More On “Daddy Kills…”

This reply from Roseann Hanson of the Alpha Environmentalist sheds some more light in a dark corner:
Since Matt wrote that he hadn’t verified the comic book and the website – and, like him, I was hoping it was fake – I went to the site that’s listed on the cover of the comic. Lo and behold, there was the “comic book.” The site is pretty amazing and almost a parody of whacko animal-rightists, so I checked out the registry of the website and it indeed is owned by PETA, registered through their corporate HQ in Virginia.And yes, they really did distribute those comic books to little kids – targeting families out fishing together, specifically. Can you imagine what you’d do if some PETA-whacko approached you and your kids and handed them this comic book? Here’s a quote from PETA’s own site about the content of the comic:Children will read: ‘Imagine that a man dangles a piece of candy in front of you. … As you grab the candy, a huge metal hook stabs through your hand and you’re ripped off the ground. You fight to get away, but it doesn’t do any good… That would be an awful trick to play on someone, wouldn’t it?’I knew PETA was bad, but I guess I really didn’t realize how bad – I guess I’m sheltered! The sites on PETA’s own links page (Other PETA Sites) are so awful that I had a hard time believing they weren’t spoofs….sad to say they are not. Here’s the link, but it’s not worksafe unless you work at home, because you’ll be ranting and raving for sure: you choose to browse any of the sites you will note with interest that each and every one, prominently displayed amidst the hysterical posturing, are DONATE TO PETA NOW! buttons.But of course. Like the Humane Society of the United States which raises millions of dollars fighting hunting worldwide, their “work” is big business (by the way, HSUS has just successfully pressured President Kibaki in Kenya to kill an extremely important bill that would have allowed local farmers to receive fair compensation for crop damage and loss of life – as in people stomped to death by elephants or hippos – mind you, interferring with democracy in another country which sorely needs it, only because the bill MIGHT have opened the door to reinstate culling in a country that actually needs it). Ultimately it’s not about animals, it’s about money and power.Don’t say I didn’t warn you!Roseann Hanson

Waiting for Condor

Steve and I chuckled over the LA Times article that appeared with this beautiful photograph. The entire piece is centered around a field trip by a group of birders to see condors – which never show up – giving the whole thing sort of a “Waiting for Godot” quality. Generally it does give a pretty good run-down on where to go to see condors here in California, though it does have an error Steve caught – calling The World Center for Birds of Prey the “The Wild Birds of Prey Center in Boise, Idaho.” See our earlier snarks on reporters and editors here.

To be fair, there aren’t many condors and not that many people get to see them. My son Travis and I were fortunate to see one while hiking near Tehachapi when he was 10 years old. Travis had always been interested in condors and turkey vultures and we had gone over the differences in identifying them in our field guide. His eyes are much sharper than mine, and he spotted it soaring over us right away. It was a proud day for me as a father – he was more excited about seeing that bird than at his first base hit in Little League.

Message from the Frontier

Every phone call from New Orleans is of interest. Andrea, first introduced in this post, surprised me yesterday with a call from the Garden District where she now lives and plans to stay for a couple years at least. It’s not the same place she remembers, says Andrea, having moved to the city just weeks before Hurricane Katrina forced her to leave it. Fortunately for New Orleans, she came back.Reid Farmer sent this story of the struggle to build a workforce in a city with plenty service outlets intact but few places to live. Most employers are still trying to make first contact with evacuated employees and to make do with whomever happens to show up. Those who do, like Andrea, represent a slightly different demographic (younger, single, mobile), people able and willing to live with less stuff in what amounts to America’s newest frontier city. For her and others like her, it must be an exciting and certainly a memorable experience.On the other side of the equation are my friends Tom and Jenn, lifelong Arabi residents (St. Bernard Parish, 10 minutes from the Quarter) who relocated this week to their new home in Pearl River, a small town about thirty minutes up I-59 from the site of their former, now ruined neighborhood. Everything about the North Shore is different. Taking a tour of the property, Tom and I walked behind a row of pines and scrubby oaks into the thin grass of an open field. There in the sandy soil grew a little pod of pitcher plants, unknown from the south side of Lake Pontchartrain and all of Tom’s childhood. We stopped and stared, seeing these slender, alien beings as symbols of great change.


This is my formal review of a wonderful film. Joseph Spaid, the filmmaker, sent me a pre- release copy. Folks, this is the real thing. See it if you can.

A Very Different Kind of Bird Film
By Stephen Bodio

“Kiran” is the Kazakh word for “golden.” It is also the adjective that the eagle trainers of western Mongolia use to describe the qualities that make the best hunting birds, an untranslatable combination of “noble” and something less definable.

Kiran Over Mongolia is a visually stunning documentary that tells an almost mythic tale. Kuma, a young Kazakh from Ulaaanbaatar (vividly rendered with all its bright lights, bustle, and grime, complete with Simpsons -style cooling stacks) travels hundreds of miles to Mongolia’s wild western mountains. There, he seeks a master who will help him pursue his unlikely dream: to catch and train a hunting eagle, the way his people have done for millennia.

The Kazakhs, an ancient Turkic – speaking people closely related to the Kirghiz, now inhabit Kazakhstan, parts of the northern part of Chinese- occupied Turkestan (Xinjiang), and the far west of Mongolia, where that country, Siberia, Kazakhstan, and China come together. Oddly, the Kazakhs in Mongolia may preserve the “purest” Kazakh culture. The Altai mountains on those remote borders were a refuge for people, both wandering herders and villagers, who fled Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in Kazakhstan and escaped the Chinese invasion of “Turkestan”. More eagle hunters live in this small area than in all the expanse of Kazakhstan, as I found when I traveled there in 1998 and 2000.

The film’s first scenes contrast young Kuma’s discussions with his octogenarian grandfather, a former “eagler”, with the sights and sounds of the city. They sit on a hillside above the town and discuss his obligations, with the traditionalist grandfather urging filial obedience upon Kuma while he worries in a voice- over about marrying a Mongolian girl. But mostly, his mind is on eagles. Soon, he and his father leave and begin to drive west through the daunting spaces of central Mongolia. They grind endlessly over stony plains and through bare hills, raising plumes of dust from the rutted dirt roads, staying at crude rest stops and hospitable yurts. Often the only scenery consists of a few camels drifting across the track. The hundreds of miles between the capital and Olgii seem to be a journey back in time as much as one through space.

The travelers arrive in Bayaan Olgii just in time for the Eagle Hunters’ Festival, which only confirms that impression. In September, hundreds of eaglers descend on Olgii to display their birds and compete in games of skill and craft. The sudden sight of a horde of horsemen trotting straight at you, heads topped with caps of fox fur and lynx fur, red silk and owl plumes, hooded eagles on their heavy gloves, transports you instantly to the time of Kubilai or Jenghiz.

After making inquiries of several eaglers, Kuma is accepted by Khairatkhan, an amiable middle-aged Kazakh with a stern, fiercely weathered face that is as likely to crack into a sudden grin as an eagle- like frown.. Khairatkhan takes Kuma on a journey of understanding, from his first innocent disappointment when Khairatkhan’s eagle misses a hare (actually, he explains, a more difficult quarry than the traditional fox because it is quicker and more “dodgy”) to his eventual accomplishment.

The narrative and visual skills of filmmaker Joseph Spaid, who spent six months with the eaglers, make the whole process as clear to the viewer as to young Kuma. Kuma learns to carry and hood the temperamental birds and how to make them comfortable. He learns to feed them without giving them too much, despite their rapacious tendency to gobble and grab. In a memorable sequence, he calls the eagle to him from a distance, and stands without ducking when the flying dragon hits his arm and nearly knocks him down. Their training culminates in the bird’s killing a fox, a scene done skillfully and cleanly, with neither flinching nor horror.

To this reviewer, perhaps the most fascinating moment in the training sequence comes earlier, with the trapping of Kuma’s own first eagle. Khairatkhan sets a circle of netting, “like a yurt” as he says to Kuma, around a dead hare, then tethers a live crow nearby to make the eagle jealous. After a long wait, the eagle appears, cruising horizontally. Suddenly, she falls out of the sky like a cruise missile and slams into the net. The two hunters are momentarily nearly hysterical at their good luck, and cannot stop laughing, though they do remember to give the poor crow his freedom (he flaps away toward a frozen lake without a backward look.)

The film’s visuals are unique. The vivid black- and- golden eagles and their capped and booted handlers glow in the brilliant light against a lunar background of bare mountains shaped like frozen waves, plains like a sea of rippling stone. To most urban humans, they inhabit a world as far from any modern time and space as another planet.

A mention should be made of the wonderful soundtrack. Kazakh ballads, unlike much Asian music, are extremely accessible to western ears, reminding me a bit of Celtic folk songs, though using an instrument, the dombra, with only two strings. Some sound martial, with a rhythm like galloping horses; others are obviously love songs. (Actually, in my own travels in the region, all were described to me as “about boy and girl” or “about love.”)

These last horsemen still ride through Kiran in a timeless moment, eagles on their fists, plumed fox hats on their heads. Will their ways survive our time? We can be grateful that this record exists, and hope that the ambitions of young men like Kuma will keep the tradition alive.

Daddy Kills Animals

My friend Russ (a local attorney, falconer and father of two) sent this interesting image from PETA, Inc. …For the sake of this post, I’ll give PETA credit for the art but admit I didn’t check for independent verification.

In its continuing battle for the next generation of paid subscribers, this well-recognized (but poorly known) corporation adds a new anti-family twist to its list of pet peeves. You see, your daddy kills animals, and “your doggies and kitties…could be next!” (direct quote from reverse side)

As a daddy who both kills animals and loves his children, I am fascinated by this approach. Let’s assume for a minute that this PETA campaign is not a form of hate speech that with slight change of illustration could rival any propaganda distributed by the Ku Klux Klan. Let’s say this is a legitimate message suitable for children and supported in part by your tax dollars (the latter is true!).

Do I, as the bogeyman in this message, feel threatened by it?

A little bit, yes. I would feel equally (which is to say, rather vaguely) threatened to see an analogous image demonizing my Jewish wife or my Christian parents. It is disturbing to see one’s self so grossly and meanly misrepresented.

But do I believe that this or similar messages could turn my twin daughters away from me in fear and disgust (as PETA seems to wish)? No. They both know very well that Daddy kills and butchers animals (they’ve helped, and then eaten them!) . More to the point, even my pair of sheltered, suburbanite girls (just under five years of age) would be able to see the ridiculous misrepresentation in every element of this image.

If that is so, then what sort of kid would swallow this crap? Perhaps one who doesn’t know (or doesn’t particularly like) his father. Or one who has never seen a carcass she recognized as an animal.

Question Two: If it’s legitimate to thrust a wedge between father and child, could the mother/child bond be far from the sights of PETA cartoonists? After all, it is she who usually buys (and cooks! and SERVES!) the cruel products of the chicken farmers and the cattle growers.

Once the children are amply estranged from their parents, who shall be left to guide them?

Oh wait: I think I know the answer to that one.

Very Old Rock Art Revisited

The image above from Utah may look familiar to you as I blogged about it here a couple of months ago as one of the very few possible images of Pleistocene megafauna (a proboscidean) from North American rock art. After posting this I sent copies of this image to two nationally-recognized, heck, internationally-recognized rock art experts and asked their opinion. Both of them are established PhDs, have many articles in peer-reviewed journals, and have published well-received books.

One said that he was familiar with the image and it looked like a good mammoth or mastodon to him. He also said that sometime in the 1950s, some Boy Scouts had “cleaned up” the rock around the petroglyph, scrubbing the desert varnish to make the image look clearer. Unfortunately, that destroyed any possibility of ever getting a good date on when the thing was made, so we will never know if it is of Pleistocene age.

The other expert also was familiar with the image. It was his understanding that it was associated with some historic Ute petroglyphs, and was likely done in the late 19th century after a circus with elephants had come to the area.

Well, as I was telling Steve and one of his good friends recently, part of the joy (and frustration) of rock art studies is the ambiguity of the figures and the difficulty (usually impossibility) of dating them. Lots of archaeology is very open to interpretation and rock art tends to that extreme in the profession.

That said, here is another controversial image of a possible proboscidean from Renegade Canyon in the Coso Range, Inyo County, California. This fellow has a spear sticking out of his back and there are human figures (hunters?) in the foreground that look appropriately scaled. I didn’t ask my experts about this one. How does it look to you?

The Coso Range where this petroglyph is found is one of the most intensive rock art areas in North America both in terms of quantity and quality of images. It has also been happily accidentally perserved because it is located on the China Lake Naval Weapons Center near a bombing range and virtually no one is allowed out there. Luckily, I will be able to tour the area in a couple of weeks in conjunction with a professional society meeting and hopefully will bring back some good pictures for you.I am in the midst of reading Paul Martin’s Twilight of the Mammoths that Steve and I have both mentioned in other contexts here. Martin’s take on the lack of Pleistocene megafauna rock art (he even mentions the Utah petroglyph above) is that the die-off of the animals was so fast that there was not time to establish the knowledge of their behavior and morphology needed to produce the art. I don’t know if I agree with that yet, but it is an interesting question as to why we don’t see the rock art in the Americas with these extinct animals that we see in Europe.

Cupules and Geophagy

A common form of prehistoric rock-art here in California is the cupule. These are shallow round depressions ground into a rock face, usually in no particular pattern. Here is a picture of my colleague Bryon Bass next to a rock covered with cupules.

This location is in Kern County in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains – the extreme southern boundary of the Central Valley. Historically this was a boundary area between tribes, shared by the Southern Valley Yokuts, the Castac Chumash, and the Kitanemuk. Here is another example from the same general area.

Cupules should not be confused with another extremely common archaeological feature found here, the bedrock mortar. A picture of some typical BRMs is here.

Mortars are functional – they served as facilities to crush acorns and other seeds for food processing. As such they are usually found on horizontal surfaces and are quite large and deep. Cupules have been interpreted as non-functional – they are shallow and usually found on vertical or slanted surfaces and there is no evidence that anything was ground in them. You can see this in the pictures above.

They are somewhat enigmatic. It’s hard to think of them as “art” as they don’t seem to represent anything and usually are placed randomly. Ethnographic accounts of the Yokuts describe these as markers commemorating the completion of a “coming of age” ceremony for young women. Each girl ground a cupule at the completion of the rite and families had their own special rock faces where this was done. Data from other tribes here links cupules to other fertility rites.

Kevin Callahan, an archaeologist from Minnesota, presented a paper at the Society for American Archaeology meetings a few years ago that tied California cupules to a world-wide phenomenon that apparently has great time depth. That is geophagy – the eating of earth.

In this view some cupules were “functional” in the sense that they were made to grind and obtain rock powder. This powder was eaten as part of ceremonies to ensure fertility. Callahan cites ethnographic data to back this up.

Geophagy, however, is a much wider phenomenon than the example above, linked to dietary deficiencies and medicinal uses. Every time you take Kaopectate, you are swallowing an elixir of water and kaolinite clay. While searching in vain for a link to Callahan’s paper, I did find this interesting article by Suzanne Ubick in California Wild that discusses his work and has lots of other fun facts about eating dirt.

.. and Wolf Eagles

Here is Manai, with his eagle….

…and a wolf pelt, taken by this eagle, hanging on his winter house.

Eagles do not take wolves in the wild as a rule, though a biologist friend has seen one kill a coyote here, and they regularly take pronghorn here (see American Pronghorn : Social Adaptations and the Ghosts of Predators Past and Survival By Hunting: Prehistoric Human Predators and Animal Prey ) and saiga there. Wise Manai has a dictum he does not always follow: “If you want to keep your eagle ten years (the length of time Kazakhs keep their birds before releasing them back to the wild to breed) do not hunt wolves!”

A Ghost of Evolution

A fascinating book that Steve introduced me to is Connie Barlow’s Ghosts of Evolution. The essential biological truth that forms the book’s basis is that many plant species evolve in concert with “partner” animal species that serve as agents to disperse the plants’ seeds. The evolutionary strategy is that the plants evolve fruits that appeal to specific animals, who eat the fruit and drop the seeds in their feces in areas away from the parent plant.

Barlow uses the pathfinding work of Dan Janzen and Paul Martin (cited multiple times on this blog!) who have pointed out that there are a number of plants here in the Americas (and elsewhere) that no longer have animals that eat their fruit. The breakthrough concept here by Janzen and Martin was that the animal “partners” for these plants are extinct and that most of them were Pleistocene megafauna. Their term for these plants is “ecological anachronisms”. They are the “ghosts of evolution” of Barlow’s title.

While back in Arkansas recently, I saw one of these “ghosts”, the osage orange (Maclura pomifera) shown in the picture below.

The tree’s range at European contact was the Red River Region where Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas come together. The tree was prized for its wood by Native Americans, who used it to make bows. This is reflected in the name that French explorers gave the tree, bois d’arc, that survives in the name of a river in the area.

You can see the tree’s fruit at the base of the tree in the picture above and in the close-up below.

It is green, rock-hard, and orange-sized. The inside oozes a nasty sticky latex. No native animals eat them. They don’t taste very good to humans – Barlow tells of her experiments in that arena, “…more like air freshener than food.” As you can see the fruit falls to the base of the tree, sits there, and rots. No dispersal agent – that fruit isn’t going anywhere. Actually, its dispersal agent in the last 200 years has been humans. Farmers in the eastern US planted the tree in thickets to make hedgerows before barbed-wire was invented and thereby expanded its range. Also, come to think of it, when I was a little boy growing up in that area my friends and I would run around the neighborhood throwing the “oranges” at each other. So I guess little boys are an important dispersal agent these days.

Barlow reaches the conclusion that the fruit evolved to be eaten whole by mammoths or mastodons and that these are the missing “partners”. Some experiments she made feeding the fruit to zoo elephants were inconclusive. She does give some anecdotal evidence that horses eat them. Actually, the common name for them I remember in Arkansas was “horse apples”. Of course, if this is true you have to remember that the horse is also an extinct Pleistocene megafauna, missing from North America from 14,000 years ago until the arrival of the Spanish.

Eagle Huggers

You’ve all heard of tree huggers. But some of my best friends have been eagle huggers.

Golden eagles are long- lived, life- bonded, top- of- the- food- chain predators. This can make them very hard to train, but if they are bonded they are REALLY bonded. They are intelligent and playful– I know Konrad Lorenz, usually smart about such things, thought not, but he tried to fly a poor zoo veteran in Vienna.

They can also be jealous, and dangerous over food. As I once said to an American photographer in Mongolia who wanted to tie a rabbit to his head and have a Kazakh throw his eagle at him: don’t mess with anything that can kill wolves, and flies.

But they have a softer side. Here, courtesy of PrairieMary, her late ex- husband, sculptor Robert Scriver, and his “Eegie”.

And here, my friend Manai, who lives near Bayaan Olgii in western Mongolia. One of the eagles he is hugging does catch wolves.