Libby’s Accident (and the Urban Accipiter Phenomenon)

By now at least half the town knows that Lib fell off a ladder tending to the pigeons in the “trap” on top of the pigeon loft. I use “trap” in quotes, because normally it is a pigeon racer’s term for sort of double entrance chamber used in racing pigeon competitions to control access. But in this case we have been trying to catch and remove two first year’s “Urban Coopers” who have set up on my loft and, so far this late summer and fall, have killed over twenty pigeons from the flight loft.

A writer to the Magdalena E- Board says the following: “If that’s not a joke about the hawk and the pigeon, let me give you the ornithological point of view. Let nature take its course. Hawks are predators and need to kill smaller birds to feed themselves and their offspring. A certain group of hawks called Accipiters prey almost exclusively on other birds. Let them do it. It’s nature’s way.”

I don’t know quite where to start. As anyone knows,I am more than familiar with Accips, having flown two subspecies of Goshawks in four states and having seen` them flown in five countries.

But “Nature’s Way”? The Urban Accipiter is a brand new, human- influenced phenomenon. In Asia and eastern Europe, as documented ably by England’s Conor Jameson in his book Looking for the Goshawk; Gosses, a near- wilderness species in western North America (you can find pairs in The San Mateos near Grassy Lookout, and in the Magdalenas up the canyon from the Water Canyon Peregrine nest in wet years), are now common inhabitants of urban parks, even in Moscow and East Germany. The great Russian wildlife artist Vadim Gorbatov,who has painted quail on Lee Henderson’s ranch, done Water Canyon as a backdrop for a children’s book on Peregrine reintroduction,

and who drank that”good Mexicanski vodka” (tequila) at the Spur, lives in a Moscow high- rise, and painted his resident Gos catching a hooded crow in front of his apartment for my book,At the Edge of the Wild

We don’t know why Goshawks are invading the cities, but we do know something about Coopers. The phenomenon was first noticed in the early 90’s in Tucson, when a University of Arizona study of the Coopers hawk there revealed the then-astounding number of 160 pairs within metropolitan Tucson’s boundaries. The population then was unhealthy, though large. The hawks were living entirely on urban feral pigeon and the unnaturally large population of white- winged, Aztec,and ground doves which the city, with its water and plantings, attracted. These birds had endemic Trichomonas gallinae, a disease which did not harm the pigeons much but killed the predators. Only the resistant hawks survived, and once the population became resistant, it nearly tripled, to a density unknown in any wild situation. The species received a second winnowing from West Nile disease, which killed as many as 7/8 of the raptors (not just Coops)that got it. The resulting urban populations have doubtless been genetically changed to one with the disease resistant genes. They have also changed their habits– I’d bet that they don’t interbreed with their mountain cousins much. This kind of “voluntary” isolating mechanism is just how Menno Schilthuizen suggested that sympatric speciation, far rarer than allopatric, could take place (in Frogs, Flies, and Dandelions— he even convinced scary old Ernst Mayr, in his nineties at the time!)

This is all for bio- wonks. Practical point is, there are probably a THOUSAND pairs in the Rio Grande Bosque, nesting in people’s backyards and making pests of themselves dive- bombing runners (both my female doctors have been attacked by them in Albuquerque– luckily even a big western female doesn’t weigh more than a male homing pigeon, though their long tails can make them look as big as Goshawks. They are utterly without fear. Even the wilderness ones are bold; I once watched a female in Copper canyon roll a skulking raven twice her size that had been searching for nests three times, like a leopard attacking a bear. These ones are ridiculous; Lib poked the male with a stick and he just SAT there, and as she was doing this, the female cut in and carried off a pigeon! If they were the size of Crowned eagles, we’d all be carrying ten- bore shotguns or howdah pistols. They have also moved uphill (not down I think) to live in Magdalena. Until five years ago or so Coopers lived only in the the mountains, nesting in deciduous trees in the canyon bottoms, and rarely attacked my pigeons (I have been here 36 years). In the last couple of years they have become a problem. This particular young unmated “pair”, birds born this spring, learned to hunt on (mostly my) domestic pigeons and the infernal exotic Eurasian Collared doves, which in the last decade have replaced the “natural” southern invasive White wings (up from Texas and Arizona naturally, not coming from the east in an invasive wave). The pair have killed so many of my flying pigeon flock is threatened. As a falconer, I can legally trap raptors, and I see no difficulty in catching them and releasing them in Socorro, where they can eat feral pigeons to their content and not both my highly bred, expensive fliers.

So LIbby was up on a ladder putting water in to the birds in the trap, when the ladder broke and she fell between the halves. (I had been up there the day before and had warned her it was shaky). Luckily our friend Kim, who has been helping us with animals the past couple of weeks, was there, because I was inside working. At the Emergency Room, they found that she had lost two teeth, broken a rib, and needed several stitches on her face. She remains in a good mood with the help of Nurse Ataika, but it turns out we we were lucky to have missed getting our pup last week as it would have been a pretty hairy situation…

“… nature is portrayed poorly whenever harmony is implied.” _ Aussie ornithologist Tim Low.

UPDATE on hawks courtesy of Paul Domski: “Brian [Milsap, USFWS biologist] said that if you are standing at a Coop nest, there are 4 others within a 1/2 mile, or something close to that. “


Jack Unruh was a fine artist who did the best, or at least the most interesting, illustrations for many magazines , especially ones of the Time- Life Group, for over 50 years. One of his last regular assignments was doing the pic for the humor column by Bill Heavey at the end of Field and Stream. Bill wrote a good remembrance of him here.

He could be surreal…

He also could see beauty in unlikely creatures. Sure, a Sandgrouse is pretty; but how many people would or could do such a delicate drawing of a Lappet- Faced Vulture? (I am pretty sure that is what it is, not a griffon!)

What I know about Spooks

This started as a comment in “Secret Agent Man” responding to a crack by Tim, but when I realized it was “too long” ( since WHEN?”) I decided to make it a post, with illos. Les Murray is a Catholic redneck, something of a naturalist, and the best poet Australia ever had.I have two big fat anthologies of his work. There was a good piece on him in the NYRKR last year. Of Australians I only read him, the late art critic Robert Hughes (good, AND a sportsman, though more a New Yorker in his old age, and the hilarious but brilliant naturalist Tim Flannery. Oh, and Germaine Greer- you’d be surprised (Muggeridge like The Female Eunuch!) Lately I have been reading three rather hard to find (try Andrew Isles) books by the Aussie avian evolutionist Tim Low which will blow the minds of the conventional, as he tells of the evolution of slavery in Australian “Choughs”, about how certain NATIVE species (Noisy Miners)have established exclusive hostile monocultures in territories of hundreds of square miles, killing off or harassing all others out of existence- bracing p inc- stuff. Try Where Song Began (the best and most specific, about the weird evolution of Aussie Passerines, with the war makers and slave takers and songbirds that can imitate chain saws and worse), The New Nature, and Feral Future; for a milder US version without the evo- bio I recommend Emma Marr’s Rambunctious Garden. And that is it for Aussie stuff. Key quote” .. nature is portrayed poorly whenever harmony is implied.” Whirl is king….

Now:EVERY DAMN BODY WAS IN THE CIA, OR THE OSS – it wasn’t called ‘Oh So Social” for nothing. Its first recruiting office was across from the Explorers Club, right across the street from the AMNH, also a recruiting spot in its time. I wouldn’t be surprised if Andy Bakewell, though a Jesuit priest, was also a OSS agent. Jack Hemingway was. He parachuted into France with a cane fly rod. They recruited from the Left, and the upper classes. The Left because they could make contact with the other political groups fighting Nazis in Europe; the upper classes because most of the intellectual adventurers Wild Bill Donavan knew were upper class people. Bakewell had the social register, the Alpine Journal, and the cocked and locked Colt Commander on his shrine to the La Guadalupana as long as I knew him.

Andy was rather of the right, though he was chaplain to both the Kennedys and the Buckley family, and treated them alike. Though a very rich man, his politics were probably in the Catholic doctrine, rather left economically, though he sure believed in shooting bad guys — he’d say to people offended by his cocked and locked Colt “What’s the use of an unloaded gun?” It reminds me of how I made friends with my son’s friend Eli, then fifteen, when he asked me “Why do you carry handguns?” “To shoot bad people.” Eli replied “That’s the first honest answer I’ve ever gotten.” He ended up a sheriff’s armorer, among other things, albeit one who once wanted to dye his hair chrome.

All the old spies were FDR “liberals”; most of them were in the New York social register, and the Bakewells owned Missouri, an outpost. Their ancestor was Lucy Bakewell, who Audubon married, up. Julia Child was an upper – crust Californian about seven feet tall ; she was an OSS agent. (As with many of these people, she somehow knew my mother; they used the same butcher. But then, my mother, a woman of no social pretensions whatsoever, knew EVERYBODY, probaly because she would talk (and TALK!) to anyone — the Kennedys, George Pimpton.. We once had to talk her and the late ranch matriarch Betty Pound out of selling a VERY illegal Indian artifact, an enormous pot that her grandson thought was a dinosaur egg when he found it eroding out of anarroyo after a storm, to Goldie Hawn. They didn’t even know it was against the law…

Julia was recruited to cooking writing, and possibly spying, by my late friend Angus Cameron, the emeritus editor of Knopf, who was probably a damn STALINIST at the time, and who never became much more conserva†ive. He lost his job in the McCarthy witch hunts, and unlike more namby pamby fellows he and his longtime wife Sheila went first to Minnesota and then to Alaska to live as trappers until things cooled down, and then went back to New York to resume their place in society.

Angus, when I knew him, had just retired, as is my usual luck, as he wanted to publish me desperately. He was fascinated by food, as would be anybody who wrote a cookbook with Judith Jones. The cookbook for LL Bean is still the best single game cookbook. He was also Jack O’Connor’s editor, and I have in my possession a letter written to Jack saying that it is better to be reviewed in The New Yorker than the New York Times, as Jack was complaining. I think he had an obit in both. I just missed getting one of his 20-gauge custom Spanish shotguns, which Angus had given away to some lickspittle relative because he didn’t know I’d want one. The story of my life… McGuane did the same thing with a 16-gauge Boss, both about three weeks before I said I’d like to have them. Angus did give me a Pezon et Michel parabolic cane rod owned by Charles Ritz, but as usual, I sold it at a time when I needed to eat more than I needed to fish.

Interesting point is, all of these people were liberals or Leftists, granted of their time– none were “PC”. Johnny Barsness always rejected the idea that the late Datus Proper was a CIA agent. REALLY??! I’ve never seen a more likely spook! He was old family and old school, was incredibly erudite, physically strong, totally close-mouthed about anything he ever did, and was in Ireland for the resurgence of the Troubles, and in every Portuguese speaking hotspot in Africa when it was hot. When asked if he was an agent, he would always say, with a grin, “Why would you think such a ridiculous thing?” and change the subject. Plus he was a fly-fisher, just like James Jesus Angleton (that’s a joke).

The CIA changed, and for good or for ill, those old legends are long gone. Except for removing Mossadegh,the stupidist act of clandestine foreign policy ever perpetrated, an act devised by the Roosevelt grandfather of Bill Weld’s wife, they did more good than harm I think. My source for this stupidity of this act is no less than my other retired spook friend, Lieutenant Col. Sydney Kent Carnie of the Army Intelligence Service, who spent about twenty years in Persia (he was training to be a wildlife biologist under Starker Leopold, Aldo’s son, at Berkeley, when he became fascinated with Arabic and Farsi at the Army language school). When I asked him if he’d go back, he said no.”My friends were the enlightened intelligentsia; the Shah’s SAVAK killed half of them, and the Ayatollah wiped out the rest. Why should I go back?”

Nevertheless, they sure had fun. Carnie used to plant listening stations on the borders of Soviet Armenia while trapping Peregrines. Think of novels like Tim Powers’ Declare. These people actually lived lives like that. Of course they funded Peter Matthiessen — they also funded the Aga Khan and George Plympton as partners in the Paris Review, which was started with CIA funding as much as the Aga Khan’s jewels. Plympton was much more an OSS type; Matthiessen was too solemn.

That’s all I know about the secret life. I’ve be willing to be debriefed about strange things I’ve seen, but that’s it. I have been lucky or unlucky enough to have been to some weird places — hard-assed Kurdish Turkey, twenty miles from Kobani, before the troubles started, for a month; Zimbabwe before Mugabe cracked down on the Hwange area and the N’dbele, a Zulu-derived culture he disliked even more than white people. He drove a white friend of mine to suicide, and his 11th brigade cut off the head of a black acquaintance, the headman of Tsholotsho township, who was delighted and amazed that a “European” would eat chile hot sauce (“I’m not European- I’m New Mexican”, I told him). It’s all gone now.

Why I may NEVER be rich…

What’s that? Oh, a Jack Unruh illo, for a piece I had published, that I sent in un- asked for, “over the transom”. In SI. In 1980. When Pat was still editor. And I didn’t follow up.

Because I didn’t know how. Thank God Gray’s was only a subway stop away….

The Girl with the Brook Trout Tattoo

My separated- at- birth friend from Savannah, Gil Tracy, recycles Larsen’s title with these shots of his daughter Julia, a French scholar, fishing in North Carolina…hey Russ Chatham, take a look at these!

UPDATE: Here is a poem about Julia’s tattoo by her grandmother, who was a friend of Flannery O’Connor’s, and appears in her letters:


At first I was interested in this catalogue, but the longer I looked at it, the more uneasy I became. The kits for analysing owl pellets were fine. But what is with the artificial FEATHERS?

I know, it is illegal to pick up feathers.It is also STUPID for it to be illegal to pick up feathers. Paper ones are not real enough- real feather have quills, can “zip” together, are found in context OUTSIDE. Do we really want to develop a generation who can only enjoy nature mediated through artificial substitutes?

Carlos’s Sparrow Sauce

Just like my paternal grandmother’s, which she used on Polenta. “Makes a nice-a sauce”, she would say as she caught the sparrows in the pigeon loft by swatting them with a
broom or popping them into a brown paper bag and whacking it on a beam. I have never felt more Italian…….

Here she is in the back of a car driven by my dad, in ’38: