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!

Old Bird


Last week, Anne Price of the REF e- mailed to tell me that her Harris tiercel Indiana Jones had died, very much of old age and attendant frailties. Anne:

“This morning I said goodbye Indiana Jones, a.k.a. Indi, my Harris Hawk. I would be lying if I said I weren’t sad, but he was kind enough to give me a few days notice, and at 31 years old, he gave me so many more years than I ever expected.

“Many of you reading this “knew” Indi nearly as long as I did; helping me fly him at Marine World, taking care of him when I was traveling in LA, San Diego, and ultimately Colorado. For those of you who never knew, or have forgotten Indi’s history, he was found sometime in 1980 in a cardboard box outside the Alexander Lindsay Nature Center in the eastern Bay Area, which is now the Lindsay Wildlife Museum and one of the premier nature/wildlife rehabilitation centers in Northern California. He was very heavily imprinted to people, and had an old break in his left wing at the elbow. No one knows where he came from. After getting him back on his feet, the museum placed him at the San Francisco Zoo.

“All I can recall, since I was 12, almost 13…was that he showed up one day from the Zoo, and our department manager at Marine World Africa USA announced that our park had acquired a bunch of animals, traded some, and he was in the lot. It was 1981, and since we were all Harrison Ford fans, and the FIRST Raider’s of the Lost Ark had just come out, we named him Indi. He had been handled at the zoo, but couldn’t fly……or so they thought! We flew Indi all over the place, hundreds of feet, off of buildings, roofs, across a lagoon, everywhere. He was amazing, ignoring the sea gulls, cutting through that San Francisco wind and fog, and always giving his all.

“Fast forward to 1991, and after 18 months of wrangling and permitting paperwork with the State of California, I drove up from LA to Vallejo (half way between San Francisco and Sacramento for you non-California types), and Indi was mine. That was April 1991, 20 years ago this month. Doug and I were living in Air Force family housing in San Pedro, and I even occasionally flew Indi there at Ft. MacArthur, across the quadrangle, sometimes using my upstairs neighbor’s balcony.

“Sometime around 1995 when Doug got out of the Air Force and we moved from Black Forest back up to Denver, Indi decided he no longer liked kids…10 years being petted at a zoo was apparently enough. He simultaneously decided that he was no longer afraid of four-legged creatures, like cats and dogs. He had always looked warily at bobcats, tigers, and various other mammals on leashes, but as long as they kept their distance he was fine. No longer; now he screamed at dogs, and when we got Otto in 1996, Indi actively flew at the end of his leash trying to kill him. Poor Otto got the message and to this day gives all raptors a wide berth.

“Around the same time I started using Indi to teach the new volunteer class at REF. For many folks, he was the first raptor they got to see up close. He was a very tolerant, if not occasionally clownish, assistant teacher.

“Two states, five homes, one dog, two kids, 20 years as part of our family, 30 in my life altogether. How many people get to love an animal for 30 years, unless it’s a macaw, tortoise or elephant?

“Glenna took this photo yesterday; as I said, I could see things were coming to an end. I am very grateful that he waited until we returned from Jamaica one week ago today, and I don’t believe he suffered. Right up to the last 24 hours of his life, he was eating, drinking, could see, hear, and both give and receive affection from those who loved him. We should all be fortunate to die so well.”

When I gave her my condolences I remarked that his longevity was biologically interesting. She agreed and added:

“From a purely biological standpoint, it was interesting to see what happened to his feet. This is what a 31 yr old arthritic raptor food looks like…check out his hallux. His left foot was completely normal, but I’ve seen this in a couple of my birds with wing injuries; as they age, the foot on the opposite side of the injured wing starts displaying twisted talons or swollen joints, almost as if it’s compensating for the injured opposite limb. We have a 23 year old female ferruginous hawk, with a left wing injury just like Indi had; the talons which have twisted on her right foot are the inside/medial or “power” talon, and the middle one. I keep them trimmed a bit shorter than normal, in order not to further twist or deform the way the toe lays….I did the same thing for Indi.”

Flock Flight


I never tire of watching the great winter flocks of birds like starlings, moving with eerie grace like some superorganism, supposedly by obeying very simple rules. (Photo, sent anonymously a year or two ago, by Manuel Presti; thanks, PD!)

This is most obvious when birds are under attack.Bill Kessler sent this amazing YouTube filmed in the Netherlands of a flock being harassed by a sparrowhawk, which eventually splits the “organism” in half, making it fission like an amoeba.

Richard Barnes’ Animal Logic, a wonderful book of photographs which also features things like deconstructed museum dioramas and skulls (deconstructed in this case a Good Thing) has an excellent selection of photos of starlings flocking in Rome.

(Animal Logic also has an essay by the always quotable Jonathan Rosen which may show up in Commonplace Book soon).

Almost a review

Libby recently read Jeff Lockwood’s Locust.

Her letter to him is as good as a short review, and the last line could be a blurb:

“I thoroughly enjoyed Locust. My favorite period of US history is the opening of the west during the 1800’s. When I was a kid we took many family trips to the southwest and up and down the Rockies, passing through the dozens of Mormon communities along the way. We used to talk about the difference the irrigation made in settlers being able to sustain themselves and their livestock. In some of our reading there were references to the locust plagues and we wondered why they weren’t mentioned after a certain point. The link between irrigation and the life stages of the locust is fascinating, and explains a lot. And I always wondered about the place names like Grasshopper Glacier and Grasshopper Creek, far away from the plains that I associated with grasshoppers, which it turns out weren’t grasshoppers but locusts.

“Thank you for such a splendid account…history, mystery, and natural history: my favorite combination in reading!”

Two Skulls

Suburban Bushwhacker posted some photos of a skull that he wanted his readers to guess at.

It was a European badger. I know because long ago, after were were unable to stop in what the English call a “roundabout”* to retrieve a carcass, zoologist- artist Jonathan Kingdon gave me a skull of one with the beginnings of muscles that he was building out of plaster of Paris. I wonder if I could have even gotten it home these days?

At least one reader suggested– jokingly?– “black bear”. Years later Libby and I, on our first spring hike into the Magdalena Mountains, found the skeleton of a winter- killed bear melting out of the snow at about 8500 feet.It was huge and seemed very old, with worn teeth.


They are very similar but for size.


And here is one of Jonathan visiting Tucson a few years ago, with Lashyn. He is living mostly in Rome now and continuing to do writing, science, and art. I will write more on him and his work later.

*New Englanders call them “rotaries”. New Mexicans don’t have them.

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!)

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.]

More Thoughts on Prof. McMahan’s Essay

Reading yesterday’s NYT (online) essay, The Meat Eaters, by Rutgers University professor of philosophy Jeff McMahan (forwarded by reader Daniela and shared below by Steve), I’m almost more puzzled by my own need to comment on the piece than I am amazed by it.

It’s tempting to lump this man’s essay in with the tiresome mass of animal rights propaganda, but I think it’s only superficially similar. This goes deeper, is arguably crazier, and may belong to another tradition entirely.

Professor McMahan’s work is principally atheist, by my reading, secondarily misanthropic, and only for the sake of example concerned with the welfare of animals.

His ignorance of animals and “nature” is obvious (Does he know some deer eat baby birds? Does he know ducks rape and kill each other?) and his ignorance of the human animal (his own animal self!) can be inferred. But I think the misanthropic bent of his argument hints that maybe he knows just enough about himself to be scared and disgusted by what he sees.

This is a very old theme, indeed. Man’s fear and loathing of himself long predates any “animal rights” movement (though it certainly seems to inform it.)

I can’t help but, as a parent of two children, recognize in this line of thinking a child’s deep-seated (and profoundly self-centered) sense of injustice.

Faced with the world’s certain measures of pain, bewilderment and abandonment, reasonable children seek comfort—and if denied that comfort, predictably lash out in self defense. They give hell to their parents, to their siblings, teachers, and tragically often to themselves.

To such a child, it is better to be alone than in the company of fellow sufferers. It is better, some will conclude, even to be dead.

For all the professor’s elaborate argument and educated language, he writes essentially from the perspective of a hurt child, ironically selfish in his lashing out against the “cruelty” of others.

This argument has been taken farther than the professor has yet come. Every religion and entire civilizations (spawning literatures and philosophies he must certainly know) have been created in the attempt to see past the problem of pain.

Although we still argue (obviously) and wonder about this problem, there is at least a shared understanding that the problem is sewn into the system and somehow essential to it.

Whether you chose to see this as life in a Fallen world or simply acknowledge, in the secular sense, that we’re all fucked, every adult must advance from that basic understanding to whatever conclusions can be drawn.

Only a child will chose to sit in a corner, hungry and hurt, while everyone sits at the table and eats what’s given.

Update: Chas’s thoughts here.

A Little Science

Almost old news now, but Ardipithecus is likely to be important– she is so old (4 million years plus) and a forest creature, so we have to rethink bipedality. It isn’t for running on the plains, looking over the grass etc. And we are not as close to chimps as we thought– the split goes WAY back.

Another link here.

Dinos,very much including T. Rex, were close enough to birds to suffer some of the same pathogens. Lesions on Tyrannosaur jaws, including on the famous “Sue” were once thought to be wounds from battle. But they are apparently necrosis from the organism Trichomonas gallinae. I have seen it kill hawks, in which it bears the pleasant- sounding medieval name “frounce”, and pigeons. Since the hawks catch it fom pigeons, it would seem logical that T. Rex prey species had it too. Bob Bakker’s description of Tyrannosaurus as “the roadrunner from Hell” seems ever more apt. HT Eric Wilcox

Finally, a vegetarian spider, with the delightful (and rather carnivorous) Kiplingite name of Bagheera kiplingi. It is the only such spider known, and it lives in the already- rather- complicated ecology of acacias and ants.

Vaguely Biological Links

An “extinct” bird is rediscovered– and eaten.

Apparently black north American wolves owe their color to interbreeding with dogs that crossed the Bering bridge HT Laura Niven and Reid.

SmartDogs sent a link to a new method of detecting rabies. It sounded good, but Patrick found reason to dispute their claims.

Also at Terrierman: a to the devastating article at Dog World about the evils of inbreeding pedigreed dogs.

Not exactly biology but birds: apparently, poor Pakistani peasants resent the rich oil Sheiks who come to their country to hunt houbara buzzards with falcons. (They are not allowed to hunt them at all.) Ya think? This one also reminds me of a book, a novel with spies, an Al Quaida- type group, migrating houbaras and a falcon. It may not be very much ahead of reality.

Finally, light detecting backpacks are revealing the secrets of songbird migration.