..A child in Boston bears so striking a resemblance to a monkey, as to be observed by all. Its mother visited a menagerie while pregnant with it, when a monkey jumped on her shoulders...James Copeland is below par in intellect, under guardianship, quite inferior to both parents intellectually, good-natured, quite mechanical, very fond of whittling, understands how to do most kinds of work, is very particular to have everything in proportion and order, can count money but poorly, does not put the cash value on any kind of property, though he distinguishes between good and poor cattle, and looks behind him while eating, probably fifty times each meal. His parentage, on both sides, is good; and his inferiority and looking behind him when eating were caused by his mother's fear lest she should be surprised by an idiot living near, who often tried to frighten her. At table she usually sat with her back towards the door, and often turned around, while eating, to see if he was coming. She apprehended her son's fate beforehand...Mrs. K., while pregnant, longed for gin, which could not be got; and her child cried incessantly for six weeks, till gin was given it, which it eagerly clutched and drank with ravenous greediness, stopped crying, and became healthy.”

Fowler explains how these defects were caused by animal magnetism, how magnetism from a monkey can be transferred through the placenta if a woman becomes overly emotional. The best way to guard against such problems is for pregnant women to “keep themselves in a resistant, self-fortified state.” It is only the weak and excitable who are prone to magnetization.

The final sections of the book cover child rearing, family life, the biological aspects of reproduction, and various sexual deviations and inadequacies, their causes and cures, all practically without the benefit of any useful information to the modern reader. It's sometimes surprising how familiar Fowler's fundamentalist Christian viewpoint sounds, but more often the fact that surprises is that a book only 136 years old should be as completely outdated with respect to its chosen topics, which is what makes it so interesting as a historical and sociological text.
All illustrations from CREATIVE AND SEXUAL SCIENCE by Prof. O. S. Fowler

UPDATE: It seems another blogger owns a copy of this book, and used it as the basis for a very clever site.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Yes, I do recall my promise not to turn this into a music review blog, but I'm sorry...I just can't help myself; within this meager chest beats the heart of a rock critic. The summer concert season has begun, and I'm going to completely indulge myself with this post, so you might consider giving the rest of it a pass and looking instead at some dirty pictures.

All summer long, the Salt Lake Arts Council sponsors a free concert each Thursday at a downtown park. This year's series debuted last night in neo-hippie splendor with Hot Buttered Rum and Michael Franti and Spearhead. Next week's lineup of Martin Sexton and David Lindley should be even better, but it's tonight's Ray Davies concert that got my fingers typing. I never thought I'd get to see the leader of the Kinks play an intimate bar venue. What's bad for him is good for me. I expect Michael Jackson will be playing the same club soon, and can only hope that one day David Bowie's career will hit a similar slump.

Davies was the singer, rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter for what was surely the most under appreciated of the “British invasion” bands, from their inception in 1964 through their final recording, Phobia, in 1993. Since then, though, he has been uncharacteristically silent, save for the 1998 release of The Storyteller, an edited version of his touring spoken word/music performance of the same name, and last year's ep Thanksgiving Day. Earlier this year he released his first full-length studio cd (if you don't count the soundtrack from his 1983 BBC television play Return to Waterloo). Other Peoples' Lives was the latest of four cds from the past year or so from long-silent favorite artists. It's a collection of 13 songs that range from good all the way up. Davies has always used the same formula, taking blues, doo-wop, calypso, and other American idioms and forging from them well-crafted pop songs that are quintessentially British. The real standout on the new recording is Next Door Neighbor, which is the kind of song Davies always did best, a critique of middle-class life without a trace of meanness, but with humor and sympathy for his protagonists. Davies was always capable of writing clever lyrics and wonderful melodies, but his greatest genius was in his delivery. No voice ever dripped more with sincerity. The sweetness of his tone always combined with an intonation that was off just enough to bring him to earth—he always sounded like a next-door neighbor. It's a rare quality that no one else I can think of, except maybe Mama Cass, could equal. With time, Davies' voice has only improved, and it shines throughout this recording, which is Ray at his best. He can still knock off an amazingly simple and beautiful melody like he does in Is There Life After Breakfast? In the title track, Other Peoples' Lives, he blasts gossip journalism, again with more humor than hostility. The song benefits greatly by wonderful accompanying vocals by Afro Medusa's Isabel Fructuoso. The album's only weakness is the noticeable lack of Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies. There's nothing wrong with Ray's guitar playing, but it lacks the raw power of his younger brother. The combination of Ray the sweet but sarcastic balladeer and Dave the power rocker was always one of their unique charms. Without that hard edge, some of the arrangements on Other Peoples' Lives sound kind of square, more like Blur, or some of the other newer pop artists that started out by emulating Ray.

In early November, 12 years after her last recording, Kate Bush released Aerial, a double cd set, and only her eighth studio release since Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour discovered the precocious teenager in the mid-seventies. Her first single release, Wuthering Heights, was a big international hit, changing her life forever. Her first two albums showed an extraordinarily talented young woman who played the piano well and wrote good songs that were literate and romantic. By the time of her third recording, Never Forever, The 22-year-old Bush was controlling her own production. This was our first glimpse of the mature artist, as skilled and smart at arranging and producing as she was at composing. Since then she has been anything but prolific, but each recording has been a treasure, evoking powerful, often dark and disturbing moods. Even 1989's The Sensual World, which in my estimation is her weakest work, is a beautiful album that includes some of her best singing. Bush's natural voice is quite thin, but over the years she has learned to use it to its fullest. Before even hearing her new cd, one is struck by its graphics. On the cover, an oscillogram of a birdsong appears like a landscape of rugged alien mountains jutting from a silent sea. Inside doves flutter, almost indistinguishable from windblown laundry on a clothesline. The bird imagery continues in the music, where she has taken recordings of European Blackbirds (Turdus merulus) and Turtle Doves (Streptopelia sp.) and written accompaniments for her piano and voice, with gorgeous results. Olivier Messiaen's use of bird songs in composition is no longer secure in its top position. The latter of Aerial's two discs is a collection of songs that collectively paint a rich picture of a single uneventful day. It is a masterful composition that is nowhere ostentatious in its presentation. Disc number one consists of seven discreet songs, many of which have similarly small and pedestrian themes. Mrs. Bartolozzi deals with household chores in a manner no one else possibly could, and π is largely a recitation of the famous irrational number. A less confident composer would have tried to make up for the uninteresting lyrics, but Bush remains restrained and subdued, as she does throughout Aerial. Only in How To Be Invisible does she show a hint of the haunting darkness that I've always liked best in her work. She appears to be a happier person than she's ever been before; what's good for her is bad for me. The two discs are titled A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey—appropriate names, for this is Bush at her sweetest. Only in the third song, Bertie, does her sweetness go over the top, though. It's a paean to her 8-year-old son that is sure to be the catalyst of many future fist-fights.
The third member of this quartet of recording artists is the least known. Despite having produced some 60 studio recordings in his career, Peter Hammill is far from a household name. He sang, played guitar and keys, and wrote virtually all the songs for Van der Graaf Generator, a British band named for a misspelling of the static electricity generator designed by Robert van de Graaff. VDGG survived from 1969 until 1977, during which time they seemed to break up every couple of years. Their best work came from the lineup of PH, David Jackson on woodwinds, Hugh Banton on keyboards and Guy Evans on drums. The latter two members were the virtuosi of the group, the first two played their instruments only adequately, but had unusual sensibilities that served the overall effect very well. Jackson attached pickups to the head joints of his instruments, and used a lot of effects. He often played two or three saxes at once, à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He was great fun to watch live, with three saxes and a flute hanging around his neck, and a tangled dragline of cords behind him. The lack of a bass player on their latter albums, Jackson's unique stylings, and Hammill's distinctive songwriting all combined to make VDGG sound like no other band, but it's Hammill's unusual singing that really puts the icing on a cake that most find completely unappetizing. Often referred to as “the Hendrix of the voice,” he uses a vast arsenal of sounds, from a ghostly, lugubrious falsetto to deep demonish rumblings, and everything in between. He interprets his own melodies in a very disorienting way, shifting from the root to the fifth, to the third, and back in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, often obscuring the melody almost completely. Hammill has always demanded a lot of his listeners. His best lyrics are brilliant, his worst are embarrassing. He is often pompous and self-absorbed. I don't think I'd like the man, but I've always loved his music. He started recording solo albums early in VDGG's career, often with the same lineup of musicians. To use painting metaphors, VDGG was Expressionism, while Hammill's solo work was Surrealism. In the time Kate Bush took to create a single record, Hammill was cranking out as many as nine or ten, many of them on labels he created himself. Over the past decade, his work has become too self-indulgent even for me, and I've only bought a couple of cds from that period. So it was with great excitement and curiosity that I ordered last year's new VDGG album, Present. The old lineup of Hammill, Jackson, Banton and Evans is in true form, and it's really nice to hear from them again, even it's not their very best album. This, too, is a double cd, although there was no need to make it one. The second disc consists of over an hour of studio improvisation. It's interesting for obsessive fans, but eight minutes of this tacked onto the end of disc #1 would have been a better decision. As it is, that first disc contains six songs, one of them a passable instrumental by Jackson, three of them adequate Hammill songs, with the remaining two being the real reason to own the set. Every Bloody Emperor is surely being sung to George Bush, and it's done so with a vitriol that's so melodramatic as to make it hilarious fun. Nutter Alert is even a better ride. Old Peter hasn't rocked this hard since the early 80s. I wonder why not—he definitely still has it.
Last on the list is Brian Eno, who began as a member of the original Roxy Music in 1971, and played on their first two records before leaving to record four albums of his own quirky pop songs. These became increasingly interesting as he became better at manipulating sound textures. His beautiful Another Green World from 1975 is a "desert island disc." After recording Before and After Science in 1978, he abandoned songwriting in favor of working with soundscapes and collaborating with a veritable who's who of popular music. No musician less adept has worked with more musicians more adept, but it's not his chops, but his fertile artistic mind that has attracted the likes of Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, John Cale, John Cage, Hans Roedelius, Harold Budd, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, etc., etc... His first soundscape album was the famous Music For Airports, his first ambient project. The idea was to compose ignorable recordings to play in a specific space to create a mood. These recordings were typically created by playing loops of tape, and recording and re-recording repeating patterns. The tapes could be cut increasingly short for an accelerando effect, and Eno used many other ingenious low-tech devises to achieve his ends. For the past thirty years, he's recorded a great deal of ambient music, and produced a lot of records for various other artists, not to mention being involved in numerous projects having nothing to do with music, but for over a quarter century, until last year's Another Day On Earth, he hasn't recorded any songs. I didn't know what to expect from this recording, but had I given it more thought, I should have expected exactly what it is: The same guy that recorded Another Green World after 25 years of doing ambient music. The overall sound is colder and less imperative than his work from the 70s, but the melodies and lyrics, smart and simple, came obviously from the same mind. There is whimsy here, though sadly not to the Lewis Carrollian degree of, say, Backwater from Before and After Science, and much of it sounds like it could have come straight from that old vinyl, particularly How Many Worlds, with its simple 2-chord structure and rudimentary piano accompaniment. This is a more minimalist work than any older Eno song albums, but oddly satisfying. The last cut, the disturbing Bone Bomb, is the simplest, most powerful and most satisfying song of all. Like the previous three cds, this is not my favorite work by this artist, but it shows an intelligent, mature creator that has spent the past decade growing as an artist.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


The 56th edition of Tangled Bank, the blog carnival of the life sciences, is up at Information Overload. There you can browse through aisles of the best science blogging of the past two weeks.
Happy Anniversary to I and the Bird! The birding blog carnival marks its first anniversary by returning to the site where it hatched, 10,000 Birds, and this time there's a theme: Why do you bird, why do you blog, and/or why do you blog about birding? Unfortunately, my post didn't make the cut, but thirty others did. Have a look, and congratulate Mike Bergin on a job well done.
UPDATE--Mike emailed to assure me that my post's ommission from IATB was inadvertent. He will post the link as soon as he gets home from work.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


...Well, it's sort of a birthday, anyway. Two hundred and thirty years ago today, the second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence, marking at least an intention to be a political entity separate from Great Britain. We Americans celebrate our nation's birth, of course, on a somewhat arbitrary date. The U.S.A. was born over the span of some fifteen years. It would probably make more sense to celebrate March 4, the date in 1789 when our constitution went into effect. Eloquent as it is, the Declaration of Independence is little more than a laundry list of grievances against King George III, and every third rate revolution in history has had one like it. It's easy to understand what you're sick and tired of, coming up with a new system is a different story. The real hard work came with the hammering together of that constitution, and this country benefited immensely by being born out of a revolution led by a group of radical thinkers who had the wisdom and foresight to sit down and plan a system that undercut the old European problems itemized on the Declaration list. The system has worked very well, and been a model for all others that followed. So today, as we spit out watermelon seeds and wipe firework cinders from our eyes, let's drink a toast of thanks to those founding fathers, and the brilliant system they established. Never again would this nation imprison people without charge or redress. Never again would a persecutory State Church exert undo sway on the political affairs of the state, and never again would we be governed by a pompous fool whose only qualification for office was being born into the ruling class.

Well, it worked pretty well for a really long time...sheesh, what do you expect?
illustration: ENTRADA--PEREGRINE FALCON (2005) acrylic 6" x 12"

Monday, July 03, 2006


...gonna blog about Badgers and Basilisks...Last week marked six months since I began this blogging jazz, exactly half the life of Mike Bergin's I And The Bird blog carnival, which I've actively participated in since discovering it. In honor and celebration of IATB, I humbly present this post: my own response to the anniversary theme, “Why I blog about birds,” or something like that.

I've been obsessed with nature from the start, and the whole time, my means of translating what I saw and thought about animals, plants and ecology was through the media of drawing and painting. Over nearly half a century of doing that, I've become pretty well acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of those tools as means of communication. The art ninny crowd (and here I include those of us who are actual practitioners) often states that great art is about great ideas, but for the most part, the ideas that all visual art trades in are rather small and vague. As a means of affecting social change, painting is a wimpy tool. The best we artists can hope to do is approach the bar established in 1937 by Picasso's Guernica, which offers up little more than a slogan. Over the past decade, I've found this increasingly frustrating. At the beginning of the 21st century, we stand at a critical point in our relationship with the natural world. The decisions we make today will affect the kind of world our species is stuck in for the rest of its existence, and those decisions are being made tacitly, often obliviously, with a shocking paucity of public dialog. By 2002, I had been thinking for a couple of years about writing and publishing some essays (without once lifting a pen). I was in the early stages of planning a coffee table book of my paintings at the time, and my publisher asked me how I'd feel about writing the text myself. I jumped at the chance and started writing, a process I assumed would take me six months. Three years later I delivered the rough manuscript to my publisher. During that unbelievably difficult enterprise, I grew enormously as a writer, and, while the final product was something short of Joyce, I was pleased with it, and decided at the end that I enjoyed writing.

After I'd finished the final edit, my friend Paula of Inkspots, suggested I start an art blog to post my most recent work. Since I only produce a handful of paintings each year, my normal website handles that adequately, but once I considered the soapbox possibilities, I started looking at the blogosphere, and I published my first post on December 27th. Tomorrow we'll celebrate the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and with it the United States' revolution and independence from Great Britain. That great revolution was kindled by pamphleteers like Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine. Bloggers are the contemporary pamphleteers, and while the vast majority of us are irrelevant, it's my goal to play a part in the coming conservation revolution. The great advantage bloggers have over our pamphleteering predecessors is that little comment button. If I write something factually erroneous, or fail to take something into consideration, often something I'm ignorant of, a reader is often there to chime in with a correction (yes, you can take that as a solicitation for critical comments). The blogosphere is an unprecedented medium for public dialog, and I believe its full potential has yet to be realized.

A couple of months ago, Coturnix started a good conversation on his old blog, Science & Politics. He brought up the idea of using this public dialog system to post scientific hypotheses and data for grass-roots peer review. Predictably, the scientific blogging community responded with a fear of being scooped. I'm not a scientist, but sometimes I play one in the blogosphere. I studied biology in college with disastrous results. I had to take eukaryotic genetics twice just to learn how to spell it (that's genetics—forget about spelling eukaryotic) and I dropped out before graduating. Still, my unrequited love for biology never died, and much of what I write could be called science blogging. I have no academic investment to protect, and I already have a number of regular readers and commenters who know far more than I do about biology. It's daunting and exciting to post your own ideas before the scrutiny of your superiors. I haven't yet had the juevos to move too far in this direction, but I look forward to taking up Coturnix' challenge with greater vigor in the future.

I've noticed that being a painter affects the way you look at the world. You're constantly analysing what light does, and paying attention to details that non-painters miss. Blogging has proved to bring similar advantages, and I've noticed myself pursuing thoughts that would have quickly dissolved a year ago, and doing research that would have never occurred to me.

All of this is fairly easy, but in order to really participate in this public dialog, an audience is imperative. I'm still learning how to build one of those; there are a number of gimmicks, but none of them will do much unless you publish posts that people will enjoy reading--that's the difficult part. I don't write quickly, and I can't afford to blog at the pace at which I wrote my book. The writing therefore, isn't as nice, nor the ideas as fully formed, but a blog is a perpetual work in progress. I'm glad to have stumbled into this preoccupation, and hope to turn it into something worthwhile over the coming years.
upper: TINY HAWK & BLACK-THROATED MANGO (1996) acrylic 11" x 6"
center: SILVERY-CHEEKED HORNBILL (1998) ink wash 19" x 12.5"
lower: MARKEA NEURANTHA (1995) acrylic 30" x 15"

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Darren Naish has a post up about the Eagle Owls that have begun colonizing Great Britain. Common Eagle Owls (Bubo bubo) are a widespread and spectacular bird of the Old World, found across North Africa and most of Eurasia, but absent in modern days from the British Isles-- until recently. The species looks much like its smaller American cousin, the Great Horned Owl (B. virginianus), but is more heavily streaked and spotted, with stunning orange eyes. The first Eagle Owl I ever saw belonged to my friend Steve, who obtained a pair of the birds several years ago. I said something like, “Wow, she's a lot bigger than a Great Horned, isn't she?” To which Steve replied, “What do you mean, she? This is the male!” The hen was a quarter again his size.

B. bubo is by far the largest and most powerful owl. Like the American Great Horned, it is a generalist predator that takes all manner of mammals and birds, often tackling very large and formidable prey, clinging tightly with bill and both feet until the thrashing stops. It is capable of dispatching a full-grown hare or goshawk. Eagle Owls will not tolerate smaller owls in their territory, and regularly prey on them. Because they are such fierce hunters, British Wildlife officials are rightly concerned about the impact this new species will have on the local ecology, and are trying to work out a management policy for the bird. It seems the question they're trying to answer is whether the owls crossed the Channel under their own power or with human assistance. I inferred from Darren's post that British law makes an automatic distinction between natural colonizers and human-introduced ones. If the owls flew across the North Sea, they are to be protected. If humans brought them, they are essentially vermin, and should be discouraged at the very least. Here in the U. S., wildlife management policy tends to be based on similar parameters, but there's a little more room to take other issues into account—those issues usually being economic interests and economic interests. During the 20th Century, Coyotes (Canis latrans) crossed the Mississippi on man-made bridges, achieving the status of naturalized natives of the eastern U.S. When Sea Lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) made a similar transit into the Great Lakes via shipping canals, they decimated several species of game fish, thereby qualifying as invasive exotics.

In the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere, I think that wildlife managers could benefit by forgetting this question of “natural” vs. human introduction altogether. I think it comes from a theistic viewpoint, where God doesn't want us tampering with his plan. If there ever was some divine plan of nature, we threw it out the window centuries ago, and it's far too late to worry about it now. The fact of the matter is that animals and plants move around; ranges are constantly changing, and nature is constantly trying to adapt to those changes. Humans impact nature in many ways, some intentional, some not. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about our impact, and we shouldn't make decisions under such assumptions. What we should discuss is what kind of a world we want to have a century from now. My vote for prime consideration is biological richness and diversity. How the Eagle Owls got to England is irrelevant. Their ecological effect will be the same either way. I have no authority to speak about British ecology; my forays into that land have been restricted to Heathrow Airport. Still, I imagine the owls' effect will depend on their success in their new digs. From what Darren says, it sounds like they're off to a fine start, and there's good reason for English Long-eared and Tawny Owls to be nervous. My own preference would be for a laissez-faire policy on such issues, unless it could be shown that the newcomers presented specific dangers that we feel should be avoided.

Speaking of owls, it's time for an update on my previous posts on vanishing owls of the Wasatch Mountains. Of the eight nest boxes I've installed in previous Flammulated Owl territory, none have been used by any birds, and I've found two new woodpecker cavities that appear to be ideal sites. I have not heard or seen a Flammulated in the past five years. The successful Long-eared Owl nest from two years ago was again unused. A pair of Great Horned Owls and Red-tailed Hawks both nested in that grove of trees this year. I checked the clone of oak trees where I heard a pair of Longears courting this spring, and saw no signs of them. I expect the loss of meadows (where the owls hunt) to housing developments has hurt the birds, but as I mentioned, introduced Raccoons prey heavily on Longears in this area, and appear to be the primary threat. On the night I found this Longear territory, I saw two of the masked bounders. The snow was deep, and I could move much faster on cross-country skis than the 'Coons could. I could have easily killed them with a ski pole, and for a moment actually considered that act of abject cruelty. Laissez-faire wildlife management doesn't come naturally.

The illustrations are not of Common Eagle Owls, but of two African species of Bubo.
upper: NDUK EAGLE OWL (1995) acrylic 11' x 7"
lower: SPOTTED EAGLE OWL (1998) acrylic 30" x 20"