Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, February 26, 2009


(Excerpted from my book, Rigor Vitae)The ancient silo loomed before us, a monolithic silhouette incrementally blocking the night sky as my companion and I approached. While sealing an opening with cardboard I gestured to Stan with my net, indicating where he was to block the other exit. Persuading him to stop here hadn’t been easy. We were returning home from a day of hawking in northern Utah. Stan’s falcon had flown poorly and been lost. Daylight’s final hour was spent tracking her down. Now that she was hooded and calm, preening on the cadge in the back of his station wagon, he just wanted to get her home.

Stan’s grumbling was just perceptible as he fitted his cardboard in place. Once sealed, the structure's contents were ours for the taking. Inside it was warm, humid, and absolutely dark. The tower pulsed with birds, those three successful immigrants: Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), English Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and my quarry, Rock Doves (Columba livia).
I climbed the decrepit steel rungs to the upper roosts the pigeons preferred, net and canvas bag dangling from my belt and darkened flashlight gripped uncomfortably in my mouth. Stan remained below to receive the birds I lowered to him.

Halfway up a disturbed entity fluttered blindly about my face. I reflexively snatched it from the air. The alarm call of a starling is a shocking thing: a high, strident croak describing unimaginable horrors. This avian siren launched the silo’s entire population to flight around its interior, drowning their sentry’s cry with the thunder of ten thousand wings. Barely audible through the din was a string of invectives rising from Stan. As each bird became airborne it emptied its ballast, and when I returned to terra firma, my reluctant accomplice was drenched.

Just beneath their skin-deep beauty, we are all smirkingly aware of birds’ capacity for hyper-metabolizing. The tension between the lovely songster and the mess it makes has been clear ever since Basho penned his Bush Warbler haiku in the seventeenth century:

Bush warbler—
A dropping on the rice cake
At the verandah’s edge

Thirty years ago the sight of a few braying Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) 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.

In cities throughout the world, millions of man-hours are devoted to eliminating the common Rock Dove and its droppings. Originally a Eurasian species, it’s been domesticated for some 5,000 years and has accompanied humans in their diffusion across the globe. Now hardly a city fails to slump beneath the weight of the birds. Even Antarctica harbors feral pigeons.

As we’ve become more cognizant of chemistry’s dark side, many of yesterday’s toxic pigeon controls have given way to mechanical devices for excluding the birds or driving them away. Today’s most popular chemical weapon is Avitrol, a brand name for strychnine-laced birdseed. The victims that eat sublethal quantities go into paroxysms that are said to frighten off other pigeons. Unfortunately, they are also apt to attract predators to a lethal meal.Until recently, a more gruesome concoction prevailed. Fenthion is a potent organophosphate that was sold in a form that could be painted onto favorite perches. So powerful were its effects that contact with the foot of any bird that dared step in it caused necrosis, loss of motor control and eventual death. Fenthion is very stable and persists in the food web, accumulating in body fat. In 1999 the EPA came to an agreement with Rid-A-Bird, Inc., makers of the Fenthion perch to voluntarily discontinue their product. Fenthion is still sprayed in Florida against mosquitos, and is still used as an avicide in much of the world. In Australia it is an important weapon against Mediterranean Fruit Flies.

For the better part of my life I’ve played my own consequential role in pigeon control. Live pigeons are a valued commodity for falconers, used to trap falcons, train them, or serve a “bagged” quarry on the days when a decent slip at a wild duck or pheasant couldn’t be found. For many years I flew a wonderful Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) named Hillary, a passage bird (trapped in her first fall). When Hillary was in the air, a live pigeon in my hawking bag was essential, to flash for a split second when her mind began to wander. Trapping pigeons during the day or netting them by night, one had to be mindful of Fenthion, Avitrol, and the rest of the day’s arsenal. Even products like Ornitrol, a sort of avian RU486 were worrisome when the birds were winding up as hawk food.

As an adolescent, my nets and I scrambled about vacant warehouses and office buildings deep into the night, arrested for it but once. I scaled the face of Salt Lake’s city hall for the pigeons in her belfry, and am surely one of very few who can boast of having smoked a joint on top of that structure’s clock tower. Deciding to seek actual permission to enter the place at night, I put a formal petition before the city council. The pigeons had been seen as a problem, and my permission was granted with surprising speed. A newspaper reporter noticed my petition in the council’s minutes, and thought it might make a good story. He had no idea. While I was at school he called my mother, who had been ignorant of my participation in the political process. When asked to confirm that I wanted the pigeons for breeding stock (My petition hadn’t been 100% on the level), she replied, “No, I imagine he’s probably going to feed them to his hawks!”

When I got home, I called the reporter and after some fancy talking hung up, believing I had convinced him not to mention my falconry. The next morning’s paper bore a scandalous article complete with remarks from the head of the local Humane Society chapter, who called falconry “inhumane.” My key to the bell tower was revoked and a poisoning campaign was unleashed on the pigeons, to which the Humane Society had no objections.

Thirty years later the Rock Doves still own that belfry.
upper: FEAR OF FLYING (1990) acrylic 20" x 26"
lower: THE PLUMING POST--PEREGRINE & ROCK DOVE (1989) acrylic 30" x 20"

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Animals move around. It's what separates us from the minerals. When I was about five, the first sight record for a Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) was established in my home state of Utah. When I left high school the species was still considered accidental, but within five years it had become a common breeder. Today the New World population of these birds, descended from African stragglers a century ago, inhabits relatively unexploited pastureland habitat from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Any year now, Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) should cross into my state as well. In the past couple of decades, the lovely Eurasian Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) has traversed the Bering Strait into Alaska and Yukon, as the West Indian Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis) slipped up the Eastern Seaboard into New Brunswick. These pioneering events can be random, or can be precipitated by climatic, geological or ecological changes. The Pliocene formation of the Isthmus of Panama was one of the most profound occurrences in recent geological history, allowing the migration of placental mammals into South America, and a sparser flow northward, which included those advancing armadillos.

These days, most pioneer species are assisted by humans, either exploiting anthropogenically altered habitat or actually being transported, either purposely or inadvertently. Peninsular Florida's subtropical climate provides the most welcoming habitat in the contiguous U.S., and a wide array of recent animal and plant species have set up shop there in the past century, including some 47 reptiles. Florida's most common reptile, the Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei) is a recent stowaway from Cuba, but lately all eyes have been on the big constrictors. Boa Constictors (Boa constricor) have reproduced in the Everglades for some 40 years, but are not known to breed elsewhere in the state (since they bear live young, it's a bit harder to confirm these things). Green Anacondas (Eunectes murinus) and Yellow Anacondas (E. notaeus) have been found in southern Florida, as have Reticulated Pythons (Python reticulatus-above), with no confirmed breeders from these three species. The fifth pioneer constrictor, the Burmese Python (P. molurus bivittatus), has so far been the only constrictor to really establish itself, a feat accomplished within the past six years. The first nesting Burmese was found in 2006, but it's likely that a thousand or more eggs had been laid in Florida by that time. The graph below shows the number of individual Burmese Pythons removed from Everglades National Park over the past fifteen years (data from last year are not yet available; the only released figure so far is “over 300”). In each of the past few years, increased effort has gone into removing pythons, probably exaggerating the curve's steepness some. It's much harder to estimate the species' total population with any accuracy than it is to assume they're there to stay.
Last week, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida introduced a bill intended to address this situation. The degree of sound biological advice he received can be inferred from the bill's title alone: A bill to amend title 18, United States Code, to include constrictor snakes of the species Python genera as an injurious animal. Should the bill pass muster, it would (despite the awkward phrasing) prohibit the interstate transport of Python spp. within the United States. Nelson's introductory comments were typically hyperbolic, particularly his contention that “...recently, researchers also found cougar parts in the stomachs of captured pythons. This development could signal a new threat to the endangered Florida panther, which we have been working so hard to save,” referring to an incident in November, 2005, when a Bobcat (Lynx rufus) foot was found in the lower GI tract of a female Burmese. This is just the latest in a string of hysteria, including a couple of fairly crazy USGS projections predicting python migrations into the American heartland (see below). These papers have been nicely debunked here and here.Nutty discussions about a problem, though, don't necessarily invalidate concern, and pythons in South Florida are something to be concerned about. Last year, the state initiated new regulations defining Burmese, Reticulated and African Rock Pythons (P. sebae), Green Anacondas, Amethystine Pythons (Morelia amethistina) and Nile Monitors (Varanus niloticus) as “reptiles of concern,” mandating implanted microchips in all captives over 2” in diameter and a $100 annual permit to own one. Legislators, wildlife managers and journalists have generally worked under the assumption that the wild pythons are descended from intentionally released, unwanted captives, but there is no evidence to support this. It is at least as likely that their release was a single unintended consequence of 1992's Hurricane Andrew. Whatever the case, the new state legislation is sound. The release of any exotic wildlife in Florida is a first degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000. fine. Further dissemination of this fact and a bit of education for prospective snake-owners would go a long way here, especially at the pet shop end. Putting the practice of importing young, wild-caught pythons from Asia out of its misery would be a welcome blow against a destructive industry, in addition to driving the price of captive snakes out of reach of the less-than-serious keeper.

Florida Panthers (Puma concolor coryi) surely have bigger worries than pythons, and I consider the widespread agonizing over possible competition with Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon corais) to be overboard as well, due largely to the widely divergent optimum body temperatures of the two genera. The endangered Key Largo Woodrat (Neotoma floridana smalli) is another story. Perhaps the biggest concern of all is the potential spread of Reticulated Pythons further south into the Caribbean. This species swims well and has dispersed itself throughout Indonesia and the Philippines. In the simple ecology of the Caribbean islands, these snakes could wreak far more serious havoc than is likely in the complex Everglades community, where wildlife managers are busy trapping them, tracking them with dogs, and following radio-telemetered males to females. Because pythons and other poikilothermic predators do not feed regularly, a parcel of land can support far more individuals than it could a similar homeothermic species, and the maintenance of a python population at a somewhat innocuous level is feasible, if labor-intensive.
upper: RETICULATED PYTHON & MASKED FINFOOT (1999) acrylic 20" x 30"
middle: Graph based on USNPS data. 2008 data added by CPBvK
lower: Map by USGS

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Two hundred years ago today, Robert Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England. Over his 73 years of life, he was an ardent observer of nature and a prolific writer who published tracts on Pollination of Orchids, Formation of Volcanic and Coral Islands, Expressions of Emotion, Phototropism, Ecology of Earthworms and many other subjects, but it was the book he published in 1859, On The Origin of Species, that he'll always be remembered for. Evolution--the changing of organisms over time--had been recognized long before Darwin, but in this book he proposed an explanation of the engine behind the process. Over a century and a half, his ideas have been refined, but the more we learn about evolution, the more his theory of natural selection seems to fit.

Who'd have thought that by his 200th birthday the poor old guy would be as vilified as he is? But blaming Darwin for evolution is like blaming Einstein for gravity. Both fellows only did their best to describe how the phenomena work—they didn't invent them. So as a birthday gift to our good friend Chuck, let's agree to stop blaming him for evolution. To all of those who'd prefer to live in a world where organisms never change, blame Nature instead. She's your real antagonist.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


We don't have Dubya to kick around anymore. That red, white and blue SUV of State may be high-centered down a swampy road marked “Danger! Do not enter!,” but it has a new hand on the wheel: one that, upon first inspection, appears to be a smarter, more thoughtful one than we've seen in a while. The accuracy of this impression remains to be seen, but it's sure nice to hear a president calling on us to take more civic responsibility than simply to go shopping and to “Get down to Disney World in Florida.” So as we climb down and look for an open spot on the bumper to shoulder, let's try to figure out just where we are.

Our nation faces a lot of daunting problems, but all eyes seem focused for now on the economy, which makes sense, since it affects the other problems. Our economic woes are many and varied, and blame can be aimed in many directions, but one factor can't be ignored: We've been working within a flawed paradigm for years.

I've always thought of economics as a sort of branch of ecology. Where ecologists study how energy is circulated around communities of organisms, economists study how capital is circulated around communities of humans. It's the same thing, really, and (as far as I can see) the same rules apply to both. I have nothing against economic growth--in fact I'm all for it, when discussing Chad or Bangladesh. But as standards of living rise in a nation, there comes a point of diminishing returns, and at this point America's obsession with an ever-bloating economy is to our detriment, not to mention downright unseemly. Equilibrium is sought by any system, but in our economy it's been anathema. Here, recession is enemy number one, and whenever we've caught a whiff of it, we've employed artificial props, postponing the inevitable collapse while feeding it. A nation as wealthy as ours can easily afford to weather natural downward adjustments in the economy and to protect those who are hurt by them. We like to think of ours as a true “free market” economy, but that's something the industrialized world has never known. Modern economies differ only in how, and to whose benefit, they are manipulated.

Over the past three decades, the entire conversation has been hijacked by the supply-side philosophy. Reagan got the ball rolling and Clinton picked it up and ran like hell. Since it's the wealthy individuals who create companies, jobs and livings--the thinking goes--just keep the troughs of the fattest pigs full enough and plenty will spill over for the rest. We average Americans have sat by happily and watched this process, secretly expecting to gain a place at that trough, however unlikely it may be. There's some truth to the supply-side argument, but once again, we're faced with the law of diminishing returns. Before long, the harm of the super-rich outweighs their benefit.

So what can we do as individuals? For starters, we can think about shifting our own attitudes about capital and our relationship with it. Our collective worship of money has been the ultimate root of our current state. It's caused companies to stop seeing themselves as providers of goods or services, but as generators of wealth, and caused government, industry and individuals to blindly throw cash at problems whether the solutions are financial or not. It's left many of us living frenetic, unpleasant lives trying to hang on to houses that cost four times their real value. Let's stop calling ourselves consumers and start calling ourselves citizens again. In recent weeks it's become obvious just how well the supply-side-fed fat cats have allowed their advantage to trickle down. It's been refreshing to see the widespread popularity of the recently applied ½ million-dollar pay cap for executive beneficiaries of federal bailouts. I'm hopeful that it's a step toward public repudiation of the cartoonish application of capitalism that's brought us to the position we presently enjoy, possibly even toward an embrace of such “un-American” ideas as a maximum wage, a notion I've championed for years.

In their frenzy to find a solution, our political leaders look a bit like the Keystone Cops, and the ultimate effect of their antics is anybody's guess. I hope, though, that in crafting their plan they'll think of it less as a stimulus and more as a parachute, intended to guide us safely into a healthier paradigm, where a sane standard of living (with a bit of cushion) represents a long-term line of equilibrium.
upper: SILKY ANTEATER (1997) acrylic 17" x 10.5"
lower: SELF PORTRAIT WITH SOAPBOX (2008) watercolor/ink 8" x 4"