April 16, 2007
Condors: Carrion Claws & Clutches
Sometimes mistaken for a distant airplane, the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) with an average wingspan of almost 3 meters, once ruled the skies along the Pacific coastline.
Natural declines in population, combined with slow maturity and complex breeding habits, made these large birds vulnerable when the huge rush of people arrived in the West in the 1800's. Ranchers assumed that if a condor was eating a dead cow, it must have killed it, and they were often shot on sight. Add to this that when a condor found a hunting carcass, it would also suffer from lead poisoning when it ingested the bullets. Soon the California Condor's numbers dwindled to 22, all of which lived in captivity.
Had the ranchers looked closer, they would have seen that the condor does not have sharp claws like a bird of prey and eats carrion almost exclusively. Instead, the condors have blunt, straight claws with an elongated middle toe meant for ripping through the tough hides of dead animals - something other birds of prey cannot do with much efficiency.
Weighing in at up to 30lbs, the condor prefers larger kills. They will travel long distances - in the hundreds of miles - in order to eat each day, homing in on a kill by watching where other birds have gathered for the feast instead of using scent. The California coastline, with its many seal and sea lion rookeries, provided a substantial food source for these birds.
In the past two decades, Condor breeding programs like the one at the San Diego Zoo have helped reestablish a wild population of California Condors. Today there are about 300 condors in the world, about a third living wild in California, the Grand Canyon, and Baja, Mexico.
While condor experts have managed to breed captive condors, breeding in the wild is a tougher problem. Condors mate for life, and though the pickings are slim, juvenile condors won't necessarily choose one another as mates.
Luckily, there has been quite a few positive signs recently that the wild condor programs are working. There's been some nesting activity in Big Sur since last year, as well as some evidence that the condors have been somewhat social, hanging out around a Gray Whale carcass. At least one chick has survived in Big Sur and is now at least 2 years old. Then this month, there was some great news from another condor hotspot - Baja.
This week biologists working with the California Condor Recovery Program discovered the first California condor egg laid in Baja California, Mexico since their reintroduction to the Sierra San Pedro de Martàr National Park in 2002.
Condors #217, a 7-year-old female, and #261, a 6-year-old male, were introduced as juveniles and have only recently entered breeding age. "We had been suspicious of nesting activity over the past month and after repeated attempts we finally located the nest 800 feet (250 meters) off the canyon floor," said Dr. Wallace. "It is situated in a deserted golden eagle nest. They made an excellent and spectacular choice."
This is not the first time that condors have had chicks in the wild, but it is the first documented case in the Baja condor range since almost a century ago.
March 13, 2007
Año Nuevo Birds: Tracking The Northern Harrier
There's a certain paradoxical quality to watching wildlife. Animals can be both predictable and extremely unpredictable.
I've taken many walks in Año Nuevo State Reserve. I like to show up early, and be the first one on the trail, brushing the night's spider webs from the path. The earlier the better, for the school trips that show up later in the morning scare much of the wildlife from the trails.
Just before the ranger station, I enter a great field where inevitably, the male and female Northern Harriers or Marsh Hawks, will be waiting. If I'm lucky, a harrier will still be perched close to the ground and I'll get to watch as it takes off and soars over the fields, looking for breakfast.
I see them every single morning I walk there, but I can never predict where they will be or what they will be doing. Every day is different.
Considered one of the most agile raptors on the continent, the Northern Harrier range extends from Alaska to the Baja coastline. Once common, the species was listed on Audubon's American Birds' Blue List during the 1970's due to habitat loss and the use of pesticides like DDT which had caused especially acute reproductive failure in the species. Basically, DDT caused bird egg shells to be too thin, and the effects of the pesticide were magnified by each level in the food chain, so apex predators like birds of prey were accumulating the largest amounts of the chemicals.
The Blue List tried to provide an early warning of those North American bird species undergoing population or range reductions. The idea was to watch for declines and identify them before species reached endangered status, when it was often too late. The Blue List was published from 1971-1986 in the Audubon Society's American Birds magazine. Flaws in the Blue List certainly existed, and the Audubon Society eventually came up with it's current WatchList system.
The severe population declines noted for Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls in the late 1970s was attributed to the extensive alteration and loss of grassland habitats throughout the Midwest. Interestingly, although Harrier numbers began to increase in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Short-eared Owl numbers continued to decline. During this same period, there was a substantially large increase in the amount of available grassland habitat due to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Consequently, Northern Harriers appear to benefit from CRP land, while Shorteared Owls may not.
The Northern Harrier population has since begun to recover and is considered stable globally, although some specific populations, especially in New England, remain listed as endangered or threatened at the state level. Still, the Northern Harriers face threats.
A ground nesting bird, the Northern Harrier needs nice marsh to build its nest. Invasive plants like pepperweed threaten this habitat. Native to southern Europe and Western Asia, pepperweed competes with native flora, posing a serious threat to native wetlands and wetland restoration projects. Willows and Cottonwood trees, for example, suffer because they cannot compete effectively against dense stands of pepperweed. Native marsh birds, like the Harrier, therefore do not have the nesting materials needed nor can they nest in the invasive weeds. Research is just beginning on how to protect wetlands from invasives like pepperweed, and a lot of questions remain unanswered.
March 12, 2007
An Avian Admirer
As I've mentioned before, I'm not much of a birder, but the more I take pictures of them, the more aware I become of what differentiates one from another.
Size, feather coloring, beak shape, habitat, coloring of talons... Just knowing what details to mentally (or physically) record help a lot in identifying it later.
Still, I'm a take-a-picture-first-before-it-flies-away-while-I'm-trying-to-unpack-Sibley's kind of girl. I'll ID the bird later, at home. Or I'll let my long-suffering assistant (aka my husband Shane) do it while I'm shooting.
Nowadays, I've actually come to like birds enough that I even have a favorite group (actually a Suborder: Alcedines) - the Kingfishers. This cute little guy is an African Pygmy-Kingfisher (Ispidina picta) and I took this picture just outside our tent at Finch Hatton's Safari Camp in Tsavo National Park, Kenya.
February 28, 2007
Pleasant Pheasants: Peacocks Are A Misnomer Most Fowl
Did you know?
A Peacock Is Always Male
Did you know that the term peacock so often used to describe those flashy birds is not the name of the bird species? It's just the special name for the male of the peafowl species. The female is called a peahen and she isn't much to look at compared to her mate.
February 27, 2007
Legend has it that England will not fall to an invader so long as there are ravens at the Tower of London. The last time I visited the Tower (as a guest, I assure you), the British government-appointed Ravenmaster was doing his utmost to assure that the black-winged birds could never possibly leave. In fact, the six well-fed ravens had been rendered flightless not just by wing trimmings, but by their hearty and frequent meals of liver, eggs and the occasional foolish tourist's finger.
I always thought the legend gruesomely suggested that England was "safe" so long as the Tower served its purpose as a place of execution and torture, thus it would always have ravens around to snack on traitors. If the ravens weren't there, then clearly England wasn't actively protecting its interests. Perhaps, though, King Charles II, who ordered that there should always be six ravens on hand, really wanted them for their keen intelligence.
It's probably pretty clear by now that I am fascinated by animals that are intelligent enough to make and use tools, like chimps as well as other primates and dolphins. I had always thought that macaws were the smartest birds, but many argue that ravens are actually more intelligent. Both macaws and ravens can mimick human speech. In fact, the head crow at the Tower, Thor, frequently greets visitors. Ravens are likely the smartest birds around and recent studies have shown that they also have the largest brains for their size.
Ravens live almost everywhere, from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle. Scavengers by nature, young ravens are inquisitive and playful.
Ravens ... have been recorded playing in the wild. Their antics, photographed in Wales in 1980, involved two birds taking it in turn to slide on their backs down a frozen snow bank. The birds covered about 10ft each time and returned on a second day for more fun and games.
More At: BBC: Smartest Of All Birds
Not Just Sharp, But Highly Flexible
As adults, ravens tend to settle down and mate for life, building long-term nests and then raising chicks together using highly complex mating rituals.
One of the most interesting examples of raven intelligence and specifically tool usage was beautifully illustrated at Oxford recently by a pair of Caledonian Crows named Betty and Abel.
They placed a tiny bucket of meat inside a pipe, and left two pieces of wire in their cage, one hooked and one straight, to see if the birds would choose the hooked wire to retrieve the bucket of meat, proving that birds were "tool users" on a par with higher levels of animal intelligence.
"We were delighted and extremely surprised" reported Alex Kacelnik, one of the bird experts studying the crows, when Abel stole the hooked wire from Betty, and rather than giving up, Betty "modified" the straight wire into a hooked wire, and was thus able to hook the bucket, pull it up, and retrieve her snack. This elevates ravens from "tool users" to "tool makers", which places them on a par with primates.
More At: The Raven.
It also proves, yet again, that women are smarter than men. Here's a video of a raven solving the bottle bait problem, so you can see for yourself.
You Can't Fool A Raven
Scientists believe that ravens are one of the few birds capable of simple math. Most birds will assume that if two people go into a hide and then one comes out, then it is safe to approach the hide because no one is there. Ravens, however, are capable of keeping track of people entering and then exiting and it requires a much greater number of people coming and going (a whole class of school children, for example) to get past the raven's keen eyes.
I'm curious about macaws and counting. If my father-in-law put one treat in one hand, and two in the other, would his macaws choose the one with more treats? Does this count? Heh.
I'd love to see some of the experiments that were done with capuchin monkeys and token values done with ravens. You'd have to decide on tokens carefully, since young ravens do love shiny stuff.
The Clark's Nutcracker, a member of the raven family, also has very impressive spacial memory. During the warm months, it stores up to 100,000 pine seeds (pine nuts?) to eat later. It spreads little caches of about a dozen seeds in each spot, over a large area of up to 150 square miles and yet, even half a year later, the bird can track down the seed caches, even under heavy snow. The nutcracker shows forethought as well, often storing more than it needs to live in order to cover problems like seed-stealing squirrels. This seed spreading also helps maintain the bird's habitat and food source since leftover seeds will germinate in the spring.
February 21, 2007
Macaws On Maui?
We've been in Maui, Hawaii this past week, so I figured we'd share a bit from our travels. So, Picture This...
We are enjoying our dinner in a window table overlooking the beautiful beach at sunset. We've literally de-planed and gone straight to our favorite restaurant on Maui, Mama's Fish House. Ok, so we were a tad early so we went wine tasting up at the Tedeschi Vineyards at 'Ulupalakua Ranch beforehand… but that's another story. We are contentedly sipping our Iwilei Refresher and the Hookipa Sunset when a noise shatters the laidback atmosphere.
That noise sounds familiar.... but we can't see its source. Surely it cannot be a...
Our dinner arrives. As we savor our excellent meal of the best Pua Me Hua Hana on the island (Old Hawaii Ono and Mahimahi sautéed in coconut milk, with slow-cooked Kalua pig, Grilled banana, Â Molokai sweet potato, poi, Island fruit and a fresh coconut) as well as the Crispy Kalua Duck (with mango-mui glaze, baby bok choy and lemongrass rice pilaf), we hear it again.
The unmistakable screech of a macaw, the largest of parrots. A few seconds later, a blue and gold sails down from above us and lands on a nearby palm frond. My father-in-law raises breeding macaws, but never have we seen one fly unencumbered before. No clipped wings here. It's quite a sight and we are intrigued.
Despite what most people would think (ooh pretty colorful bird, must be Hawaiian)… Macaws are not native to Hawaii but from the rainforests of Central and South America. By dessert (Banana Macadamia Nut Crisp, served warm with Tahitian vanilla ice cream, in case you cared), we have discovered from the restaurant staff that this particular macaw is a former pet set free. The blue and gold is fed by the nearby locals and so the bird sticks around. When my husband approaches, the macaw looks almost willing to jump down onto his arm, given the proper incentive.
Most species of macaws are endangered, mostly because their rainforest habitat is disappearing at alarming rates, but also due to capture of wild ones for the pet trade. A healthy blue and gold macaw can go for several thousand dollars in the US, and macaw feathers are often used in Native American tribal ceremonies.
The larger species of macaws like this blue and gold (Ara ararauna) have very long lives — often upwards of 75 years. Many people buy young hatchlings as pets only to find that a young macaw, if well cared for, is likely to outlive not only them, but their children as well. Unwanted pets are often released into the wild. Lucky for this blue and gold macaw, the Hawaiian Islands offer a similar habitat to what they require — including abundant fruit and nuts.
This particular bird looks very healthy and happy here, despite being non-native. It's charming personality, keen intelligence and brilliant plumage likely keep it from being harassed.
But while this macaw is unlikely to cause much trouble as a herbivore and a single individual, other non-native species have caused massive damage to the fragile island ecosystem. The mongoose is a prime example of a destructive invasive species.
Check out our Maui, Hawaii podcast - a video program that highlights this beautiful place!
August 8, 2006
Moss Landing State Beach: Birds
Great Blue Heron
Unidentified, any ideas? Leave a comment!
August 6, 2006
Elkhorn Slough: A Marine Superhighway
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is located halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey in Moss Landing. I've seen more diversity of marine life here than any other place in Monterey or Santa Cruz, despite the fact that the Moss Landing Power Plant looms over the slough. It makes for some interesting photographs. We headed off to the slough to test our a new telephoto lens. Here are just a few of the birds we saw.
The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is one of the few California wetlands left and home to the Long-billed Curlew. According to the Audubon Society WatchList, the Long-billed Curlew is one of the largest and most threatened shorebirds in North America. Their long bills allow them to catch tasty insects.
The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan lists Long-billed Curlew as a "Highly Imperiled" species of shorebird, based on population trends, relative abundance, threats on breeding grounds, and threats on non-breeding grounds.
A Pod Of Brown Pelicans
Groups of pelicans are called pods and you'll often see them flying in formation. They like to fly up and down the Elkhorn Slough, often so close to the water that the ends of their long wings skim the surface. The Brown Pelican is the more common pelican species to be sighted in the area. The other is the rarer American White Pelican.
The Brown Pelican also has the honor of being the state bird of Louisiana. If you visit New Orleans, you'll find them carved on all the state buildings.
As you all know by now, I am not a birder. I try to identify all my photos with the proper species but birds still confuse me a bit. I'm pretty sure this is a Least Sandpiper. They look sortof like plovers to me - they're pretty small. But this one has yellow legs, and so I am thinking this is actually a Least Sandpiper. Its small size and yellow legs were my main indicator. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Least Sandpiper is the smallest shorebird in the world.
Western gulls are pretty easily identified by the bright yellow bill with red spot on the end, with yellow irises, but of course it gets rather tricky because they look different when they are born, versus yearlings and two year olds.
There are about 15 sub-species of gull that make their home at some point in the year at Elkhorn Slough. Some like the Glaucous Gull, Sabine's Gull, Swallow-tailed Gull, Laughing Gull, Little Gull, and Franklin's Gull are quite rare, while others like the Bonaparte's Gull, Heermann's Gull and Mew Gull are unusual but sighted on occasion. Still, the Ring-billed Gull, California Gull, Herring Gull, Thayer's Gull, Western Gull, and Glaucous-winged Gull are quite common.
Elkhorn gulls are pretty cheeky. You can walk up to them and they will not budge from their spot until the last possible moment.
Find out more about Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve on the NOAA website or at the Elkhorn Slough Foundation.
March 30, 2006
The New Days Of The Condor
It's great news for condors this week. For the first time in 101 years, California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) have nested in the Big Sur redwoods, not fifty miles from here!
A giant opportunistic predator who once fed on seals and other coastal life, the condor is a vulture on the brink of extinction. Known for its massive wingspan of up to 10 feet, the condor has has the distinction of being the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere.
Shooting and poisoning eventually led the California condor population to decline dramatically until fewer than 25 birds were left in the world. About twenty years ago, the remaining wild ones were put into captive breeding programs to try and sustain them, and several have been re-released in California in the past ten years or so.
But as far as anyone knows, this is the first incident of condors breeding in the wild once again.
The condor couple was found Monday displaying typical nesting behavior inside a hollowed-out redwood tree in Big Sur, a mountainous coastal region south of Monterey, the Ventana Wildlife Society said Tuesday.
Ventana, a nonprofit group, began releasing condors into the wild in 1997 and now monitors a population of 38 condors in Central California.The last known condor egg in Northern California was collected in 1905 in Monterey County.
March 9, 2006
Fewer Swans Aswimming...
When I was little, we lived in Zürich, Switzerland, while my father completed his postdoctorate work. It is there that most of my earliest memories originate. [Warning, musings ahead]
On cold, snowy days in winter, my mother would drag me to the market on a sled and then on the way home, the sled would be piled high with me and the groceries. When we went to pay the rent, the landlord, a rather odd fellow, would always give me a chocolate bar from his freezer chest and pinch my cheek. I ate countless pears off the tree in the back yard without washing them and played naked in the summer under hoses and on the Alpine mountainsides without fear or censure. One of the first things I learned to speak in Swiss-German was how to call for "More Beer" when we would eat out (the beer wenches always thought I was precious) and there are several pictures of me as a toddler, grinning and drooling into an empty beer bottle. In an effort to be frugal, my mother baked and decorated dozens of sugar cookies for our otherwise ornament-less Christmas tree, only to have to do the same again the next day after my father and I had pilfered them off the tree and spoiled our appetites. Later, she would make beautifully decorated homemade chocolate lollipops for Halloween, enough for every trick-or-treater who might come to the door.
Now you better not be getting horrified at this point. I am sharing these HAPPY memories with you to illustrate how things have changed in the 25 years since these events occured. Now I think about how today's kids won't have some of these memories. Well, if they do, their parents might be accused of terrible parenting or end up in jail. Oh, sure, they'll have different memories I never could have had. Hell, my kids will probably have memories of mommy and daddy helping them get past Level 3 on Final Fantasy XVIII. Already our friend's read the text for their kid's GameBoy games for them. I am a bit saddened by the loss of those simple pleasures I grew up with. Will my kids suffer from the lack of them?
It seems as if several factors are converging at once but fear, backed ironically by science, seems to be the main culprit. It all comes down to the dreaded statistics - we hear about every single bad thing on the news every night. The odds are frightening to the point of causing parental paralysis. It's better to keep your kids indoors playing on the Playstation than, heaven forbid, let them outside and out of your sight - they might pick up some germ or get kidnapped or worse. You can Trust No One. Kids don't play naked at the beach anymore for fear of catching the eye of a child molester; you wouldn't dare let your child have a sip of beer for it might stunt their growth or promote future alcoholism. Baking cookies from scratch costs five times more than the ones bought in stores and I won't even start on trick-or-treating. That dying tradition has all the kids in our neighborhood going to the mall on Halloween. It's just f***'n weird.
Back when I was a kid, which really wasn't THAT long ago, these things were relatively harmless. That's not to say that bad things didn't happen - they did. But still, the majority of us turned out ok, except now we're the neurotic parents. It makes me want to know, what are today's simple pleasures? What are tomorrow's?
Today I was listening to a Slate Explainer podcast entitled "Why Are Swans Dropping Like Flies?" about why H5N1 (Avian flu) is killing the swans all over Europe. It reminded me of one of my earliest memories in Zürich. Whenever we would have pancakes for breakfast (it was my favorite, of course, especially when my mother would make Mickey Mouse shaped ones), my mother would make extra pancakes. Later, she and I would walk down to feed them to the swans. Not that the swans really deserved it. They were mean and nasty, always trying to bite us, but they were very pretty and I enjoyed throwing pancakes at them.
Nowadays, I'm always seeing the signs not to feed the birds. I've seen a gull land on a kid's head and gobble up their ice cream cone next to one such sign. It was actually quite traumatic, except the bird. It's pretty clear that feeding birds can often be bad for the for all involved, the birds suffer from eating human foods, it causes unsanitary conditions, blah blah, and now, with bird flu, many parents are downright afraid to allow their children near a bird. Well, at least, if it still looks like a bird - I haven't heard of Happy Meal sales dropping, although after that horrible cartoon in Super Size Me, I haven't been able to make myself eat a McNugget since (I was happier not knowing, you know).
I read a book once about how a genetically-engineered tomato got a disease which virtually wiped out the human race. The survivors were deathly afraid of tomatoes, even at a distance. Even though the disease was long-gone and no one was at risk, people would freak out when one of the red fruits showed up anywhere in their vicinity. The bird flu panic reminds me of this. And so many of our holidays and traditions have bird-themes - from New Year's peace doves to Easter eggs, barbeque on the 4th of July, then Thanksgiving turkey to Christmas goose. Talk about a poultry-industry nightmare. And don't forget that Thursday is inevitably Chicken Nugget day at the school cafeteria (Friday is always Pizza day). It seems weird to me that people would not feed the swans, but they don't really have too many concerns with the fact that your average school cafeteria serves lower-grade meat than most people can buy at the local supermarket.
I guess I feel like people spend so much time worrying, but aren't willing to spend more time just being cautious. And by this, I mean active caution. If you're worried about bird flu, read up on the details, cook your food properly and wash your hands. If you don't feel comfortable letting your kid outside alone, go with them. How many of these problems would be solved if people spent more time getting out their with their children? Despite the fact that we live in a society that allows us the freedom of mobility and communication, fewer and fewer of us know our own neighbors. We have all become strangers. Perhaps that's the real problem, because when things do go wrong - whether it comes in the form of a hurt child or a flu pandemic - you're less likely to get a helping hand from a stranger than you are from a friend.
February 23, 2006
Año Nuevo State Reserve: It's For The Birds
From the spider webs I walk through along the nature trail, I know I am the first person out this morning. And if that hint had not been enough, then the bird life would be. I always pick the first tour of the day when I visit the park. I always try to head out before the crowds scare all the animals and birds far from the trail. Every time I visit, I see something new and different. More than one hundred different types of birds have been identified at Año Nuevo, from raptors to shore birds, and everything in between.
Birds Of Prey
Walking out across the great big field near the nature trail entrance, you'll always see raptors hunting. There's a particular female harrier that has lost all fear of humans. She swoops down close as you walk along. You're also likely to see white-tailed kites perched along the windbreaks of Monterey cypress planted after the Second World War. And like everywhere else in California, there are always turkey vultures.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
California Quail (Callipepla californica)
Early in the morning is the best time to see California Quail. Males and females like to chase each other down the nature trails, but upon seeing humans, they dive into the dense underbrush and you aren't as likely to see them for the rest of the day.
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
All manner of what the Africans refer to as LBJ's - Little Brown Jobs - also live in the fields and chaparral, although we generally think of these as songbirds, or just plain birds.
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)
Chaparral means a habitat along a shrubby coastal area that has hot dry summers and mild, rainy winters. It has tall, dense shrubs and some dispersed scrub oak. The word chaparral comes from "chaparro," which means scrub oak in Spanish.
February 15, 2006
African Field Notes: Birds
Giant flocks of flamingos migrate to southern African. You'll see them hanging out in the marshes near Cape Town. They are pink because of their diet, and young are born like ugly gray fuzzy featherless turkeys.
Ostriches can run quite fast, and like to hiss. They have a wicked back claw that can eviscerate a predator. You'll often see farms of ostriches, as the steaks make good eating. You can often buy ostrich biltong (dried meat snack) from the locals.
The spoonbill has a very unique beak that looks like a wooden spoon. You'll see the spoonbill at waterholes. Both sexes share incubation and feeding the young.
One easy way to find a kill site is to follow the vultures. You'll see them circling a kill site, and hanging out in the trees, waiting for the opportunity to partake in a meal themselves.
The Ground Hornbill looks like a large black and red turkey. They are endangered.
There are a variety of colorful birds in Africa. The bee-eaters are very pretty, feasting on dragonflies and often living near water.
Check out our Safari South Africa podcast - an audio program and a video that features this animal!
Also on Perlgurl.Org:
The Reluctant Bird Buff (Avian Admirer?)
Birds As Carriers: From Avian Flu to Toxic Poop
February 1, 2006
The Reluctant Bird Buff (Avian Admirer?)
I don't like birds, or rather, I didn't like birds. Until I went to Africa.
In Africa, they call our American excuses for birds LBJ's: Little Brown Jobs. And they have every right to. The birds of Africa are big, colorful and loud - like this pair of bee-eaters. One even has a dragonfly in it's beak.
It's funny how once you've been to Africa, you see wildlife in a completely different light. Shane is always shaking his head at me because I can now spot a lone deer, an 1/8th of a mile away on a golden California foothill, while whizzing by in 75mph traffic. And I spot the birds. The big raptors crusing high above and diving for their meals and stalk the tiniest hummingbird around my neighborhood.
I never liked birds before Africa. This probably had something to do with the fact that one of my friend's friends had a little pet bird, some sort of parakeet-type job. She was a complete nightmare, very possessive of her boy, and attacked any woman who entered the house. And while she was inflicting pain, that bitchy 3 inches of feathers, I just wanted to smack her. Yes I know, that's a very nature-wildlife loving attitude. But dammit it hurt and the guy wouldn't let me even push her aside.
But Africa has awesome birds. Birds that swoop down and gobble up gigantic fish. Fish eagles, flamingos, spoonbills, among others. And the little jobs, they have such character. The hornbills are so inquisitive, just like in Disney's Lion King. The kingfishers do their kamikaze dives from 2 stories up. The lourie performs its crazy play dead mating dance and the male masked weaver frantically builds a nest only to have the female come in and tear it to pieces if she doesn't like him. The drama of the African avian community is better than cable TV! I reluctantly became an avian admirer.
But now I'm home again, and my eyes are sharper. On the drive to my grandmother's house in Chico, CA, I make us stop at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge - and I catch a glimpse of a bald eagle in the wild, amongst other raptors and rodents.
Last week, I was hiking in Año Nuevo State Reserve in Santa Cruz county and came across what I believe to be a Cooper's Hawk. And it's ironic. I walked down the nature trail, and when I saw the hawk, I stopped to watch it swoop about. And despite the fact that I was one of probably 15 people walking along that stretch of trail at the time, no one else stopped until I pulled out my camera with it's obvious long lens and started shooting. Then suddenly people were stopping and gasping and pointing and showing their kids. And all this, only a hundred feet away or so.
What is it with Americans, always in a hurry to get from point A to point B, even on a nature walk. It's like it's a bloody race. Whereas in Africa, it was more like a kid's pokemon collecting: Gotta Catch 'Em All, identify them and mark the species on my little checklist.
November 4, 2005
Military Bases Benefit Birds
There's been a lot of press lately on the federal budget and the Department of Defense's need to perform some military base closures. I've followed this with some interest - is it a sign of the defense budget being cut? Is it a revamp to make the DoD more efficient? What I hadn't even considered is the environmental impact of closing bases.
Military bases have been built in just about every kind of setting from along the seashore of Monterey at Fort Ord to the deserts of Southwest. There's even the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, nestled in the Sierras, which acts as one of the most remote and isolated posts. However, all military bases share one important feature: they generally keep the public out and most military activities take place far inside the borders, buffered by acres and acres of land. Land that is not compromised by the mandates that generally apply to federal land - like grazing and logging rights. This undisturbed land is a haven for wildlife, supporting hundreds of federally listed threatened or endangered species.
Military personnel are forced to maintain the delicate balance between using the land wisely for training purposes without disrupting the fragile ecosystems.
Nationwide, more than 300 federally listed threatened or endangered species inhabit military lands and waters—more than are found throughout the entire national park system, which has nearly three times more land.
Yet the Pentagon rarely gets kudos for housing such a diversity of wildlife. Indeed, the relationship between the military and most environmental organizations has tended to be acrimonious. In one recent battle, the Defense Department two years ago asked Congress for an exemption to the Endangered Species Act's (ESA) mandate to establish critical habitat for federally listed species. The department claimed that designating critical habitat on military lands would potentially interfere with training, and therefore the nation's readiness for war.
Success is due in part to habitat availability and restrictions on public access, as well as avoiding training when and where the birds are nesting. Yet base personnel also have mounted aggressive conservation actions, from grading beaches and removing trash and vegetation from nesting sites to installing protective fences and shelters for hatchlings. Their efforts have paid off.
But success has come at a price ... populations are spilling over onto sections of beach considered critical for training. So far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given Navy officials permission to discourage nesting on some beaches and to collect and incubate in captivity eggs that end up in training zones.
When bases are closed permanently, the land can become neglected and vulnerable to developers, creating situations just like those my British friend, the Badger Charmer, has to deal with.
July 24, 2005
Birds As Carriers: From Avian Flu to Toxic Poop
We took a short vacation to Hong Kong a ways back. We spent Shane's birthday in and around our lovely room in a Kowloon hotel. A few weeks later, SARS hit the news, with 7 cases at a Kowloon hotel. Shane had been suffering from a post-vacation cold and for a bit we were concerned, but then we were at a different hotel, and about a month too early to be in the right time frame anyway. Still, we were relieved to find he was just suffering from the common cold (quite normal for March). Still, we listened as the media and community made a lot of gloomy predictions of pandemics and such, none of which materialized.
When I started hearing about bird flu, I gave it about as much consideration as I did a case of SARS... Because I no longer commute, I don't get to listen to NPR and the BBC news on the radio as much, so when the topic came up on a family vacation, I decided I had better read up a bit on whether I was giving bird flu its proper consideration.
What's a pandemic?
Well, let's look at the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Here is another case of when a completely new influenza virus subtype emerged and spread around the globe. It was:
- The most devastating epidemic in recorded world history
- Killed between 20-40 million people in a one year period
- Considered a global disaster
- Killed more people than in the 4 years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague
- Killed more people than World War I
- Dropped the average life span in the US alone by 10 years
- Mutated, causing new waves for two more years, killing an estimated 40—50 million persons
Why Bird Flu?
Bird flu is more technically known as avian influenza. It is a highly contagious virus that occurs mostly in fowl - especially the kinds we like to eat (chickens, ducks, turkeys), but also in many other kinds of birds. Avian influenza was first discovered in 1878 in Italy. The disease was then known as "Fowl Plague". According to the CDC, at least three of the great flu pandemics of the 20th century were the result of bird flu viruses becoming incorporated into human flu viruses, which led to a far more dangerous virus, which had worldwide repercussions.
There are currently two forms of the bird flu virus - a highly contagious one and a mildly contagious one. Over time the virus has mutated and formed for than 20 different strains, leading to considerable concern that the virus, while tolerated by most birds as a particularly bad cold, could be devastating if a highly contagious strain mutated into a human-catchable form.
A virus jumping from an animal strain to a human strain was once considered an alarmist's notion. Now it seems that most of the worst viruses of the past two decades have been the ones that have developed human-catchable forms that humans have no built-up immunity to.
Viruses are masters of interspecies navigation. Mutating rapidly and often grabbing the genetic material of other viruses, they can jump from animals to humans with a quick flick of their DNA. Sometimes, as in West Nile fever, the transfer occurs through an intermediate host such as a mosquito. But viruses can also make the leap directly.
Since the 1980s, the list of diseases that have hitchhiked directly from animals to people has grown rapidly — hantavirus, SARS, monkeypox and, most recently, avian influenza, commonly called bird flu. With the exception of HIV/AIDS, perhaps none of these illnesses has more potential to create widespread harm than bird flu does.
More at: Mayo Clinic: Bird flu
So is this a serious threat or a lot of doomsday prophesizing? Well, the "Fowl Plague" has reared its head numerous times in the past century, most recently in Asia. These outbreaks have been largely caused by a highly contagious and virulent strain, known as H5N1.
The H5N1 virus, a subtype of the avian influenza virus, is found in poultry. Scientists at first believed it was impossible for birds to directly infect humans with the virus. But an outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997 that killed 6 of 18 people infected with the virus proved the contrary.
Since then outbreaks have forced the slaughter of millions of chickens, ducks, and other birds across Asia. This year there have been 44 confirmed human cases of H5N1 flu in Thailand and Vietnam. Of these, 32 people died. There is not yet a vaccine for the disease.
Meanwhile the virus has undergone huge genetic changes and become even more pathogenic. It now affects not only birds, but also cats, pigs, and even tigers.
Experts fear the disease will mutate into a form that can leap between humans and sweep populations with no immunity. The adaptation could occur through a few genetic changes or what is known as "re-assortment" of the genes of the avian strain and the human strain. Domestic ducks and pigs are seen as likely transmitters.
But for the moment H5N1 is only slightly infectious to humans. Also, it cannot be transmitted between humans - only by direct contact with an infected animal. The virus is killed by heat, among other things, so proper cooking works as well as hygienic handling. For now, you really need to be handling raw guts or feces, so most commercial meat products aren't a huge concern. Many of the human cases have been poultry farm workers and others who came in contact with contaminated market stalls, etc.
According to the CDC, bird flu is spread through the birds' saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Other birds become infected when they have contact with contaminated excretions or surfaces that are contaminated with excretions. Scientists think that the few human infections to date have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. These human cases have all been in Asia.
Health agencies like the CDC and the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) focus mostly on preventing the spread of disease in domestic farming - especially poultry farming of ducks, turkeys, chickens and geese.
The importation of the disease is also a serious consideration, and the United States has also imposed an Embargo of Birds from Specified Southeast Asian Countries in order to keep infected birds out. This is certainly a good idea, but as we know, the black market trade on exotic animals is considerable at several billion dollars a year.
Wild birds and migratory spread of infection seem to be given less consideration in the numerous headlines regarding the bird flu. Perhaps this is because it's such a terrifying possibility with no good solution under our control. There's no way we can monitor every bird flying in and out of the country.
Migratory birds, including wild waterfowl, sea birds, and shore birds, can carry the virus for long distances and have, in the past, been implicated in the international spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza. Migratory waterfowl — most notably wild ducks — are the natural reservoir of bird flu viruses, and these birds are also the most resistant to infection. They can carry the virus over great distances, and excrete it in their droppings, yet develop only mild and short-lived illness.
Birds As Carriers - Not Just The Flu
People used to use birds like falcons and pigeons for correspondence, and perhaps this is just another message. Birds aren't just carrying the flu, either. They carry all sorts of other nasty things as well, including pollutants. It's no longer just about making sure to cut up the plastic rings from your soda cans and making sure you throw away your plastic bags so that these items don't end up in the water, choking poor gulls and baby seals.
Now birds are eating and walking in polluted areas and then migrating to some of the most pristine wilderness areas left in the world and depositing the pollutants there. Areas like the Arctic are showing increasing levels of pollutants not just from the currents, but also from the migratory species - especially birds.
The birds, it seems, are eating carrion, squid, and other marine animals from persistent organic pollutant contaminated seas. The flyers then return to their coastal home and deposit their contaminated prey—in the form of excrement—in local ponds, which see their persistent organic pollutant levels skyrocket as a result.
Now I look at the shorebirds flying around the county landfill and I think about what they're eating and where they're going. I see the ducks that stop at the playground pond, which has always been beyond filthy, and the little toddlers chasing the birds around on the grass. I wonder where the ducks have come from, and I feel uneasy.
This is one of those topics that makes you feel completely helpless. Millions and millions of birds are being culled at the first sign of some avian flu - often in Southeastern Asia where, frankly, they could really use the meat and the money in trade. I think of how someone with WHO or whomever would try to explain to some poor starving family why so much food is being thrown out and not eaten, "wasted". At the same time, I feel less for the birds than I feel I should - like the fear of a pandemic has distanced me from nature. I don't know which part is worse.
And it's not like we can control where every bird lands and keep them out of the pollution or the garbage. Sure, we can pay more attention to closing lids and covering refuse, but somehow all these little tasks seem rather futile, and almost laughable sometimes. But don't worry, I'll still keep doing them anyway.
Then I think of the poop, and I am really frightened. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that with the highly pathogenic form of avian influenza, a single gram of contaminated manure can contain enough virus to infect 1 million birds.
I live on the seashore, just as over 4 billion others do - that's more than 2/3 of the world population.