Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, June 25, 2007


One of my vague blogging objectives is to chronicle some of the natural changes I see around me. As I mentioned the other day, I live in a big city surrounded by some of the least densely populated land in the temperate zone. Next month, Salt Lakers will celebrate the 160th anniversary of our city's founding, and during most of that short time, the natural world has been busy adjusting to that major insult. Behavioral changes often precede morphological ones, and it's often astounding how quickly behavior can change – among animals human and non-human alike. This state's still abuzz over it's first recorded human death by a Black Bear (Ursus americanus) last week, and a timid populace avoids the backcounty in droves, ignoring the fact that once they've parked their car at the trailhead, the dangerous part of the trip is over.

Last year I mentioned some local changes in pelican behavior, and it's high time for a serious update. The family Pelecanidae contains a single modern genus, Pelecanus, with seven species and nearly global distribution, occurring on all continents except Antarctica. The genus is well represented in Old World Miocene deposits. Today's pelicans are a uniform lot: fish-eating specialists with distinctively huge, flexible bills that anchor a skin pouch that serves as a fishing net. The African Pink-backed Pelican (P. rufescens), the Asian Spot-billed Pelican (P. philippensis), and the American Brown Pelican (P. occidentalus) are normally solitary foragers, but the other four species typically forage in groups of as many as two dozen individuals, forming a semicircle and corralling schools of fish, as the Eastern White Pelicans (P. onocrotalus) above are doing. As they fish, they raise their knobby wrists and gracefully rock them, often in unison. This fishing takes place mostly in the morning and evening, and is usually initiated by a single bird, who will take to shallow water and swim about, waiting for others to join. Once a group is on the water, they swim together, searching out a school of fish. Once an appropriate school is found, the birds encircle them, and plunge their heads under the water, opening their bill and distending their pouch. When a fish is caught, they bring their head to the surface and tilt it to drain the pouch before lifting their bill and swallowing their booty. When small prey is plentiful, the Australian Pelican (P. conspicillatus) sometimes uses its wings to propel itself forcefully across the surface, plowing through the shoals with its bill.
Most pelicans are cloaked in pale colors, like the American White Pelican (P. erythrorhynchos) and Eastern White Pelican above. Only the Brown Pelican varies from this color scheme. An iconoclast in more than plumage, the coastal Brown Pelican only strays far inland by accident. Brown pelicans forage just offshore, flying at modest altitude, usually under 15 meters. When a fish or school of fish is located, the bird crumples up and plunges into the water like a gannet. Its great bill is forced open, and the pouch is immediately filled with as much as 10 liters of water, and hopefully, a fish, which is brought to the surface and consumed after the pouch has been drained. These dives are quite spectacular, and attract the attention of all sorts of pirates. I once found a young Brown Pelican being beaten on by two adult birds as it cowered upon the water. The juvenile's pouch swelled to capacity with a captured fish. Seemingly unable to either release or swallow its recalcitrant quarry, the poor bird had little option but to sit out its fate. We watched it and the pair of older thugs for over an hour with no resolution before having to paddle on. I've seen gulls fly out to diving pelicans, to alight on their heads once they've popped to the surface—poking their own heads right into the larger bird's mouth to rip off a fish chunk or two.

Pelicans can't spend too much time on the water before their plumage becomes water-logged, and much of their day is spent loafing on sandbars or other favorite spots, occasionally preening themselves and grooming their pouch. Above left, an American White Pelican indulges in a glottal exposure, a practice peculiar to the genus, where the pouch is everted over the neck. This movement is also sometimes used to drain the pouch when fishing. Another peculiar pelican gesture is the "bill-throw" (above, right). This sometimes follows a glottal exposure, and seems to indicate a slight degree of unrest. Both of these gestures appear contagious, like human yawns, and the bill-throw may serve to communicate an intention to spread those long wings and take flight.

With the 1972 banning of DDT in the United States, the once decimated Brown Pelican has happily rebounded. The USFWS still classifies the entire population outside of the eastern US coast, Florida and Alabama as endangered, but a strong case could be made to delist the species at this point. The IUCN lists all pelicans as species of low concern except two vulnerable species: The Spot-billed Pelican has seen a serious decline recently, thanks to habitat degradation and human destruction of colonies for food, guano, and as an act of competition for fish. Central Eurasia's Dalmatian pelican (P. crispus) is protected in seven reserves, most importantly at Lake Mikri Prespa in Greece. The other 14 or so known breeding areas have seen substantial declines recently.
Brown Pelicans appear to adjust to people more easily than the other species. In coastal cities of the Southeastern US, like Charleston, SC, they are nearly as tame as pigeons, and in many Latin American fishing towns, rats might make the more apt simile. I have the good fortune to live near one of the biggest pelican colonies in the world. Gunnison Island, in the Great Salt Lake, is home to 4,000 to 14,000 breeding White Pelicans, depending largely on the fluctuating lake level. Isolated from the mainland, this sanctuary is home to but two mammal species, Gunnison's Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus gunnisoni) and the Gunnison Island Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys microps alfredi), and is a State Wildlife Management Area, protected from human disturbance. I've never been to the island, but I paddled to a large colony of Eastern White Pelicans on the Senegal River (above), which was spectacular for eyes and nose alike. It's hard to imagine how the young birds could be packed more densely. As they mature, they form groups, or pods, of their own, which become the social unit in which they learn to live as adults. Since the Great Salt Lake has no fish, parent birds must journey to rather distant waters twice a day to provide for themselves and their young.
Last July, pelicans began fishing on a small pond in an urban park near my home. This year, they returned in Late May, and I've spent some time watching them, trying to make sense of their behavior. This pond, a popular duck-feeding site, is perpetually filled with well-fed Anseriformes, as well as nitrogen, which indirectly feeds a surprising density of Carp (Cyprinus carpio), Fathead Minnow (Pimephales promelas), and other fish. It is also only about ten miles from Gunnison Island, a fraction of the 30-100 miles the birds are used to traversing. The only challenge the pond presents the pelicans is great human activity, to which the pelicans are adjusting, as evidenced by another lawnmower photo (above). Pelicans from Gunnison Island have also begun fishing on a pond (often referred to by the non-ecologically oriented as a "water hazard") on a nearby golf course. On the morning of July 15, I took a photographer friend to the park, but only saw four birds, where 22 had been two days earlier. I speculated that a dog or drunk might have frightened most of them off, but for the following week the birds were mostly absent. I believe this is coincident with the hatching of their eggs and intensified responsibilities at the colony. Of course, they still must fish, and why they stopped doing it here isn't obvious to me.

Whatever the case, their visits are becoming more frequent now, with each day. At 9am this morning there were 6 of them. The literature I've seen describes White Pelicans as strictly diurnal, but the peak feeding here takes place in the middle of the night, when there is less human activity, and more light than one would have seen here 200 years ago. Their beautiful feeding ballet is even more dramatic in the dim of midnight. Birds even fly to and from the pond at 3am, across a route well-lit by Salt Lake City light pollution.

I'm ashamed to say I've yet to execute a painting of one of these fascinating birds. For now, I can only illustrate this post with photos and one dinky little Brown Pelican in the background of this San Esteban Island Chuckwalla.
All photos by CPBvK, taken in Salt Lake City, Senegal and Florida
lower: SAN ESTEBAN ISLAND CHUCKWALLA (2006) acrylic 30" x 20"

Friday, June 22, 2007


Anyone who's paid me a visit during the past 37 years has seen this rug, which has graced my floor whenever I've had a floor during that time. It depicts the famous Aztecan god Quetzalcoatl, who was often regarded as one of the four Tezcatlipocas, designers of the universe. The rug originally lay next to its twin, in the room I shared with my brother as a boy. Twenty years later, my brother's San Francisco apartment was burgled, and his rug was lost. The rugs were designed and hooked by our Mother, Woodie Ann Brest van Kempen, who was born Woodie Ann van Cott, seventy years ago today. Growing up surrounded by her creations, the floral rugs in our sister's room, the stained glass windows, carved wood doors, countless ceramic pots and hand-made tiles, the porcupine bas-relief out front, and all the weavings, is probably the main factor to blame for the fact that all three kids grew up creating, me, my brother the conceptual artist, and my sister the tv producer. Mom was one of the founders of the Utah Weaver's Guild, as well as the This Is the Place Heritage Park, which began a noteworthy career as a historian and museum professional, a discipline that still keeps her busy. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I heard this disturbing story, and its satisfying end with a comletely ridiculous statement by a guy from the Cato Institute, on the radio last night. Motorists in North Carolina who run their diesel engines on vegetable oil are being fined for failing to pay the highway taxes that are built into gasoline prices. The story implies similar laws exist elsewhere. I wonder how widespread they are. That's some forward-thinking legislation. It's time to crack down on those who don't burn gasoline in the quantities that good Americans are meant to. We had a little conversation here last year about the ethics of riding a bicycle on roads paid for with gasoline taxes. Maybe we cyclists are actually flaunting the law, in addition to good manners! Geez, aren't we living in a community here? I chose not to reproduce, but I'm happy to pay school taxes to educate the dazed litters that proliferate here like August midges. Stop bogarting the road, for chrissakes.
illustration: STILL LIFE WITH BEETLES (2000) acrylic 20" x 26"

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Over the past 40 years, North America's bird fauna has changed remarkably. It includes several species like the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica – above) that didn't appear on pre-1967 checklists. Some species have increased in numbers while others have decreased. Thanks to Rob at Birdchaser for alerting me to the Audubon Society's new webpage of the top 20 declining common birds of North America, complete with entries describing problems and potential solutions. The list is surprising to me; it contradicts much of what I see in my unique area: a big city in the center of the least densely populated part of the lower 48. Having lived in the same part of the country for practically all of the past half-century, I've watched local trends with interest. Anyway, here's the Audubon list, the estimated decline in the United States since 1967, and how that compares to what I've seen locally.

20. RUFFED GROUSE (Bonasa umbellus) 54% This is one of two common forest grouse in my area, the other being the Blue Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus). Populations of both appear to be healthy and steady here, and about equal in number, although I seem to recall Ruffeds being the more numerous prior to about 1970.
19. LITTLE BLUE HERON (Egretta caerulea) 54% I have no long-term experience with this bird.
18. HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris - above) 56% Throughout the year, this bird has always been the most conspicuous avian resident of the open plains of my area. At the age of 16, I was involved in an automobile accident while watching a group of these birds instead of the road. I've noticed no decline.
17. WHIP-POOR-WILL (Caprimulgus vociferus) 57% I have no long-term experience with this bird. It appears very similar to its rather distant relative, the Poor-will (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) which occurs here, and appears to be far less common in Northern Utah than it was before 1980. It's still plentiful in the southwest part of the state.
16. RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD (Selasphorus rufus) 58% Once every three Augusts or so, I see one of these birds on passage here—not frequently enough to make a judgment concerning any trends.
15. AMERICAN BITTERN (Botaurus lentiginosus) 59% This bird occurs in my area, but I'm too lame to see it enough to know how common it is.
14. COMMON GRACKLE (Quiscalus quiscala) 61% This bird is accidental in my area. I've seen three, one in 1984, one in the late '90s, and one last year.
13. LARK SPARROW (Chondestes grammacus) 63% If anything, this handsome little sparrow is more common in open parts of my area than it was 30 years ago.

12. BLACK THROATED SPARROW (Amphispiza bilineata - right) 63% Another handsome sparrow whose numbers seem to have remained steady in southern Utah, where it has always been fairly common.
11. SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis) 64% I don't even know that I've seen one of these.
10. GRASSHOPPER SPARROW (Ammodramus savannarum) 65% I have no long-term experience with this bird.
9. FIELD SPARROW (Spizella pusilla) 68% Another sparrow I have no long-term knowledge of.
8. LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE (Lanius ludovicianus) 71% This has never been a common bird around here. It's probably even less common now than 30 years ago.
7. COMMON TERN (Sterna hirundo) 71% This bird is occasionally seen here on transit, where I would be likely to mistake it for the common Forster's Tern (S. forsteri).
6. EASTERN MEADOWLARK (Sturnella magna) 72% I have no long-term experience with this bird. The Western Meadowlark (S. neglecta) continues to be abundant in open plains and agricultural areas.
5. BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonica) 73% I have no long-term familiarity with this bird.
4. GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila) 75% I have no long term experience with this bird.
3. NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta) 77% From the late '70s through the early '90s, I did a lot of duck hawking in northern Utah, and sought out this challenging quarry, which became common towards the end of the season (late January). Today it is still common, though probably less so.
2. EVENING GROSBEAK (Hesperiphona vespertina) 78% This bird occurs here in the winter, where transient flocks may turn up for a few days. Most years I don't see any, some years I see several flocks. I can't make much sense of my observations.
1.BOBWHITE (Colinus virginianus) 82% I have no long-term knowledge of this bird.

Here is my own list, complete with built-in bias, of birds that appear to have declined markedly in my location.

RUDDY DUCK (Oxyura jamaicensis)
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
SAGE GROUSE (Centocercus urophasianus)
FRANKLIN'S GULL (Larus pipixcan)
BURROWING OWL (Speotyto cunicularia)
FLAMMULATED OWL (Otus flammeolus)
LONG-EARED OWL (Asio otus)
POOR-WILL (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii)
BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD (Selasphorus platycercus)
BROWN CREEPER (Certhia familiaris)
PINE SISKIN (Spinus pinus)
upper: BLUETHROAT (2002) acrylic 8" a 10"
photographs by CPBvK

Saturday, June 16, 2007


New England's premier annual exhibition of animal art opens today at the Bennington Center for the Arts in Vermont. Featured artist Laney will kick off the twelfth annual Art of the Animal Kingdom with a lecture at the museum at 1:00 this afternoon. In addition to Laney's work, the sculptures and paintings of fifty-five leading North American wildlife artists will be available for viewing--and many of them for purchase. Included are the two paintings of mine above and below. The show runs through July 29th. _____________________
upper: MALAYSIAN RHINOCEROS HORNBILL (2003) acrylic 18" x 30"
lower: CRASH-BARRIER WALTZER--BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (2006) acrylic 30" X 22"

Friday, June 15, 2007


A single modern tortoise genus containing four species inhabits the North American continent. Closely related to the extinct Eocene genus Stylemys, they are highly adapted for burrowing, which they do proficiently, hence the common moniker, gopher tortoise. All four species are imperiled to some degree, sometimes because of their fossorial habits. The westernmost species, the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agasizii - above) ranges from southwestern Utah southwest into SW California, northern Baja California and Sonora and NW Sinaloa. Cattle interests have historically been an enemy of the Desert Tortoise, which prefers digging its burrows in the grasslands used for grazing. Today the Utah population is severely threatened by the ever-expanding metropolis of St. George. The USFWS lists the species as threatened, and the IUCN calls it vulnerable. The Texas Tortoise (G. berlandieri), which occurs from Texas south to S. Taumalipas, is probably in the best shape of any of the four. The USFWS does not list it, and the IUCN lists its status as indeterminate. In 1959, my homeboy John Legler described the largest member of the genus, the 37 cm. Bolson Tortoise (G. flavomarginatus), whose restricted range in the Bolson de Mapimi, where the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango meet, justify its endangered status on both lists. In the eastern U.S., a population of the Gopher Tortoise (G. polyphemus) is distributed from E. South Carolina, south through Florida, while a disjunct population ranges from SE Louisiana east to Alabama. The IUCN lists the species as vulnerable, while the USFWS deems the western population threatened. Censusing creatures that spend most of their time underground is difficult, and there are no good data on Gopher Tortoises, but it's generally agreed that there are more of the reptiles in Florida than anywhere else. The sandy, well-drained soils preferred by the tortoises are also coveted by land developers, and the inherent conflict potential has been obvious for years. In 1979, state wildlife officials gave Gopher Tortoises the status of “species of special concern,” affording them protection from harm by persons who hadn't filled out the required forms. For the past 16 years, Florida officials have been handling tortoise/developer conflicts the same way they're handled in Mississippi: the developer is issued an expensive “incidental take permit,” which allows them to pave or build over tortoise burrows. The fees collected go into a fund for protecting tortoise habitat elsewhere. To this date, it's estimated that under the Florida program, more than 94,000 tortoises have been buried alive, while 25,000 acres of tortoise habitat has been purchased and protected by the state, about 15% the size of the 1.7 million acres of tortoise habitat that has turned to homes, highways, strip malls, etc.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife has been under pressure from various groups and individuals to change this policy. Conservationists don't like the fact that it's not preventing habitat decimation, and animal-rights folks find the slow killing of the reptiles by suffocation or crushing to be cruel. Last summer, the state issued a report estimating that the population of Florida tortoises is roughly half of what it was 90 years ago, and an effort is being made to upgrade the species' state status to “threatened.” On Wednesday, officials announced that the “pay to pave” program will be terminated as of July 31, 2007. Rather than deny developers their right to build whatever projects they please, the new plan will require them to relocate tortoises to “safe areas.” Over the next 15 years, the state plans to expand the tortoise reservation area by 615,000 acres, and relocate 180,000 tortoises, and “improve” habitat on the reservation. The Burrowing Owls, Indigo Snakes, camel crickets, and the many other species that find sanctuary in Gopher Tortoise burrows will have to find their own ride. Already, developers are complaining of hardship. Past attempts at relocating Gopherus tortoises have seen large percentages of the reptiles attempting to find their way back, and the spreading of respiratory infections is a very real danger, too. We're likely watching the birth of the Florida State Turtle Zoo.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Fifty-five years ago this summer, a sleek, smallish falcon with a broad, light eyebrow and dark belly band perched alone on the edge of a stick nest outside of Deming, New Mexico. Gray fuzz still clung to the young bird's forehead as it cackled loudly and furiously flapped its wings. Barely aware of what was happening, it suddenly found itself lifted by a stiff breeze, and it sailed across the chaparral, to land inelegantly on a Palo Verde. No one is quite sure why, but another Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis) would not fledge in the United States for the rest of the twentieth century. Two hundred years ago, these lovely birds were rather common across the brushy deserts of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S., but during the first half of the twentieth century their numbers declined severely. Livestock are often blamed for the crash, but large numbers of cattle grazed this land for many years with no apparent detriment to the falcons, as is still the case today in the Chaco of northwestern Paraguay. By the time Aplomado numbers began to dwindle, cattle grazing was about half as intensive as it had been 50 years earlier. DDT has been shown to thin Aplomado eggshells in Mexico, but their decline began well before the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons. By 1950, the species was all but extinct north of Colombia; only in a portion of southern Mexico did they occur in any numbers.

Named for the gray plumage of their mantle (Aplomado is Spanish for Leaden), F. femoralis superficially resembles its Neotropical congeners the Bat Falcon (F. rufigularis) and Orange-breasted Falcon (F. deiroleucus), but tends to occur in drier, more open areas than do those jungle birds. Also, its build is more Accipiter-like, with long legs and tail. Combined with an intense disposition, these features make the Aplomado reminiscent of a Cooper's Hawk in many ways—much more so than any other Falco species. Like the even more accipitrine forest falcons of the genus Micrastur, Aplomados are largely crepuscular, often hunting when it is quite dark. Small birds and insects make up the bulk of the prey, usually spotted from a perch and taken from the air. Three eggs are the norm—they are laid in the abandoned nest of a hawk or raven.

Encouraged with their successful reintroduction of Peregrines (F. peregrinus), the Peregrine Fund began captive breeding of Aplomados in the 1990s, and hacking the resultant young in southern Texas. Though a complete understanding of the birds' rarity is elusive, the reintroduction has been very successful. Within a decade, more than 40 breeding pairs were sustaining a viable population, and in 2005 further South Texas releases were deemed unnecessary. Last year that population successfully fledged 56 young. Meanwhile, back at the P. Fund, 132 captive eyasses were produced in 2006, 115 of which were hacked off in West Texas. In New Mexico, a pair turned up and fledged a brood last year. It was decided to undertake an experimental reintroduction on Ted Turner's Armendaris Ranch in that state, where 11 Aplomados were released last summer. It's now been been confirmed that from those birds a successful pair has already been formed, and a brood of two-week-old eyasses is reportedly doing well.
upper: SMOKE JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON-detail (1995) acrylic 18" x 30"
lower: APLOMADO FALCON & SPOTTED BAT (1982) pen & ink 21" x 16"

Friday, June 01, 2007


It's not that unusual sounding today, but at the time it was a musical departure like I'd never heard. I had just turned nine, and was in Paul Sheya's basement. We played the shiny new disc he'd swiped from his older brother over and over and over. The experience changed me forever. I can't speak for Paul, but I'm comfortable suggesting that 20th century music was moved as well. Did you listen to Sgt. Pepper today?
photograph of the Beatles stolen and defaced by CPBvK


The Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu) subjected to the pointillist treatment above are common mammals through most of the Neotropical region, extending north into Texas and Arizona. A larger, somewhat less common species, Tayassu pecari, is found in the moister parts of the same range. In 1975, a new peccary, Catagonus wagneri, was discovered in the Gran Chaco region, where Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina meet. Early next year, the Dutch primatologist, Marc van Roosmalen, will describe a fourth member of the family: a new, giant species of Amazonian peccary, Pecari maximus. Van Roosmalen is known best for having described a number of New World monkey species, and lately he's kept himself busy looking for more overlooked Amazonian mammals. His giant peccary is rather old news at this point, but he claims to have an amazing list of mammal taxa new to science, including two more peccaries, a dwarf manatee, a large new arboreal anteater, a new big cat, etc., etc. Many of these "new taxa" are little more than conjectural, but if the information is correct, there's a lot of very exciting stuff there. Darren Naish has received permission to reproduce van Roosmalen's data and images, and he's already got two posts up on his always excellent blog, Tetrapod Zoology (with three more slated to go up later today). Have a look!
illustration: JAGUAR & COLLARED PECCARIES (1994) oil 42" x 32"