Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


The sixty-third edition of Tangled Bank, carnival of the life sciences, is now up at Indian Cowboy, This issue has the most unique theme yet: no theme at all!
Meanwhile, over at Ecostreet, it's the sustainable Carnival of the Green #46.

And a thirty-third edition of I and the Bird, the carnival of birds and the people they fascinate, is presently incubating beneath Don't Mess With Taxes. Expect pips by morning.

Just a couple of final reminders: I'll be a "Happenings in Humanities" speaker tomorrow evening at 7 at Utah Valley State College, and the following evening (Friday), I'll have a book signing at Central Book Exchange; 2017 S. 1100 E.; Salt Lake City.

Friday, September 22, 2006


The temperature in Salt Lake City has yet to drop below 50ºF, but signs of summer's senescence increase daily. Bird migration is well underway, and our least cold-tolerant summer residents, the nighthawks and hummingbirds, are gone. As the sun's increasingly oblique rays approach the horizon, the red and yellow maples and aspens on the surrounding hillsides cast an orange evening glow into the valley. I wasn't struck hard with an awareness of autumn, though, until last night, when I joined a friend for drinks shortly before dusk. As we entered the club, the assiduous squawking of a thousand Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) greeted us from the interior of an overhead billboard. It's a sound that I know well, and associate strongly with cold weather. For many years, I was obsessed with hawking starlings with Cooper's Hawks (Accipiter cooperi) and, for one season, with a Merlin (Falco columbarius). A major benefit of flocking is evident when watching a raptor chase a group of starlings or other birds. Upon sensing danger, the flock condenses to a nearly solid mass, and appears to move with a singular intention. The skill with which flocking birds can cue each other and fly as one seems supernatural. Unable to snatch an individual from the fluttering swarm, the pursuing predator is reduced to taking swipes at the entity until one bird loses its head and its timing and finds itself alone and vulnerable. The effort needed to take a starling from a flock exceeds that expended on a single bird by a sizable factor.

Starlings aren't alone in their propensity to get close in the winter, in fact, winter flocking is more the rule than the exception. Starlings' fellow immigrants, the English Sparrows (Passer domesticus), are forming similar coalitions in the city, and soon they'll be joined by a host of other flocking species. In summer, Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are uncommon and inconspicuous solitary birds here, occasionally glimpsed as a single bird flits through high-elevation undergrowth. As soon as cold weather hits, though, flocks of the fat little birds with their executioners' hoods will be ubiquitous throughout the region. In fact, it seems that on the first really cold morning of each year I see my first junco flock, as if winter were dragged right into the yard on their white-edged tails. In my three Pinedale Anticline posts, I described the impressive winter flocking of Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris). Clearly, flocks are less susceptible to predation, but why do birds concentrate only in the winter, when food tends to be scarce, and competition more of a concern? Since the days of Aristotle, observers have pondered this question. In the thirteenth century, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen asserted that flocks protected birds from predators on their long migrations. Other writers have pointed to birds like robins (Turdus spp.) and waxwings (Bombycilla spp.) that feed largely on berries in the winter. These foods are abundant where they occur, but can be difficult to locate. A large group of birds stands a better chance of discovering a large lode capable of feeding the whole. Flocks have an advantage not only over predators, but over competitors, as well. Chickadees (Poecile spp.) and other small birds show far more aggression to single conspecifics than to groups.
But birds aren't the only creatures that show this behavior. In my Pinedale Anticline posts, I also discussed winter herding of Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana), which is similar to the behavior of cervids. Even tropical deer like the Indonesian Sambar (Cervus timorensis) congregate in small groups during the boreal summer, which is the dry season there—the season when food is most scarce. When I painted The First Phalanx (above), I had read that troops of Mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) periodically coalesce into large herds led by a coalition of alpha males. I naïvely painted four big males surrounded in a riot of Central African blooms, unaware that these herds form only in the dry season, when such flowering isn't likely. Five years later, I tracked a large herd of the closely related Drill (M. leucophaeus), an easy job, since their fastidious searching of the dry-season forest floor gave the impression that a Zamboni had driven through the jungle. It makes sense that these large monkeys might find it easier to discover populations of mushrooms and small edible animals in large groups, which are also more intimidating to Leopards (Panthera pardus).

All of these benefits, and surely others as well, accrue to the flocks, herds, murders and gaggles, but I think to better understand the problem, the question should be turned on its head. It seems to me that most animals that congregate in winter are better described as gregarious animals that leave the pack to breed. Competition for food may be more severe in the winter or dry season, but even modest competition is too much for inexperienced juveniles. Most creatures are born during the season when foraging is the easiest, but even so, for many species the protection of the flock is less of a benefit than a liability during this crucial period.
upper: WORKING THE FLOCK--MERLIN & STARLINGS (1988) acrylic 30" x 20"
lower: THE FIRST PHALANX--MANDRILLS (1990) acrylic 20" x 30"



Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Over the next two weeks, a critical decision will affect the future direction of American conservation.

Butler's Garter Snake (Thamnophis butleri) is an inconspicuous little reptile, usually between a foot and two feet long. It haunts grassy meadows and riparian zones from eastern Michigan and northwestern Indiana northeast through western Ohio and into the southwestern tip of Ontario. A disjunct population inhabits the Milwaukee area. In Indiana, the snake is considered endangered, and in Wisconsin its status is threatened. A conflict has developed in the greater Milwaukee area, where real estate developers have found their appetite for land impeded by the Endangered Species Act. Anyone living in the U.S.A. or many other countries has seen similar conflicts. In this particular case, the Milwaukee Builders' Association and regional real estate groups have managed to convince Wisconsin's legislative Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules to vote to delist Butler's Garter Snake as of October 1st, unless the Department of Natural Resources takes significant steps to reduce conservation's impact on the land development community. The irony of this backwards logic seems to be lost on the legislative body.
The Wisconsin DNR, working with the builder’s association, developers, land trusts and public land managers, developed a comprehensive conservation strategy to address the needs of the snake while considering concerns from developers in the spring of 2005. This strategy, which was created using the best available science, is currently being implemented. As part of this strategy, over 1,000 acres of Butler’s Garter Snake habitat considered suitable, but small, have been "let go" to development by the DNR in order to appease developers and focus their conservation efforts on larger sites with more significant conservation value. This current strategy is working and improvements to it are being made on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, the majority of the Joint Committee views this strategy as too restrictive for developers, and do not support it. It is their goal to delist the Butler’s Garter Snake so that all areas in which it is found are open to development. This would be an unprecedented coup against the Endangered Species Act. It would represent the first American instance of a decision of this kind being taken solely on the basis of economic interests, with absolutely no biological science involved. This is exactly the kind of precedent that the powerful anti-conservation movement is looking for, and all Americans need to decide whether or not we want to live in a society dictated by the greed of the wealthy. These arguments are always framed in terms of “Landowner's Rights,” but let's be honest. The rights of us all are tempered by the rights of others, and by the common good. No one in America has more rights or power than the land developers, so let's not be fooled by their whimpering.

What can you do? Here are some steps recommended by the Center for North American Herpetology:

1. Contact the following legislators today to tell them you are unhappy with the positions they voiced at the last hearing and that you fully support a new hearing being held on September 26th. All made it clear that they are prepared to vote to suspends the applicable administrative rule and delist the snake. Ask others to do the same, especially your friends and colleagues who live in their districts.

Representative Donald Friske (R-Merrill)
(608) 266-7694 Capitol 312 North

Representative Daniel LeMahieu (R-Oostburg)

(608) 266-9175 Capitol 17 North

Senator Tom Reynolds (R-West Allis)
(608) 266-2512 Capitol 306 South

Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) c/o Jolene Churchill

(608) 266-7513 Capitol 20 South

2. Thank Rep. Marlin Schneider and Senators Jauch and Miller for their strong statements of support.

Senator Mark Miller (D-Monona)

(608) 266-9170 Capitol 106 South

Senator Robert Jauch (D-Poplar)

(608) 266-3510 Capitol 130 South

Representative Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids)

(608) 266-0215 Capitol 204 North

3. Set aside September 26 to attend the next meeting of the committee and be prepared to testify. MCCC is generally credited with applying enough phone calls, faxes, emails and contacts to stop the last effort by this committee to delist the Butler's Garter Snake, two years ago; it can be done again.

4. Three members of the committee did not participate (Rep. Towns was present for a short while, but not for the debate or vote.) Let them know how you feel:

Representative Spencer Black (D-Madison)

(608) 266-7521 Capitol 210 North

Representative Debi Towns (R-Janesville)

(608) 266-9650 Capitol 302 North

Senator Cathy Stepp (R-Sturtevandt)

(608) 266-1832 Capitol 7 South

This is only the first time you will need to contact these legislators. As the issue heats up in the next two months, they need to hear from many supporters of the endangered species law. We must not allow politics to determine which species survive and which do not.
photograph of T. butleri by Mike Redmer; lifted from the Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Mangement website www.herpcenter.ipfw.edu

Monday, September 18, 2006


Why, eight pirates, of course!
Celebrating holidays seems mostly silly. They nearly outnumber the rest of the calendar, or so it seems, especially to a hardcore unemployable like myself. A few of them are still worth the trouble, though, and International Talk Like A Pirate Day certainly falls into that elite category. Although it's inconceivable that some may be unaware of this holiday, here's Dave Barry to describe it (from the Miami Herald; Sept. 8, 2002):

Arrrrr! Talk like a pirate -- or prepare to be boarded

Every now and then, some visionary individuals come along with a concept that is so original and so revolutionary that your immediate reaction is: ``Those individuals should be on medication.''

Today I want to tell you about two such people, John Baur and Mark Summers, who have come up with a concept that is going to make you kick yourself for not thinking of it first: Talk Like a Pirate Day. As the name suggests, this is a day on which everybody would talk like a pirate. Is that a great idea, or what? There are so many practical benefits that I can't even begin to list them all.

Baur and Summers came up with this idea a few years ago. They were playing racquetball, and, as so often happens, they began talking like pirates. And then it struck them: Why not have a day when EVERYBODY talks like a pirate? They decided that the logical day would be Sept. 19, because that -- as you are no doubt aware -- is Summers' ex-wife's birthday.

Since then, Baur and Summers have made a near-superhuman effort to promote Talk Like a Pirate Day. As Baur puts it: ``We've talked like pirates, and encouraged our several friends to, every Sept. 19, except for a couple where we forgot.''

And yet, incredibly, despite this well-orchestrated campaign, the nation has turned a deaf shoulder to Talk Like a Pirate Day. In desperation, Baur and Summers turned to me for help. As an influential newspaper columnist, I have the power to ''make or break'' a national day. You may recall that almost nobody celebrated Thanksgiving until I began writing about it in the 1970s.

I have given Baur's and Summers' idea serious thought, looking for ways to improve it. One variation I considered was Talk Like a Member of the Lollipop Guild Day, on which everybody would talk like the three Munchkins in the film version of The Wizard of Oz who welcome Dorothy to Munchkin Land by singing with one corner of their mouths drooping down, as though they have large invisible dental suction devices hanging from their lips. But I realized that would be stupid.

So I have decided to throw my full support behind Talk Like a Pirate Day, to be observed this Sept. 19. To help promote this important cause, I have decided to seek the endorsement of famous celebrities, and I am pleased to report that, as of today, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, the Osbournes, Tiger Woods, Ted Koppel, the Sopranos, Puff Doody and the late Elvis Presley are all people who I hope will read this column and become big supporters. I see no need to recruit President Bush, because he already talks like a pirate, as we can see from this transcript of a recent White House press conference:

REPORTER: Could you please explain either your foreign or your domestic policy?


To prepare for Talk Like a Pirate Day, you should practice incorporating pirate terminology into your everyday speech. For example, let's consider a typical conversation between two co-workers in a business office:

BOB: Hi. Mary.

MARY: Hi, Bob. Have you had a chance to look at the Fennerman contract?

BOB: Yes, and I have some suggestions.

MARY: OK, I'll review them.

Now let's see how this same conversation would sound on Talk Like a Pirate Day:

BOB: Avast, me beauty.

MARY: Avast, Bob. Is that a yardarm in your doubloons, or are you just glad to see me?

BOB: You are giving me the desire to haul some keel.

MARY: Arrrrr.

As you can see, talking like a pirate will infuse your everyday conversations with romance and danger. So join the movement! On Sept. 19, do not answer the phone with ''hello.'' Answer the phone with ''Ahoy me hearty!'' If the caller objects that he is not a hearty, inform him that he is a scurvy dog (or, if the caller is female, a scurvy female dog) who will be walking the plank off the poop deck and winding up in Davy Jones' locker, sleeping with the fishes. No, wait, that would be Talk Like a Pirate in The Godfather Day, which is another variation I considered (``I'm gonna make him an offer that will shiver his timbers'').

But the point is, this is a great idea, and you, me bucko, should be part of it. Join us on Sept. 19. You HAVE the buckles, darn it: Don't be afraid to swash them! Let's make this into a grass-roots movement that sweeps the nation, like campaign-finance reform, or Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I truly think this idea could bring us, as a nation, closer together.

But not TOO much closer. Some of us will have swords.

WARNING: Before attempting to celebrate ITLAPD, please view this instructional video for directions on how NOT to do it. Better to forget the whole thing...really.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Having spent the last couple of weeks stumbling around the mountains and splashing around the rivers, instead of dutifully typing at the keyboard, I find this blog appearing in but one carnival this time around. I and the Bird #32 is currently being hosted by Deb of Sand Creek Almanac. Click over to her links to 20 birding-related posts, and read them passionately.

The festivities begin today at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, for the Western Visions Miniatures and More Show, featuring small sculptures and paintings by 150 of the world's finest representational artists. Drawing for bids on the work will take place tomorrow evening, Sept. 15th.

I'll be busy here in town for the next week or two. Tomorrow I'll be the "working artist" at the Utah State Fair. At 7pm on Thursday, Sept. 28, I'll be speaking at Utah Valley State College as part of their Happenings in Humanities series. On Friday, Sept. 29th, I'll participate in an exhibition, Ispirata at the Rose Wagner Center for the Arts in downtown Salt Lake City. The show is in conjunction with the release of a new cd by my old pal Lisa Marie Wood. Another new cd is expected any day from local singing/songwriting phenomenon, Andy Monaco. The new recording, appropriately titled Maybe, features the work of many of Salt Lake's finest musicians, as well as yours truly on the mighty Fender Rhodes. Andy's cd release party will be at Kate & Ed's, 3575 S. 2700 E., Salt lake City, on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 7pm. Finally, on Friday, September 29, I will be signing copies of my book at Central Book Exchange, 2017 S. 1100 E., Salt Lake City, from 7 until 9pm.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Idaho is about the last place in America you'd expect a confrontation with an animal rights activist, but there he was, an earnest young man identifying himself as “Tim,” and greeting us with a pamphlet and a smile as we entered a sporting goods store. My friend Bob Diamond and I were just picking up a couple of last-minute items before putting in to the Snake River, but we stopped for a moment to interact with him. I have serious philosophical differences with the animal rights movement, but I understand them. My own goddaughter is a member of PETA, and I think that's a fine place for a 13-year-old girl to be on her moral trajectory—I only hope she continues that trajectory until she's Ingrid Newkirk's age. Likewise, I couldn't help but take a liking to Tim. Too few of us have the rectitude to volunteer our time to a cause we believe in, not to mention the kind of chutzpah that stands between a hunter and his arrows. As much as I liked the guy, though, I cringed more than a bit when he said that we're the only species that hunts for sport. I guess it's human nature to look for qualities that set us apart from the rest. If elephants talked, they'd bore us with braggadocio of prehensile noses, and when people aren't boasting about their brains, they, like the Idaho activist, exalt the rest of nature by pointing to imagined human peculiarities. They admire animals like a starlet's stalker, enamored from afar, with an object they've never known. When we talk of the genus Homo's singularity, it's usually in exaggerated and delusional terms. In essence, Tim and his hunter target audience are both motivated by the same animal drive: an innate love and fascination with other animals, that thing that Edward O. Wilson called biophilia, a trait that's strongest in the predators: the sated leopard that watches each gazelle with keen interest, the wolves that slaughter the silly contents of a sheep corral and leave them for the magpies, and the well-fed suburbanite, an SUV hauling his camo-clad ass up the mountainside.

My river trip with Bob was enjoyable but uneventful. We jumped the gun and beat most of the migrating water birds, seeing concentrations of only nighthawks and kingfishers. Just slightly disappointed when we reached the take-out, we eventually met up with our friend Craig, who was passing through with his young tiercel Taita Falcon (Falco fasciinucha). The Taita Falcon is a little-known species from East and Southern Africa. Like the New World Aplomado Falcon (F. femoralis) pictured above, it is a mostly tropical bird with largely rufous underparts. But where the Aplomado is built for an accipiter-like lifestyle, with a long tail and legs, the Taita is built like a Peregrine (F. peregrinus), only more so. Her wings are long and narrow. When folded, they nearly reach the end of her short tail. Her wing-loading is among the heaviest of the falcons, the most heavily-laden raptor genus. Taita Falcons nest on cliffs near rivers, and prey upon fast-flying shorebirds, swallows, and even swifts. They appear to be uncommon, although there is a good population on the Zambezi River (which may be declining). I believe I saw one on the Sanaga River in Cameroon, but the species has never been recorded that far west. I've been close to falcon Taitas in the Peregrine Fund's breeding chambers, and was eager for my first experience with a tiercel. The sexual size dimorphism of this species is surprising. Craig's bird was tiny--the size of a female Merlin. He was very tame and affectionate, his manners were impeccable, and his appearance exquisite. Bob and I were quickly charmed.

We drove around for a short time, looking for a good spot to fly him. With just a couple of weeks of flying under his belt, the young tiercel had yet to kill any wild quarry. We selected a field with lots of sparrows, in the hope that one might be flushed while the Taita was in position. Craig cast him off, and he immediately rang up to a height of about 300 feet. A big female Merlin (F. columbarius) came in, tipped a wing at him, and exited. A minute later, we were a little horrified to see a tiercel Prairie (F. mexicanus) flying straight for the inexperienced African bird. The Prairie's flight wasn't the kind of power-pursuit employed when a falcon has killing on its mind, and we expected little more than the sort of bluff received from the Merlin. The naïve little Taita took no evasive maneuvers, though, and the wild falcon seized him. We heard his terrified chattering for only a few a seconds as the Prairie set his wings and sailed off, eventually settling beyond a rise. The three of us ran as fast as three middle-aged slackers could. By the time we approached the birds, they had been on the ground for well over a minute, and we closed in with visions of the Prairie standing in a heap of lovely black and rufous feathers, chomping out chunks of sternum keel with his notched beak. He didn't flush until we were 50 feet away, and when he did, the Taita got up, looked around, ran a few feet, then took off into the air again. Fortunately, the Prairie didn't pursue him further, and he soon calmed down, and was retreived, apparently no worse for the experience. We approached the wild bird as close as he'd allow, but couldn't determine if he was adult or juvenile, or had a full crop, and we drove back to Blackfoot, our minds swarming with unanswered questions. It's hard to imagine what went on during the minute and a half that those birds were together on the valley floor. The Prairie surely wasn't winded--taking the Taita was a cinch, but he hadn't so much as plucked a feather. I can only guess he was cropped up, and merely indulging his predatory biophilia, as Bob, Craig and I were doing in our own way, and pamphleteer Tim in his. I imagine the Prairie tiercel holding and admiring this peculiar, incautious bird, the likes of which he'd never seen, before three hysterically screaming humans interrupted his reverie and the inevitable, brutal denouement.
upper: SMOKE-JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON-detail (1994) acrylic 19" x 30"
ENTRADA--PEREGRINE FALCON (2005) acrylic 6" x 12"

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Since switching over to Google's new Blogger beta system, I've had some trouble navigating my own archives, so I put together a catalog page for them. Just click on the Archives by Category link at the top of my sidebar, and you can browse all of the previous posts by category. Kind of a jury-rigged arrangement, but it does the job.

Friday, September 01, 2006