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. “


I finally got my copy, Beebe’s copy, of his book Our Search  for a Wilderness, with his bookplate. The seller thought it was an iguana, but I knew it was a sketch of a possible “pre-Archaeopteryx” avian ancestor he had imagined. In 1910.

I think it was 2003 when they dug up Microraptor gui. The model is light- colored, but it has been discovered to be irridescent black. Mira!

I am painting my model black, and displaying it with the book…


No one has ever explained this close evolutionary convergence to me; even Jonathan Kingdon thought they looked less alike than they do.

Nearctic Meadow “lark”: an icterid ((New Word blackbird), common here and a lovely singer; and African Longclaw, also a bird of savannahs. But HOW? I am sure we will someday figure it out, but I don’t have a clue…

The images alternate, starting with a longclaw. And no, they are NOT related- cats and dogs…

Cryptic Cats

I always like finding new species, and am fascinated by “cryptic” ones that look just like others but have different DNA. (Are there really SEVEN Red Crossbills?) Not every species is really one, and if you obsess on the subject it will drive you mad. I like to argue and define, but my not quite tongue- in- cheek assertion that Northern Goshawks are not one circumpolar but two species, while the Gyr and Saker are one, is an example of a debatable case I know something about.

I know nothing about cats, but as a curious naturalist I was interested in this account of a new species of Leopardus found in Brazil, not least because last time I looked at cats the only one close to it was the Margay, Leopardus (then Felis) weidi.

The pictures made  L. tigrinus and L. guttulus look like color phases, but the evidence of long separation seemed clear. More than that was nagging at me. In the 60’s and early 70’s, before I knew her, Betsy Huntington had achieved the rare feat of breeding margays in her house in Cambridge, where they mostly roamed free. (She demonstrated her methods to a horrified Roger Caras on live TV–“I just waited until the female was in heat and stuck them together like this. It wasn’t hard– they liked each other!”)

But her two cats looked less alike than the new species and the “tigrina” Remember, these are old photos, but…

And here are a couple of the stripier one leaping and perched up where they did, and of an indubitable margay. The one with the more striking markings also has a rather different head (and I do not think he is an ocelot, as there are also photos of an ocelot– bigger, bulkier, and different– in her album to compare– last pic).

I don’t know if  we can ever do other than speculate– I think everyone involved in the project is long dead, and the only two who remember its existence are me and Annie Davidson. Annie?

Why Quammen’s Spillover is worth Your Time

David Quammen’s new book Spillover, on emergent diseases; or more specifically, on emergent zoonoses, came out a few months ago to a series of middling good but somehow lukewarm reviews. I vehemently disagree, but it takes a bit of unfolding. Why do some readers find such a book fascinating while others find it dull?

First: I think any literate biologist will find it fascinating, a journalistic War and Peace with many adventurous protagonists, viruses as antagonists, mysterious hosts (you will learn why so many turn out to be bats, and why the source of the legendary Ebola— which should scare you a lot less than bird flu– probably is).

But you must understand evolution as an organizing principle of all nature to follow it. What is more, Quammen travels round the world, from northern Australia, where a disease you have likely never heard of jumps from fruit bat to horse to veterinarian, to the familiar (to his readers) rain forests of equatorial Africa, home of gorilla and chimp and bonobo, of war and bushmeat, Ebola and Marburg and AIDS. He looks at Lyme disease (not a virus by the way). He visits Bengladesh (who else bothers?) to trap flying foxes while wearing a biohazard suit, and sees a scary combination of a dense population inhabiting a semi- submerged land with poor sanitation as well as a sweet bucolic tropical nation. He goes to southern China, home of the briefly appearing SARS, which I was checked for once on a Mongolian flight from China, and where the proximity of humans, ducks, and pigs may make for the next human pandemic in the form of an unstoppable flu.

You must be patient, because  none of this has a normal narrative line. Quammen is delightfully anecdotal, but unlike in Richard Preston’s entertaining and Stephen King- terrifying The Hot Zone, he is not penning a novelistic thriller that happens to be non- fiction. His aim is to have the reader understand all the origins of the diseases he writes about, that is, their evolutionary roots. He wants you to know what a virus is, and how the main kinds of virus differ, and how they evolve without being “alive”. He wants you to know how and why some kind of outbreak is mathematically virtually inevitable. But nobody “explodes”; in fact, I thought that given his gentle reprimand to Preston over his using that verb re Ebola, the Saturday Wall Street Journal‘s giving the assignment to review the book to him was at least tactless. Preston acquitted himself as a gentleman, giving the book a mostly favorable review, but that unmentioned paragraph hung uncomfortably in the air.

Quammen ends the book by writing vividly about what a unique situation our human biosphere is, merely in its sheer mass and number of ubiquitous large mammals and their congener species. It is a subject I have only seen in science fiction. And then he closes with a description of a plague of tent caterpillars in Bozeman Montana, and what happened to them. If you read that far, and I think even non- science nerds may be captivated by then, you may finally feel your flesh creep.

Two rather biological quotes

From William Hamilton, the eccentric genius whose new biography is on the way, and from our old neighbor David Quammen, who chronicled Bill’s demise from the complications of malaria meds in his Spillover,  review on deck at last…

Hamilton, from volume 3 of his collected works:

“For me it seems that the universe only needs to be beautiful, my ‘science’ no more consistent or less tragic than Antigone’s story or her sculpted head.”

And David’s rejoinder, to a scientist collecting bat samples in Uganda in hopes of finding Marburg and Ebola:

“Wait a minute, lemme get this straight: You’re in a cave in Uganda, surrounded by Marburg and rabies and black forest cobras, wading through a slurry of dead bats, getting hit in the face by live ones like Tippi Hedren in The Birds, and the walls are alive with thirsty ticks, and you can hardly breathe, and you can hardly see, and…you’ve got time to be claustrophic?

More from both these sources coming.