Mountain Counts

A range flock of domestic sheep exits the mountains in the southern Wind River Range of western Wyoming. Before the flock begins its slow movement to lower elevations, herders needed a head count. But how do you count thousands of sheep with only two men? It’s fairly simple.

Range sheep have strong flocking instincts, and if you can get the lead sheep to go in the desired direction, the rest of the flock will follow. The herders (on horseback) approached the head of the flock as it traveled downhill, forcing the sheep through a bottleneck formed by their horses. The men count the sheep as they pass through the bottleneck. (Click on the photos for an enlarged view.)

Even though the sheep could easily go around the riders, they don’t, instead following their flockmates down the determined path. This flock of yearling ewes is used to the counting technique and know the drill.

Notice how the sheep in the top left of the photo don’t cut down the hill to join their flockmates but turn to move through the bottleneck as the herder to the left steps back, providing a wider path.

The tail end of the flock easily moves through the bottleneck created by the herders. This is low-stress livestock handling.

Credit Due

Early last July, Stacia Novy, a young military career woman, biologist, and falconer, e-mailed me an excited message that she had just been instrumental in finding the nest of a very little known Neotropical raptor, the Solitary Eagle (Buteogallus solitarius), in Belize. She attached this picture.

Unfortunately, since then, most published accounts have omitted her role, though if you do any Internet searching you will find, to quote, that she was the one who “… modified and applied traditional bird-tracking techniques… to follow the breeding/prey-carrying male eagle to the nest. This was a deciding factor, as the wild eagle was NOT radio-tagged and could not be followed any other way.” She was more experienced with raptors than many of her colleagues.

Somewhere between discovery and official reporting, a competing group apparently took over the publicity; appropriation of data is regrettably common, but allegedly some of those now claiming credit were not even in the country. A short account of the discovery is available here— scroll down– in three parts, with her role mentioned. And apparently the North American Falconers Association will publish something next season. But it would be nice to get some “official” scientific recognition for her too.

Stacia with Aplomado– no beginner in game hawking!

Fabre and Japan

This is not an analysis of the real importance, ignored these days except in Japan, of the pioneering ethologist of insects, the 19th century Provencal autodidact Jean Henri Fabre, who started life as a peasant kid herding sheep in the harsh hills of his home country, and later single- handedly invented the study of insect behavior while more or less foreshadowing the work of such 20th century greats as Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. Suffice to say that the only personal artifact of Charles Darwin’s I have ever handled was a straightforward fan letter from him to Fabre! Here is another– there were several– that even mentions homing pigeons!

Fabre is honored in his home town, Serignan de Comtat, in the wine country near Orange and the Rhone and Mont Ventoux, which has its own fascinating history. I visited that rather non- touristy northern part of Provence in the Nineties, and have have written about birds of prey and boar hunters and food and such there; a few of those essays are in On the Edge of the Wild. But I went there with a mission: to research Fabre, and make a pilgrimage to “L’Harmas”, his house, garden, and lab, like Darwin’s in England still preserved as though he had just stepped out for a minute.

But my fan worship, and Darwin’s, paled beside that of the Japanese. I was warned, but still amazed by the arrival of a tour bus. In addition to being a student of insects Fabre was a Provencal patriot, almost a separatist, and not only spoke that odd old dialect so similar to the one my grandparents, born only a hundred- some miles to the east, did, but dressed as a Provencal herder all his days– black cowboy hat (still sitting on his bench–I tried it on) and long black cloak like a cape, boots. He just added a butterfly net.

So did the Japanese. A westerner could only stare, amazed, as a bus load of thirty or so tourists disembarked at L’Harmas, in age from about 8 to 80, male and female, each and every one in full old fashioned south- of France cowboy kit, hat and cloak and all, plus nets– and cameras. As this was the pre- digital era we are talking big SLR’s with long lenses too!

Turns out the cult of Fabre is still alive in Japan 20 years later. First see this essay: “In France, with the exception of men of letters and entomologists, few have heard of Fabre. That oft-used contemporary yardstick of recognition, Google, counts 5,670 web pages in French for Souvenirs Entomologiques and 227,000 pages for Konchuki, its title in Japanese. Perhaps there is no Japanese who has not heard of Fabre… Japanese grade schoolers know more of Souvenirs Entomologiques than do French adults.”

He is alive in every popular medium there; here is an “Edu- Manga”; a cartoon bio; here and here, two Anime characters based on him.

But I was alerted to the best by another clue in the article I quoted above: “Their [the Japanese] familiarity with the French scientist’s life work is being exploited by Seven Eleven. The convenience store chain brought out this summer a Souvenirs Entomologiques series of limited edition gifts attached to the necks of soft drink bottles.. The series comprises eight pieces — seven insects and a figurine of Fabre observing Minotaur beetles in a device of his invention.”

How could I resist? It took some emails to Thailand and “Formosa”, but I ended up with one famous Fabre insect, the “Carabe Doree”, and Fabre himself, so detailed that his magnifying glass has a lens!

What is more, the appearance of Monsieur Fabre seems to indicate that his Asian fans respect and acknowledge his home culture. In Provence, the tradition of portraying all the professions of the country as Christmas creche figures, “Santons”, lives on, and when I was there I bought several. See the character leaning over Fabre’s shoulder? He is a local hunter, a “chasseur de Provence”, complete with double gun.

Seton on the partnership

I thought I might have read about the legendary partnership of badger and coyote, and went looking for it in my set of Ernest Thompson Seton’s wonderful seven volume illustrated work Lives of Game Animals, which he compiled in 1929 toward the end of his life. This work, by the way, is a lost classic, hard to find even in libraries, and if you should find one you should buy it immediately! It is worth it for the art alone, and there’s nothing like it until Jonathan Kingdon wrote and illustrated African Mammals starting in the 1970s.

Under “friendliness”, a correspondent of his named A. H. Hawkins wrote from Alberta: “I noticed on two occasions a Badger and Coyote travelling in company… Seated one day, eating our noon lunch, I noticed two animals coming towards us, and drew the attention of my men to the fact. We remained perfectly quiet, so that they came within 20 to 30 feet of us before seeing we were so near. The Coyote travelled ahead, and the Badger followed along as fast as he could, right at the heels of the Coyote.

“I could see no reason, not could I explain it in any way satisfactory to myself, and, although I asked several people in the West about it, the occurrence is still a mystery to me.”

Birds of Paradise

Some marketers seemed to think that a fitting description of my last book’s subject, eagles, was “the most beautiful bird in the world”. To use a more polite word than I usually would, nonsense! There are many contenders; this pheasant has always been a favorite:

Even more so when displaying

But there are even better candidates, nearly xenobiological fantasies, but real:

HT Karen Graham!

A little More from John Burchard

One of the wisest naturalists I know, Dr John Burchard, on the subjects below and more:

I firmly support the right to keep “exotics” in captivity and/or partial or complete liberty (our wolf lived free in the desert on weekends, and our coatis mostly lived free in our very normal residential neighborhood, for example). Much of my professional life has been devoted to the study of animal behavior (and its relevance to human behavior). One of my principal mentors in that work was the famous Austrian zoologist Konrad Z. Lorenz (best known to Americans perhaps for his charming books King Solomon’s Ring and Man meets Dog).

I worked with Konrad in his Institute in Germany for seven years, during which
time he shared a Nobel Prize for his work. None of that work would have been possible at all without being able to keep all sorts of “exotic” creatures under quasi-natural conditions and often at partial or complete liberty.

My own entry into that field would also have been impossible without similar childhood
experiences – some of them, even then, probably already illegal under U.S. law. As a schoolboy I had all sorts of free flying, tame (because hand-reared) wild birds flying around outside our house. (Read King Solomon’s Ring to get an idea of what is possible, and indeed necessary, in that direction). My own childhood, thanks to exceptionally tolerant parents, was somewhat similar, though my most special interest was snakes. I gave my first public lecture – on snakes, of course – to the Rotary Club of
Newport, VT – at the age of 7– 73 years ago next month. One of the snakes escaped, and slithered under the piano, during the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the end. Highest marks for patriotic heroism of the lady piano player, who persevered wide-eyed but without a quiver while I rounded up the wayward reptile.

Watching animals on TV is not an adequate substitute for actually living with them. We now have wonderful, amazing natural history shows on TV. They are almost too good. And they are not the same as lying in a very small tent beside a remote Swedish lake, watching a moose pass within three feet of our noses on his way down to the lake to eat water plants. It’s not the same as walking through the forest with a tame Goshawk on your glove, learning (by watching the bird) how it constructs its world by
remembering successes (a rabbit from *this* branch, at 4:17 pm) and failures (an empty field *here*, at 3:22 pm). You learn to see the world as they do.

Without that, you understand nothing.

You can’t really do any of that watching animals from a distance (as Wayne Pacelle would like… actually, I think he would like animals to go away altogether, but he doesn’t dare say so out loud. Unfortunately, I have sat across the legislative-hearing witness table from that man – twice. ‘Nuf said.

Involvement is everything. Remember Mowgli? “We be of one blood … ” Kipling understood. Modern humans are in great danger of becoming totally disconnected from the natural world – with dire results for us as well as for “wildlife”. Keeping “exotics” – and using them to teach – is one way of fighting against that trend.

Birds and Dogs on YouTube

Walter Hingley sent an interesting if rather relentless clip of a 40 ounce white gyr tiercel taking down a 15 pound Canada goose. The tenacity of the “little” falcon shows why eastern cultures, who appreciate a good fight as much as they do a good flight, prefer gyrs and sakers to peregrines.

Browsing in the sidebar revealed two clips, one delightful, the other exciting, of “relatives”. The first shows a gyr feeding a saluki; Daniela confirmed the place is Alberto’s in California, the dog her Blaze’s 8- month old sister Gigi. Commenters express amazement; folks, ALL our dogs and birds interact like that, as proper teams have for thousands of years! Some pix will follow…

The other clip is of Terence Wright who often appears here, with the late lamented mostly peregrine tiercel Zhel, the classic lurcher Percy, and longdog Gobi (bred by us). It is the best look at our style of hawking I know. I never tire of watching Terence’s perfect team; look how the falcon tosses up into the air in full flight to gain energy for his stoop. Bravo!

UPDATE: Paul reminds us the first flight is a falconry bird– clear at the end but not before, as it is wearing no jesses; birds with human partners take larger game– herons, cranes– because they have backup. He suggests this amazing video of wintering gyrs, prairie falcons, and bald eagles preying on wintering ducks in Alberta, with wild birds doing stunning stoops; if anyone is skeptical about stoops that knock quarry from the air, dead or dying, watch this! Lots of other interesting behavior too.Watch the falcon let a rough legged hawk, a tiny- footed mouser, bluff it off a kill– for a moment. I suspected the next act before the buzzard started to cringe– the falcon left so she could strafe her tormentor from the air. Remember, these can kill herons in a single strike or kill hares in mid- leap.

A few characters– click or double click to enlarge as always. First, Blaze in the window, Cog (next photo) on the roof, by Daniela:

Dog and bird rolling on quarry (a later Terence team)

Zhel and Percy, hot pursuit:

Tuuli and Kyran feeding


Josh and Stella, neighbors a couple of houses south, came knocking last night as we were going to bed. Libby called me to the door to say they had a “strange bird”. In the dim light of the entry I thought (perfectly reasonable) snipe or dowitcher, but when I welcomed them in and turned on the living room light…

It was a WOODCOCK! Only 500 miles or so west of home…

I may have blurted something like “the last one of those I saw was in Maine in 87 and I ate it!” But it seemed in good condition but for being very thin.They picked it up in their yard, cold and unable to fly. Our guess is that the recent 70 mph plus east winds blew it off migration and food to here. He (male I think) is now in the capable hands of local rehabber and hawk sitter Jennifer Keller; more when we know more.