Pigeons vs Humaniacs

Chris Landauer of Border Wars sent me a note a couple of weeks ago on the ARista’s war on pigeon racing. Since then I have been roaming the Internet, too busy and too pissed off to to write a calm essay on the kind of people who would persecute old men, some of them who have made real connections to youngsters of different cultures, for being “racketeers” for betting on races. They claim it is cruel because some don’t make it home (they don’t know most ferals are more homer than not), and that some substandard birds are “culled” (and eaten), a practice and term that they seem to think unique to pigeon keepers….

It would of course be easy to sue the sport out of existence, of course; though the Queen of England and some wealthy Belgians fly birds,  the old working class cartoon character Andy Capp on the other side of the channel and ancient ethnics like my late grandfather in the US are more typical, as are young blacks and city Hispanos. And given its nature as a HOMING sport, its targets are stationary, unable to go underground. Add irrational fears of diseases that pigeons don’t even carry, the latest being bird flu…

And then I thought, to hell with reasoned arguments; better to go with my initial reaction. So here are some of the calmer parts of my reaction to Chris…

“God, Chris, I get so sick of it all.

” ‘It’s so crooool, but they are all old and they’re going to die soon so we’ll LET them’…

“And another human- animal hybrid culture, another meme, another selected association of unique genes goes back into the undifferentiated pond; another joy is taken from us, there is one less thing to distract the young from the all- flattening difference- ending locale- killing biophobic Almighty Screen. How many youths in how many places once took baskets of pigeons miles to ‘toss’ and raced them home, as I did? No more pigeons, hunting dogs, ferrets, horses but for the rich, ratting, snake catching. Oddly my grandson probably WILL do many of these, but will he be a social outcast for it? And WHERE will he do it?

“And me- my salukimorphs are wanted, and my hawks. But who will pick up my unique genetic stream and crosses when I am gone, my wild hawk- evading homers, my crossbred and reconstructed old Spanish pouter breeds? Eli is too young, and his parents still live in the city; US cities are banning them outright by name (Chicago, Bozeman) or just making it  virtually impossible to keep or God help us FLY them.

“No answers but… Pigeon racing CRUEL? What absolute bullshit. The only beings that never suffer are– DEAD.”

A last thought: vegetarian and fine writer Sy Montgomery, who wrote beautifully about them in Birdology, knows better, and has more wise biophilia in her little finger than all of HSUS…

Photos from Scotland and Turkey, where pigeon culture still not only exists but thrives. The last pix including the cupboard loft are in the restaurant in Urfa where I used to eat lunch.

Guadalupe

Tom Russell’s song from “Blood and Candle Smoke”, sung by Gretchen Peters, and Guadalupe herself, painted by Tom. You can see his paintings, including I believe the original of this print, at Rainbow Man gallery in Santa Fe. He began last week’s show with this haunting song.

We do have an oddly eclectic “collection”– she is flanked by Gorbatov’s painting of quail on Lee Henderson’s ranch, just east of town, and Jonathan Kingdon’s aardwolf, with photos of Eli and Betsy and a bronze of a harrier by Loffler below– not to mention our metal dachshund.

Wilson Photos

Relative newcomers John and Carolyn Wilson are becoming serious documenters of the phenology of local wildlife and photographers of same (with real lenses). They supply constant water on their forest- edge holding 12 miles from town, which has already paid off in photos of bandtail pigeon and goshawk. Now John has gotten a good portrait of a Lewis’s woodpecker. They are odd birds, not very common and living an un- woodpecker- like “lifestyle” between that of a flicker and a flycatcher; I have mostly seen them in pasture country, sitting on wires and hawking flying insects.

The other interesting recent one needs explanation. Our favorite town birding spot or at least the most productive is what we call “Lake Magdalena”, the sewage pond just to our north. Every water- loving migrant that passes seems to find it; I have seen white pelicans among other things. It is especially attractive to ducks; the late Floyd Mansell once drove me out to see something but would not tell me what until I had seen for myself. On the pond were about ten black scoters, salt- water ducks I had last seen in the winter surf off Duxbury Beach in Massachusetts. “I didn’t want to tell you because if they had left you might not have believed it”.

On this photo the old Magdalena Cemetery, where Floyd and other friends rest, is at the top, the “lake” below, graced with a flock of white- faced glassy ibises. Double or right- click to enlarge.

Passenger Pigeons # 2

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I ended last with:
So, where
were the pigeons?
They
were always inhabitants of the deciduous forest, eating nuts and
berries. It seems impossible for the pigeon to have existed in
anything like the numbers it eventually attained. And a passenger
pigeon without its niche and numbers is nothing more than a big,
nut-eating mourning dove.
As
the glaciers receded, radical changes began. Humans invaded. Whether
small bands who hunted and gathered in the sea’s edge on the
Pacific coast came earlier, or whether, even more controversially,
some ice-edge hunters hopped over the margins of the retreating
sea-ice from Europe, the general consensus is that most of the new
Americans came from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge.
Recent
investigations suggest that the people who became Clovis Man may have
come down the ice-free corridor that opened along the flank of the
Rockies on dogsleds, taking only a few months. And, whether or not
you accept the so-called Pleistocene overkill scenario, most of the
big native mammals, a charismatic megafauna that rivaled or surpassed
that of the Serengeti, were gone in less than a thousand years.
Today’s so- called megafauna – the modern bison, elk, moose,
grizzlies, and wolves – are all from the Old World, just like
humans.
A
few of the new creatures had disproportionate impacts on the
ecosystem. Bison of sorts had already existed in the west, but the
new species, perhaps less constrained by competition or encouraged by
a warmer climate, helped create a plains ecosystem that lasted until
the buffalo hunters and the sodbusters destroyed it.
Meanwhile,
east of the plains, the clever new immigrant from Asia began burning
the forest. Most modern ecologists, following the lead of “fire
historians” like Stephen Pyne, now believe that the environment
first seen by Europeans was largely shaped by humans, using fire as a
tool. The plains advanced in runners that would eventually reach to
the east coast, carrying with it the open- country species like
bison, elk, and prairie grouse. They all ranged as far as
Massachusetts in the northeast, where the last pinnated grouse, a
subspecies known as the heath hen, would perish in the1920’s.
How
much the two species, human and pigeon, modified the landscape is
hard to imagine. Human burning encouraged white oak, and pigeon
feeding suppressed red oak, making white oak a dominant plant that
sometimes made up nine-tenths of the forest. The same fires created
“edge effects,” mixed belts of prairie and forest, rich in
species and food for pigeons. Pigeons broke down the forest and
renewed it, resurrected other plants from beneath snowdrifts of
droppings, picked up seeds and spread them in a rain of creative
destruction. Aerial predators feasted on the hordes; the large
eastern peregrine was finished off by DDT, but its first and larger
decline has been attributed to the loss of the pigeon. Even the
burying beetle, a striking red and black creature, has become one of
the rarest large species of insect in North America. It buries
carcasses up to passenger pigeon size, and lays its eggs on them.
When
A.W. Schorger wrote the last scientific book on the passenger pigeon,
in 1955, no one knew much of the background material on is
environment and history that is now slowly coming to light. He
lamented:
“The
life history of the passenger pigeon, including its extermination,
contained many lacunae and contradictions…It is unfortunate and
most regrettable that no competent ornithologist attempted to make a
comprehensive study of the nesting and other phases of the life
history of the passenger pigeon when it existed in large numbers.”
Now,
with new tools, we can see not just a tragedy but a window into the
complexity of life and systems in general. Australian mammalogist and
ecologist Tim Flannery said that the ecology of North America has
never been stable, at least since the glaciers. The passenger
pigeon’s tale illuminates and is illuminated by the modern science
of complexity, chaos, catastrophe theory, and self-organized
criticality. It warns us that small incidents may trigger sudden
catastrophes, an ominous lesson in a time of global warming. It may
give us insights into how suddenly species can emerge, or even to the
nature of species. After all, the passenger pigeon without its habits
is biologically unremarkable. In the words of Jeffrey Lockwood,
entomologist and ecologist: “Ecology is beginning to slowly shift
focus with tentative explorations of what the world would look like
if process, rather than matter, were the basis for reality. What if
we defined a species in terms of its life processes?”
This
book will be a kind of forensic ecology of the passenger pigeon, an
inquiry into its life and life processes as well as its death. We
already know who killed it, though we may not know exactly how. But
what kind of an organism was it? What kind of a hole did its passing
leave in the world? What can learning more about these questions and
their answers teach us?
Even
if we genetically reconstruct its genome in some future lab its
world has vanished; we can’t ever bring back the “life processes”
of the passenger pigeon. But we may be able to, in part, restore some
of the things that have vanished, using lessons we learn from the
pigeon and other extinctions. Above all, in contemplating the life
of this unique bird, we realize not only what we have lost. We are
reminded again of the strangeness and complexity of he universe that
surrounds us, and of how much more there is to know.
There will be more!

Snakebit!

Two of our beloved tazluki relatives got snakebit by what seems, judging from the fang marks to have been a large rattler, at Daniela’s. Incredibly, 15 year old Lahav got  the better of it, while grandog Shunkar seemed to have some eye involvment. Both better now– will pass on any news.

I don’t hate snakes but I hate snakes around dogs. Lahav above, Shunk below.