Eevil Eagles

When I announced Darren’s new book (Tetrapod Zoology 1) I mentioned a Darren drawing that contained, among other things, an Australopithecine and a Socorro County calf in mortal danger. Here is the proof, in the form of his 2004 Christmas card (click on it to enlarge):

The hominid is the (documented– look up recent material on “Taung Baby”) victim of a large African eagle, probably the crowned (Stephanoaetus coronatus), which still occasionally attacks them in the form of small children– at least one incident in Zambia.

The calf? in the seventies, Audubon actually filmed a pair of eagles killing calves on the Tigner ranch, twenty miles south of Magdalena– the unusually predator- friendly Tigners had invited them. The culprits were trapped and moved, and no other eagles have developed the habit since, although we know an eyrie there (Tigner’s is our favorite quail- hunting habitat).

The third is the monstrous New Zealand eagle formerly known as Harpagus moorei— I think it has been reassigned to Hieratus or Spizaetus, making it a close relative of very fierce smaller eagles used in falconry today. It was HUGE– up to 45- 50 pounds, more than twice the size of any eagle alive. As shown here, it ate moas (bones have been found with punctures corresponding to the eagle’s talons). Apparently, at least according to Maori legend, it ate humans too– probably all upright bipeds look like food to a flying Velociraptor– and it only became extinct when the Maori ate all the moas (“…and there ain’t no moa”), just before European colonization, if then.

More in Darren’s book, on these and other large eagle prey. The subject was the occasion of our first correspondence, which continues…

Autumn Poems

An exchange between blogger- neighbor Anna Lear and me (go to her Laughing Raven for exquisite photos of our country, often focused on the small rather than the large), starting with her reaction to the photo below, prompted me to reprint my favorite Autumn poems.

Campbell’s was written when he lived in Provence near Marseilles in the twenties. But (trivia time); though he was English, Hughes wrote October Dawn in Northampton, Mass in the fifties when he was living there with his then wife Sylvia Plath. As a sometimes UMass Amherst student I did a lot of hawking and grouse and woodcock shooting within 20 miles of there in the seventies…

by Roy Campbell (1901-1957)

I love to see, when leaves depart,
The clear anatomy arrive,
Winter, the paragon of art,
That kills all forms of life and feeling
Save what is pure and will survive.

Already now the clanging chains
Of geese are harnessed to the moon:
Stripped are the great sun-clouding planes:
And the dark pines, their own revealing,
Let in the needles of the noon.

Strained by the gale the olives whiten
Like hoary wrestlers bent with toil
And, with the vines, their branches lighten
To brim our vats where summer lingers
In the red froth and sun-gold oil.

Soon on our hearth’s reviving pyre
Their rotted stems will crumble up:
And like a ruby, panting fire,
The grape will redden on your fingers
Through the lit crystal of the cup.

October Dawn

By Ted Hughes

October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out

To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition

Of ice across its eye as if
The ice-age had begun to heave.

The lawn overtrodden and strewn
From the night before, and the whistling green

Shrubbery are doomed. Ice
Has got its spearhead into place.

First a skin, delicately here
Restraining a ripple from the air;

Soon plate and rivet on pond and brook;
Then tons of chain and massive lock

To hold rivers. Then, sound by sight
Will Mammoth and Saber-tooth celebrate

Reunion while a fist of cold
Squeezes the fire at the core of the world,

Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart,
And now it is about to start.

Update. Jackson Frishman illustrates the poem here.

Two quick links

Tim Gallagher just sent this link to a new study of passenger pigeon genetics.It is NOT a big mourning dove, and is closer despite its long tail to New World Columba like the bandtail. This might give more weight to some of my speculations in A Feathered Tempest (developed more succinctly in my recent Living Bird link).

And Darren Naish has just published the first “Tet Zoo” collection! Darren is not just the best zoology blogger on the Internet– I think of him as Blogfamily since we corresponded on his very first blog post, on eagles (I will write more about the book when I get it, and with his permission print a very funny Christmas card by him that features eagles, an Australopithecine, and a doomed, very local calf– really!)

A journey to Portugal

Porto was rainy and beautiful, an ancient coastal city home to the port industry and 270,000 residents. Just as we had dreamed, Porto felt both historic and comfortable. Stone buildings lined the brick and cobble streets, with balconies overflowing with plants and flowers. It seemed every home on each narrow street had a backyard vineyard, with chickens on their roofs, and pigeons cooing from holes in every rock wall and steeple. We stayed in the old downtown, within the area designated as a World Heritage Site.

Our ancient hotel had tiny rooms, with a deep narrow tub that I nearly fell out of trying to take a shower. It had been storming, so the darkened streets were damp and luscious, and we went for an evening stroll through the hilly city. We found museums and plazas, with plenty of public art projects and lush vegetation lovingly maintained. We were tiring and headed back toward our hotel when we saw light coming through a window on a side street. As we approached to read the signs posted there, a Portugese restaurant owner came out and grabbed us off the street, ushering us into his small café for a most delicious meal of fish and chicken, warming our bellies with excellent port and warm bread. No one spoke English, but it didn’t matter in the slightest. We smiled and thanked the man for the wonderful dinner, and waddled back to our hotel, falling into a deep sleep before getting an early start the next day. We called a taxi to take us to the bus stop, and with the help of an English-speaking Italian student, managed to get on the correct bus to head for the northern portion of Portugal, the most remote region of the country.

As we climbed up and out of Porto, we saw Eucalyptus trees and palm trees, but the vegetation changed the higher we climbed and moved inland away from the Atlantic Ocean. The public transportation system in Europe is amazingly cheap and efficient, and some of the buses we rode were nicer than some of the airplanes we had flown. We saw oxen carts parked in fields where work had ended the day before, and it’s true that it seemed that we’d entered a land that time had forgotten.

We rode the bus to the end of the line, and then hired a taxi to take us to our hotel, about a half-an-hour from the nearest town: A Lagosta Perdida, inside Montesinho natural park. The hotel, an ancient stone house, offers four rooms for stays, with a fabulous dinner and a light breakfast as part of the price. Our room was huge and overlooked the countryside.

Walking the streets and roads of the natural park, we met up with our first guardian dogs, of two native breeds. There is a program in place to distribute the Transmontano mastiff to cattle and sheep grazers in the park to protect their herds from wolf depredation. The park maintains a registry of mastiff litters and makes these dogs available to producers. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the result has been a decrease in depredations on both sheep and cattle.

In Europe, natural parks include towns and farms, hunting and livestock grazing, etc. A natural park is a protected area that includes “natural, semi-natural and humanized landscapes, of natural interest, representing harmonious integration of human activity with Nature.”

(The photo above shows one of the most beautiful homes in the small town we stayed – love the stone house, rock walls and slate roof – this is traditional architecture. The photo below shows the town we stayed (yes, very very small, amid wolf range.)

The Transmontano mastiff originated in a pastoral livestock system where stock are grazed in uncultivated areas away from villages, with the continuous presence of wolves leading to its functional body structure of massiveness with long head and limbs, which enable it to travel with the herds. Ninety-five percent of the northern Transmontano dog population is reportedly still used to protect extensive sheep flocks from wolf predation. An aggressive program to reduce wolf predation on sheep and cattle herds in Portugal’s Montesinho Natural Park was begun in 1994, placing Transmontano Mastiff LPD pups with herdsmen. Transmontano mastiffs are quite reserved and docile, while not being highly aggressive. Work is being done to gain international recognition for this breed.

We also encountered a few Estrela mountain livestock protection dogs. The Estrela is probably the most widespread native breed of dog in Portugal. A traditional dog used to guard sheep high in the mountains, because of its beauty, the breed is widespread and often used as pets.

It was interesting to see both dog breeds, and it was notable that we heard concern about the working lineages of these dogs being overtaken by the pet/show lines.

Bird Nerd Review Post

Heavy (bird) science warning!

John Burchard asked me recently about the current evolutionary status of New World Vultures, and I realized my answer “reviewed” a book I had been meaning to. So consider the following to be my semi- official review of the amazing book The Inner Bird by Gary Kaiser.

The very latest– this year’s?– dope takes them [ N W Vultures] away from storks & such, where they were allocated by Sibley and Alquist’s pioneering , more- right- than – wrong, but limited- by- lack- of- data studies about 20 (?) years ago. They apparently have some morphological affinities with storks, but these may be due to parallel evolution. Now some people want to hook them up with the birds of prey again, but actually they’re just floating loose.

Bird evolution is really just getting sorted. Paleognaths (ratites, tinamous), a single group including both Galliformes and Anseriformes (!) and two other groups (Metaves and Coronaves) all apparently existed before the K-T event. The last two groups are incredibly confusing because each contains birds that are morphologically virtually identical but evolutionarily and genetically distinct, which have traditionally been grouped into families by appearance and habit. As an easy for instance, loons are not remotely related to grebes, but there are worse and weirder ones! I’d be happy to sort this out more for you when I am less exhausted. But as a teaser — Metaves (the older of the two as their name implies) MAY consist of the only the Hoatzin, frogmouths, nightjars, owlet nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, pigeons, sand grouse, mesites, flamingos, sun bitterns, grebes, and the kagu. Coronaves would then consist of everything else that is not so to speak a chicken, a duck, or an ostrich!

And they were all Dino contemporaries– well, maybe not Passerines, late Coronaves– but they all may have emerged after the asteroid strike from a refugium in Gondwanaland where all the fossils are now buried beneath the Antarctic ice, far from Xixclub’s impact… (you know there may be a few post K-T Dino fossils in NZ?!)

The book to get, already three years out of date but better than anything else on Bird Science existing, is The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution, by Gary Kaiser. (Good to also have old S & Al as a reference, but it has no anatomy or illos as Kaiser does abundantly, just shitloads of cladograms). It not only covers all we know (surprisingly little) and all we don’t about avian anatomy and then evolution; at the end it gives amazing examples from Kaiser’s own lifelong field studies of the pelagic birds of the Pacific Northwest, some of whom nest miles inland high in rain forest trees, fly out to sea at night at about 90 mph, dive deep into the ocean to feed, and return by dawn! By the time you get to this part, he will have shown you what an improbable feat of engineering this all is.

I also have a ten page friendly online critique of it by Darren Naish, with just as friendly a response & update from Kaiser. The damn paperback costs over $30, which still beats the impossible $85 for the hardback that made me wait to read it until this year. The thing is, it is really not for graduate students– it is written in recognizable and vivid* if occasionally recondite English– OR for normal, un- bird- obsessed casual readers. It’s for thee and me and Darren and Jonathan Kingdon and my blogger friend LabRat, demanding of a certain amount of knowledge. I can’t imagine who exactly they thought would read it, but I am damned glad they took the chance!

I wonder why I care about all this but I do…

[* For instance: he says that the over- muscled, strong boned, airborne- for- two- years swifts, in the hand are made of “lead not feathers”– because they fly so much.]

Links at Last

I have had to drop some as not timely– but finally a feast of the good, the bad, and the strange.

Good: first, and rather belatedly considering how long I have been following these people’s work (one has even bent an elbow at the Spur): three blogs by poets plus. First in line and I think newest is by New Formalist poet, writer of novels in the form of epics and a thriller in the form of a short poem collection, philosopher of biology and religion, martial artist, professor, and rare polymath Frederick Turner of Dallas.

Second is the blog, literary at least as much as musical, and website of border and all- round American (NOT just cowboy!) singer- storyteller Tom Russell, perhaps my favorite popular singer alive.

Third, the website of by- no- means- only cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski, among other things another half- Italian Catholic schoolboy like me. He may be best known for his haunting poem “All This Way for the Short ride” or its slightly different ballad version sung by Russell, but he has written on everything from a Midwestern boyhood to South Africa. Need I urge you to buy all these peoples’ books and CDs?

More good? Daniela sent this link to a NYT article on hybridization that gives some credence to my arguments in the “Big Black Nemesis” post on Gyrfalcons and Sakers a while back.

And Anne Price of the Raptor Education Foundation, one of our honorary “Russians”, sent one to this extraordinary archive of pre- Revolution Russian color photos.

Good at least in my book, if only for the sake of burying the hatchet and getting on with science: Richard Dawkins, our best evo writer and an outspoken atheist, has publicly signed a statement that he has no quarrel with religious people who accept evolution. Of course this act of charity and reason has made him an instant object of attack from whack jobs on both sides, especially atheist fundamentalists who denounce him as an “accomodationist”. (The book mentioned, The Greatest Show on Earth, is excellent).

Bad? How about cannibalism, very early (with a somewhat sensational title), and relatively recent.

(Chas says further:

“Nothing new here–a Park Service archaeologist at Chaco Canyon said all these things to me about 1980, describing kivas full of tumbled skeletons that had been excavated in the 1940s.

“Funny thing, though — he would not discuss this topic in his office but only if I came to his house. “The walls have ears.”

“Back then, no one wanted to disturb the idea of the early Puebloans as peaceful, corn-growing ceremonialists. The Park Service still does not.”

I have been told of deliberate re- burials, by federal employees, in confidence!)

More bad: “PETA” video. It is a spoof but full of real amazing idiot dogma. Did you know it is wrong to wear imitation leather because it mimics animal torture? That one must eschew medicine because it is tested on animals?–!!

Worse: “funny” video showing kids being blown up because they didn’t want to do enough to reduce their carbon footprint. THAT’LL win hearts and minds. It has been yanked but the “apologies” seem more of the “sorry you didn’t get it” variety.

Finally, what would we do without just plain WEIRD? Here are radioactive wild boars (HT Peculiar), and an extremely strong (55% alcohol), extremely expensive ale made with nettles and juniper and bottled in roadkill. (HT JDZ).

I think I need a drink.

Bad State Fossils

I am obviously busy, but with enough time to quote rather than link. In that spirit let me excerpt a HILARIOUS rant, also from Locavore Hunter, on Bad State Fossils. What were these people (with the possible exception of the ones who picked the Utah Allosaurus) SMOKING?

“I’m picturing the Kentucky state legislature being on a 12 month bender in 1986. It was time to name the state fossil and someone blurted out ‘brachiopods!’ and scrawled it onto a bourbon-stained napkin which was passed as legislation in a voice vote before anyone got sober enough to realize what they had done.”


“Utah went balls-out and claimed the allosaurus. If I was Utah I would be putting that shit on the state quarters and the flag and pass a bill that requires the Utah Jazz to be re-named ‘the Utah Allosaurus.’

“There must have been a contest in special ed classrooms in Vermont to come up with their state fossil because they seem to think its the beluga whale. Which is not even extinct. This is like it might as well be ‘hamsters’ or ‘peanut butter.’ Try harder.”


“North Dakota must have looked south and thought ‘we cannot even compete with this.’ They went with ‘shipworm-bored petrified wood.’ Its like they thought about Arizona and asked, ‘how can we be even lamer than petrified wood? What if worms put holes in it?’ Choosing ‘ship-bored petrified wood’ may well have been an act of what amounts to hipster irony.”

RTWT of course.

The Elegant “.275”

Locavore Hunter, in a post on teaching new hunters to build their own rifles, has a nice quote on my favorite cartridge, perhaps more commonly called the 7 X 57:

“The 7mm Mauser has a fascinating history that I won’t get into just now, but suffice to say that the sort of person who favors a 7mm Mauser will find approving nods from the right sort of people. Its like driving a car powered by a straight six engine or listening to Dave Brubeck albums on vinyl.”

My choice of cars (a Morgan?) or albums (Zevon, also on vinyl– think I still have one or two) might be different, but I like the concept. Reading Vance Bourjaily 1st eds?

Hint: the post title points to a couple of examples of interesting history.