More pigeons

Must be in the air. Anne Pearse Hocker just sent this piece from the Guardian about how they may be better at detecting tumors (visually, from X rays) than humans. Their rate of detection is something like 99%. Actually I am not surprised– much “Dinosaurian” visual acuity exceeds that of us mammals.

And Tesla, everyone’s favorite Fortean near- alien from Serbia, fell  chastely in love with one.

“In particular, he claimed to have a very special bond with a certain white, female pigeon, stating he loved her “as a man loves a woman.”
He said that the pigeon was the “joy of his life,” and claimed that one
evening she flew into his window, let him know that she was ill, and
died in his arms. He insisted his entire life’s work was complete in
that moment.”

I don’t like them quite THAT much… only like Darwin did.

Gratuitous Pigeon Photos

Handsome birds, “Lebanons”.  I saw their like in Turkey a few years ago. Anyone know where I can find a pair or two for less than $250? Stupid regs make all imported birds impossibly expensive for all but the rich, and cause hoarding and inbreeding depression in the tiny gene pools that exist in the US.  I’m no fan of closed studbook pedigrees– I cross out and back again, until I have the “good’ phenotype with a wider genetic palette…

From my friend Warren, who has some of my “granddogs”,  I am getting some young of one of my favorite breeds, the wild, rugged old show bird called the English carrier. It no longer carries messages– that job long ago taken over by its partial descendant, the racing homer, but is still a strong swift flier. It has too much character (is too odd/ ugly/ finicky) for modern tastes, but it was once known by the Scottish handle “King o’ the Doo’s” [doves]. Darwin bred ones that could win best in show today; there is a good illustration in his book on domestication, “Variations”. Some of mine should come from the excellent pair in the first photo.

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.

Domestic Animals: Diverse Phenotypes Imply Diverse genotypes

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I distrust the narrowing of the gene pool that comes from closed studbooks. Right now the Central Asian sighthound gene pool is vast and diverse; many want to cut it into several standardized breeds. One reason i fear regulation is because I work against this trend with dogs.

I do the same with pigeons. Pigeons do not have closed studbooks but do have standards, and to win in shows many do the same as dog breeders, ending up with exaggerated pigeons that are almost clones of each other. I breed several old Mediterranean and Spanish breeds but try to keep them as diverse and healthy as they were in the 19th or even the 17th Century, outcrossing if necessary. I can show you in my loft and library.

Here is a”good” specimen of a Spanish Barb, a favorite, but not a show Barb. This is a functional bird that can raise its own young. Show Barbs have much more wattle and cere (eye ring) and a VERY short beak. Nowadays, you rarely see a crested or feather- legged Barb; I have both. Mine also vary considerably in size.

Here is a crested Barb from Aldrovandi’s Ornithologiae, ca 1600:

Here is a similar one, slightly more realistic– Willughby’s Ornithology, 1688:

Here is one from Darwin’s Animals and Plants Under Domestication, almost like my “good” one:

And here are a few of mine including a crested one, black and white, with a little Catalonian for scale (though these are related breeds with a “link” breed, the Ojo de Fresa, and I have Barbs almost as small as Cats.

I will NEVER breed these, or my dogs, to anyone’s standard.

I was just outside…

But I need to catch up a bit– hope I still have some readers. The stress of finding illustrations for Eagle (not to mention paying for them!)– has been acute, and I have needed large doses of dog- running and hunting to keep me sane. I think things are getting under control.

Let’s see, bloggish links– mostly science- themed first. Patrick has a post on “Cool Sites” all of which are worth a look. I was particularly taken by Bioephemera, an amazing compendium of biological art, old and new. I’m getting the beautifully illustrated Darwin book for kids.

A somewhat similar compendium, but of books, can be viewed at the online bookstore of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Some must- haves there, too.

The Camera Trap Codger posts on a dead whale that washed up on the coast near Ventura, where Libby used to work, and wonders if there are enough big scavengers in the sea? I know that when the bones arrive on the sea bed they still attract hagfish, but i think he means BIG scavengers. ??

(UPDATE: Forgot another good BioBlog I wanted to point you at: Neurophilosophy.)

From the NYT: a story by a slightly clueless, apparently rich, and very “Green” guy who wanted to build a family retreat in the Massachusetts Berkshires but was stopped by rare salamander. Money quote: “To make matters worse, we were a family of composting, recycling, eco-lodge-visiting, Al Gore-loving liberals. How was it that we were readying for battle with the environmentalists? Yet it wasn’t long before some members of the family had turned into the sort of grouchy, libertarian champions of private property that I usually associated with the panhandle of Idaho. On one family outing, when we all walked the land together, I can remember someone saying, “If you see a spring salamander — step on it!” On the street, if I saw a car with an “I Earth” bumper sticker, my gut would tighten. What was happening to us? I soon realized that it was one thing to endorse environmentalism and perhaps even to donate a few hundred tax-deductible dollars in its name but that it was quite another thing to surrender a dream.”

He finally came up with the money– apparently as much as a house!– to build two environmentally sound footbridges over the creek in question. I’m happy for the salamander– and I guess for the writer (selfish rich navel gazing !@#$%). But I do wonder once again at rich folks thinking there are two standards– one for them and one for everybody else. As a character in one of my friend Peter Bowen’s Montana mysteries says, “Poor folks act like folks, rich folks act like government”.

Darwin’s Letters

Annie D just introduced me to this treasure trove of Darwin’s letters.

She quoted a very youthful (twelve- year old) Darwin on– washing:

“Just as I was going, she said she must ask me not a very decent
question, that was whether I wash all over every morning — no — then
she said it was quite disgustin — then she asked me if I did every
other morning, and I said no — then she said how often I did, and I
said once a week, then she said of cour you wash your feet every day,
and I said no, then she begun saying how very disgusting and went on
that way a good while. so then I went and told erasmus, and he bust
out in laughing and said I had better tell he to come and wash them
her self, besides that she said she did not like sitting by me or
Erasmus for we smelt of not washing all over, there we sat arguing
away for a good while.”

As I have mentioned before, I once held a fan letter to Jean- Henri Fabre from Darwin. It is not yet available in text but is catalogued here.