It is official

You might have figured it out in comments below but it is official: because the Feds are allowing a three- decade exemption for wind farms to kill as many eagles as they “need” to, and because they exert no pressure on tribal use (right and understandable for religious practice, but ignoring the profitable if clandestine traffic in feathers for dance costumes), falconers will no longer be allowed to catch “up to six” eagles for falconry in areas of proven depredation, exactly reversing the win- win scenario Cat details below.

Nobody ever took six a year, an infinitesimal part of the breeding surplus; ranchers had proven predators removed; falconers got the companionship of one of the world’s formidable predators, often for decades, and the chance to participate in one of if not THE oldest falconry tradition on earth, at least six thousand years old.

Presumably if we do not fight this it means “for three decades?” Or forever?

And why in hell not allow trapping in wind farms?

No more of this!

And Cat’s Sheep!

Also just out: Cat Urbigkit’s Shepherds of Coyote Rocks, her first adult book, a distillation and amplification of what you have come to love here and a leap forward for her.

This is the most nuanced and intelligent defense of the traditional pastoral life in print, by a writer who lives it and has heard all the dug- in uninformed arguments. I don’t need to tell readers here about her; suffice to say she can work, and observe, and read, and think, and WRITE. I spent a few days on the ground with her and Jim last fall, and we killed a bottle at their trailer house; I heard more political complexity, diversity, and spirited debate and discussion in one night there than in a week in Jackson Hole, not to mention hearing many scientific papers on early domestication and the evolution of our commensals quoted by self- described “redneck” Jim!

I assume readers of this blog will love it; if they need a quote to pique the curiosity of others, try just this one, in defense of transhumance pastoralism: “As satellite images clearly revealed, both socialism and privatization are associated with worse long term outcomes than those observed in traditional group- based governance.”

Many more like that, and stories, and characters, and Cat’s photos!

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.

Worst NYT piece EVER?

Unfortunately the Times is not up to Jeff Lockwood’s standard today, at least outside of their science pages. Last night Daniela sent me this essay by a philosophy professor at Rutgers who is also a visiting one at Princeton (which at least balances him and Peter Singer with Freeman Dyson, who outweighs them both together intellectually), suggesting that we must totally eliminate all carnivores in order to stop suffering on the planet. That anyone this immune to reason, or innocent of any knowledge of anything outside his abstract field, gets paid handsomely for using his brain at any college is a damning comment on our society, education, and of academia as a whole today. This should only have been printed in The Onion. I won’t dignify it by quoting further, but am considering a letter to the paper– think about writing one too (they have already closed comments).

And the other depressing fact is that, if you wade through those comments, the most common reaction after the sensible variants on “what a fool!” and “what was the Times THINKING?” is the one that humans should be eliminated, voluntarily or involuntarily. This hatred of humanity among our elite classes is almost as scary as Professor McMahan’s hatred of reality and incomprehension of what life is. Both are utterly fascist, even beyond Naziism in their implications.

Matt exclaims: “What a troubling, sad piece—this man teaches!”

Lighter reaction– Daniela accompanied the link with the following note: “Well, I’m just about to see whether I have any reasonable carne to indulge my heathen self in!”

And one last point– what must excellent science writers like the Times’ Nicholas Wade think about sharing space and money with such invincibly ignorant idiots?

Update: Daniela comments in an email: “I like Jeff Lockwood’s take on ethics! That would make Prof. McMahan a philosophiopath, for being too ignorant to know how to pose a philosophical question. In the Hebrew Hagada the one who doesn’t know what to ask is called “Tam” – “an innocent”…The text suggests you help him”.

I am not sure I know how…

Jeff Lockwood checks in: of Passenger pigeons and Cicadas

Jeff Lockwood, entomologist and first- rate writer from Wyoming, checked in re passenger pigeons with a link to an amazing essay and some thoughtful commentary:

“Great to hear from you! I loved your piece on the Passenger Pigeon (and thanks for the plug/quote!), having recently discussed 1491 with a colleague. Your essay elegantly captures the complexity of the human-nature (and human nature) phenomenon. I’ve been working on some fiction and it is clear that realistic (and interesting) characters are messy–neither all good nor all bad. All too often, environmental history reads like very bad fiction. Humans are bad (except pre-colonial humans who were good). But the real world is not so simple. Essentialism is almost always a caricature of existence, and this certainly applies to people. Maybe it’s a bit like I tell the students in my Natural Resource Ethics class: “Ethics is not really about choosing between good and bad. If you’re given a choice between good and evil and can’t figure out to do the good thing, then you’re probably a sociopath and this course won’t help you. Ethics is about choosing between good and good (or bad and bad), it’s about the real, messy stuff of deciding how to live when no choice is purely good or simply evil.” And as a side note, I have a few papers on catastrophe theory and self-organized criticality, so your allusion to complexity theory was also spot on! Finally, I’ve argued that maybe we do have a few, last experiences of overwhelming biological fecundity. Here’s my Op Ed piece in the NY Times on cicadas from a few years ago”.

RTWT of course, but a few quotes are irresistible– I didn’t realize some cicadas were also “biological storms”:

“In fact, if we do want to try to quantify cicadas, we have to deal with some incomprehensibly big numbers. When the periodical cicadas are in their full glory, there will be an average of about 100,000 insects per acre spread across an area four times the size of Pennsylvania. That works out to about 10 trillion cicadas, 1,500 for each human on earth. Fortunately, my back-of-the-envelope estimate is immune from empirical refutation. Even if the entire population of Philadelphia counted cicadas at the rate of one per second, for eight hours a day, five days a week, they wouldn’t arrive at a total for a full year.

“The cicadas will outweigh the population of the United States (even with our obesity problems) by a factor of nearly two. And consider the excrement that these insects are going to rain down in backyards and parks — enough liquid waste to fill 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools a day. A few weeks after their arrival, the cicadas will die, leaving piles of depleted corpses and more than 500 trillion eggs. In a single square mile of forest with the densest populations, there will be as many eggs as there are stars in the Milky Way.”


“Patterns are the rule in in physics; we can predict moon phases and solar eclipses with impressive accuracy. But we don’t expect such regularity in complex, living systems, and especially not in creatures with brains the size of pinheads. Our mathematical egos are a bit bruised by a humble insect that can count higher than a fair number of preschoolers. For that matter, could engineers equip us with several million (never mind a few trillion) alarm clocks that would reliably ring 6,209 days from now?”

Two of Jeff’s fine books I particularly recommend are Locust, about still another extinct North American “biological storm” species (is there something to Tim Flannery’s idea that our ecosystems are unusually unstable here?) and Six Legged Soldiers, a chilling history of the use of insects in war.

“Big Black Nemesis”; or, what is an Altai Falcon anyway?

A while ago, LabRat at Atomic Nerds started a series of posts on the evolution of sex among other things. The first was appropriately called “Shuffling Your Cards: Why Sex?”

Since in science we are both mad nerds obsessed with evolutionarily odd strategies like parthenogenesis in local lizards (and the hybridization that may have started it) we were soon engaged in the longest, most intense, and perhaps most digressive scientific correspondence of my life or at least the last ten years– both fun and exhausting. Suffice to quote one late night two- liner from her to me that we did NOT follow up: “I know I am cat-vacuuming at this point but this post will be the death of me.  I just found your ZW parthenogenetic snakes.” I had actually predicted their existence! There were more such, down to today.

We were both interested in the nature of species, and therefore such things as the ambiguous speciation of the genus Canis. I introduced her to the mysterious Four Corners of the Altai, where Gyrfalcons and Saker falcons, two species that according to their “monographer” Potapov were imperfectly separated at the end of the Ice Age, may still interbreed, and even more controversially may segregate into distinct types that are named and valued differently by Arab falconers when caught on migration.

Before I get into the mystery birds of the Altai let me show you the theoretical “parent” species. The Gyr, whether white, gray, or black, is a huge bulky bird, both fast and strong. Here is an example from John Burchard’s years in Arabia, being dubiously contemplated by a little Barbary, a sort of desert Peregrine that is the smallest species flown there and that gets little respect from the Arabs, who prefer large quarry. All Gyrs flown in the Middle East are domestically bred.

For a look at typical Sakers, see the Mongolian young being banded by Lauren here. They will lighten up in adult plumage but “brown, streaky” is a fair description of either plumage.

LabRat has done an incredible synthesis of known and speculative biology and maybe a bit of anthropology here, so I’ll confine myself to examples of big falcons in the Almaty breeding center in Kazakhstan, many looking like hybrids (and most utterly unlike Lauren’s birds or the Sakers in western bird books), as well as one wild one near there described to me by the ornithologist who photo’d it as an “Altai falcon”; that is, a wild example of WHATEVER these mysterious birds are. The captive birds, in all their variety, are from Kazakhstan’s diverse habitats too.

I should say before someone else brings it up that much (manufactured?) political controversy surrounds both the more common Sakers and these birds. “Altais” have at various times have been dismissed as human- influenced hybrids, while simultaneously being called nearly extinct; actually, they are probably a naturally- overlapping breeding population extending over a vast range. The admirers of “regular” Sakers (which contrary to wild claims do not command six- figure prices; I have bought a good one for $750!) are accused of being at the root of a vast and improbable conspiracy to smuggle them out of their homeland, and used as a fund- raising tool for at least one rather shady group. I think none of these statements are true. I am not denying some smuggling of the most desirable varieties of both “Altais” and other Sakers goes on, but I doubt that it is widespread or organized– for one thing, most who make these accusations don’t mention how vast, physically inaccessible, and politically divided their range is. Do not bother me with “Save the Falcons”; check out “Falco” or Middle East Falcon Research Group first to read about people engaged in actual work that helps the birds. I think Sakers face far greater threats when the Mongolian government broadcasts tons of poisoned seed from airplanes, in a futile, expensive attempt to eliminate gerbils. Meanwhile, at the other end of the line, Gulf Arabs are learning to train the vastly cheaper, legal domestic equivalents. Falconry is still, in the words of James I of England, “a great stirrer- up of passions”.

Back to the birds, with a sigh of relief. First: a huge (high 40- ounce? more?) dark female, the size of a Gyr but with, perhaps, a bit of the Saker’s slightly lankier build. In honor of Shriekback’s song, with lyrics pertaining to several of our themes (“Big black Nemesis/ Parthenogenesis..”) I think of her as Nemesis, one hell of a name for a hunting hawk. She is either what the Arabs call an “Adham” or the even larger and darker “Sinjari”. Both can resemble dark Gyrs; some are built heavier, like the Gyr in the first photo, though the Arab falconers find them hardier than Gyrs.

Second: a wild bird photographed near Almaty by ornithologist Andrey Kovalenko and ID’d as an “Altai”, also huge and even less determinate as to species.

These two are definitely Sakers but uncommonly pale, named “Ashgar” and described as “white” by the Arabs that love them.

If the black bird of this mixed pair doesn’t have Gyr genes I will eat it uncooked. With its feathers on.

Despite appearances, this woman is NOT a Kazakh taxonomist after a long day of trying to classify the birds of the Altai.

Florida Cold Snap

Vladimir Beregovoy writes:

“My son came for spring break vacations. He told an interesting story about mass mortality among exotics in Florida. They had a prolonged period of unusually temperatures there as far to the south as Florida Key, about 40 Fahrenheit for a few weeks. As a result at least 90% of huge Southeast Asian pythons died. A lot of tropical illegally introduced fish species died. A lot of dead fish of different exotic to the area species were floating dead, stinking. Alligators and birds gorged, all you can eat available. This is an excellent ecological disaster phenomenon. Iguanas also became slow down, even dropped from trees, but the did not die, just lost their mobility for some time. One man gathered a lot of them in his car, thinking he was rescuing them. While he was driving, they all warmed up enough and revived!. He was surprised seeing all those huge reptiles moving all over his car and had to stop to unload them! Exotic birds did not die, but a lot of other introduced species seems either gone, or reduced in numbers by cold weather.”

Maybe it will spare us some of those tiresome animal “reality” shows. But will it breed us up future “super pythons” on the principle that those that survive will be more cold- tolerant?

Hybrid review

A scathing but side- splitting car review from Jeremy Clarkson, the guy who brought us car shoots earlier:

“It’s terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It’s the first car I’ve ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn’t have to drive it any more…

“The Honda’s petrol engine is a much-shaved, built-for-economy, low-friction 1.3 that, at full chat, makes a noise worse than someone else’s crying baby on an airliner. It’s worse than the sound of your parachute failing to open. Really, to get an idea of how awful it is, you’d have to sit a dog on a ham slicer…

“The nickel for the battery has to come from somewhere. Canada, usually. It has to be shipped to Japan, not on a sailing boat, I presume. And then it must be converted, not in a tree house, into a battery, and then that battery must be transported, not on an ox cart, to the Insight production plant in Suzuka. And then the finished car has to be shipped, not by Thor Heyerdahl, to Britain, where it can be transported, not by wind, to the home of a man with a beard who thinks he’s doing the world a favour…

“But let me be clear that hybrid cars are designed solely to milk the guilt genes of the smug and the foolish. And that pure electric cars, such as the G-Wiz and the Tesla, don’t work at all because they are just too inconvenient…

“The only hope I have is that there are enough fools and madmen out there who will buy an Insight to look sanctimonious outside the school gates. And that the cash this generates can be used to develop something a bit more constructive.”

There is a LOT more– RTWT.

HT Iain Murray at NRO .


Animal Rights proponents demand that those who want a dog go only to the “overpopulated” shelters. So why are shelters going out of the country to get thousands more dogs? “When animal shelters started going overseas to fill their emptying kennels, some worried the imported strays would bring foreign diseases and even rabies into the USA.”

Of course it will likely be people like me or my friend Vladimir, who import only one or two selected dogs, who will be prohibited from bringing them in.

As anyone knows who pays attention, the west is drying up. “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.” And people keep on coming to the cities… (HT Annie P- H)

The Japanese truly are, as Jonathan Hanson says, “the weirdest country in the world”. I love them but– VENDING MACHINE DISGUISES??

National Geographic has a big pro- hunting article. Prepare for the ravers to come out of the woodwork!

Michael Vick and PETA make common cause. Why am I not (too) surprised? HT Gail Goodman.

Doctors in Britain want to ban pointed kitchen knives. Anthony Bourdain says “This is yet another sign of the coming apocalypse..” But a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said that people in his movement were “envious” of England for having such problems.

If you come right down to it I just don’t like politics. Neither does “Roger de Hauteville”. “When average people are required to pay close attention to the government, because the government is the source of all succor or pain in their lives, the country is doomed. No well-adjusted person should be– or should be required to be– interested in politics very much.

“Come to think of it — none are.”

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”.