Archive for May, 2006

I & The Bird #24

26 May 2006

Go check out I and the Bird #24 over at Rigor Vitae. It’s illustrated!

Comic by Carel Brest van Kempen (2006).

I’m particularly delighted to share a panel with the post at Earth, Wind & Water. I was very fond of the jaunty Great Tits in Sweden. They did not, however, make the beautiful birds list. One only wonders what bit of theory the ring on that Tit was reifying.

I think I see a B and a 10?


24 May 2006

Too many chromosomes. I am enjoying The Omnivore's Dilemma, though not as much as Botany of Desire, which leads me to wonder, is this one even better? I have developed the default assumption that the first or second album by any band is likely to be their best, but it seems that I've internalized no such rule of thumb for literature. Perhaps I don't read enough.

+ = ?

I'm not not sure that this expression has anything to do with the McNugget Number, which may itself simply be an indicator that mathematicians are eating way too much McDonald's.

Ever wonder about those discrete McNugget morphotypes? (image links…)

Ontogeny recapitulates epistemology,

(thanks to Pharyngula, Mike the Pod, McDonald's, Wizards of the Coast and Mexico!)

Decimating Birds: Episode III – A Quick One While He’s Away

24 May 2006

3) Fabio (Gallus gallus domesticus)

Honestly I don't find our rooster Fabio that attractive. But he is a celebrity and so I put him on my list out of solidarity. After years of mildly flagrant violation of this City of Davis ordinance, the law has finally caught up with us. Fabio has been exiled at the behest of the the Davis Animal Control:

Life in the unincorporated zone has reportedly been rough on our Polish 'ruster', already he's been in a rooster fight, apparently tapping out after two rounds with Roosty Roo.

Well, at least we'll always have the home movies:

Decimating Birds: Episode II – Namesakes

23 May 2006

2) Swainson's Hawk* (Buteo swainsoni).

I do much of my birdwatching along the stretch of Interstate 80 that crosses the Patwin Plains between Fairfield and Sacramento, at speeds ranging from 75 to 0 mph (varying roughly in proportion to distance from Sacramento). It is an impressively two-dimensional landscape, wheat and soy fields gradually giving way to rice paddies, and the dearth of trees enhances sighting opportunities of birds near and far. Precious clear days afford views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada 100 miles to the east and Sutter Buttes and Mount Diablo somewhat closer.

European settlers were very successful in converting the disorderly wetlands and grasslands they found into awesomely productive canalized farmland over the last two centuries. Nevertheless, many native birds were able to adapt or at least eke out a tenuous existence in the margins and corners. In fact, birds thrive in the Sacramento Valley and surrounding areas, migratory waterfowl amassing here by the thousands during winter.

Alert eyes (which should be on the road of course) are likely to catch a glimpse dozens of waterfowl species in a typically congested trip across the causeway, including transitory gems like American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). Poles and wires in Yolo and Solano county host a dozen or so raptor species, from the very occasional Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos canadensis) to the omnipresent American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). The Swainson's Hawk, more likely to be seen circling lazily above the fields, with its graceful, long-winged profile, accentuated in the light morph by white wing linings, has quickly become my favorite local raptor, and the inspiration for much drifting and weaving.

William Swainson was born in 1789 in Newington Butts, an ex-archery range, home to the first production of Hamlet. Newington was also the birthplace of the physicist Michael Faraday, who was born just two years after Swainson, as well as the painter Samuel Palmer. After working as a customs clerk in Liverpool, Swainson served briefly in the British army before retiring, due to illness, and taking up natural history full time.

Swainson was apparently healthy enough to travel Brazil two years later, In 1817, where he collected thousands of insects, plants, birds and fish, many unknown to Western science (including the showy orchid genus Cattleya). William's skill at finding new specimens was matched by his ability to render them to the page, or the limestone plate:

Hummingbird lithograph by William Swainson (1820), would you like to buy it?

Swainson was among the first scientific illustrators to make extensive use of lithography and railed against the incompetence of his contemporaries:

…the delineations of Zoological subjects in general remain uninfluenced by this universal improvement; and with few exceptions, present lamentable deficiencies in design, drawing, perspective and the most common principles of light and shade; any one of which would not be tolerated, even in the frontispiece to the most humble of our periodical publications. (1821)

Swainson's legacy as a field naturalist and artist certainly outshines his memory as a theoretician. He was elected a fellow to the Royal Society in 1820 (beating Faraday by four years this time). About that same time, William MacLeay published Quinarian System of biological classification, and Swainson soon became the most vocal proponent of "Quinarianism".

This pre-Darwinian scheme attempted to explain the undeniable order of the living world, an issue which had vexed European thinkers since Aristotle. The Quinarian System saw the living world ordered in pentameral arrangements of "typical", "subtypical" and "aberrant" diagrammatically depicted by layered rings all linked by "osculations" between structurally distinct but analogous taxa. Darwin himself worried that Natural Selection might suffer the same fate as Quinarianism, which was already roundly disregarded by the mid-century. In fact, the Quinarian system never really caught on and the derision it earned it's biggest supporters, Swainson and MacLeay himself, may have driven their migration to the antipodes (Swainson to New Zealand, MacLeay to Australia).

Akeake, Tree of the New Zealanders, pencil by William Swainson (1849).

Despite being largely discredited as a theoretical biologist, Swainson's work as a naturalist earned him memorialization in the names (both Linnean and common) of a huge cadre of animals. Two North American birds, besides the Hawk bear the possessive "Swainson's" in their common English name. One is a small brown thrush (Catharus ustulatus), whose "suboptimal" migratory routes betray the historic rather than geometric nature of evolution, was named for Swainson by the important British ornithologist Thomas Nuttall (who lent his own name to a local woodpecker and our "aberrant" magpie). The other is another rather cryptic little brown bird, a warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) named by John James Audubon, with whom Swainson had a complicated but generally cordial relationship.

Swainson's got his name on a hawk from a French naturalist and nephew of Napoleon, Charles Lucien Bonaparte (who ended up with a rather attractive gull). It's unlikely that Swainson ever saw his eponymous raptor alive, though migrating birds do pass through a small piece of Brazil. A Swainson's Hawk was not among the Mexican-Californian birds gathered by goldsmith, antiquarian and mine speculator William Bullock. Swainson did describe a number of "typical" Californian birds from Bullock's collection including the clown-faced Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), the hydrophilic American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) and, of course, Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii).

Truthfully, I never thought much of the hawk before moving to the epicenter of California Swainsons habitat. Now most of my daily trips can be mapped between the Swainson's nest near my home, and the one above the owl burrow at work, and a couple others in between. The birds have adapted well to the first round of landscape change, capitalizing on the requisite shade trees we fill our towns with and patrolling our ag fields for food (though DDT dealt a crushing blow to populations). A quick trip off the Interstate and into the farm roads which lattice the plains will often find a swarm of hawks following huge tillers and mowers, picking off small animals kicked up by the equipment, possibly a behavioral echo of a time when our valley was crossed by herds Tule Elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes) who must also have stirred up small game. As tillers give way to SUVs and alfalfa fields give way to IKEA, the valley is being remade again, this time in an image much less raptor friendly. Citizens are fighting to protect the hawks, but the hordes of dozers and developers will almost certainly prove harder to shake than a mob of angry crows.

American Crows mobbing a Swainson's Hawk. Each image links to a short video clip.

I'm still pissed that the Condors, Brown Bears and Elk were already basically gone from California by the time I was born. A Sacramento Valley without Swainson's would be pitiful.

Next time: a shorter treatment of a much smaller bird.

Sites Cited

"Chrono-Biographical Sketch: William Swainson" by Charles. H. Smith

"Swainson's What?" by Christopher Majka

"'s Friends" by Harry Fuller

When I said slow…

22 May 2006

While I toil away on beautiful bird #2 who better to fill the space but some camera-shy, very tiny weevils:


I found loads on our hollyhocks yesterday but every couple seemed to "disengage" the moment I turned my camera upon them.

Decimating Birds: the long, slow death of a meme. Episode I – El Condor Pasa

17 May 2006

Nearly two weeks ago, Carel tagged me with a "meme" which codes for a list of ten "most beautiful" birds. In spite of my innate aversion to the hokum that is modern memetics, I'm happy for an chance to highlight a decet of my favorite feather-bearers.

Beauty, of course, is a tricky concept. You may find my aesthetic excessively beholden, but I stand by my selections. In accordance with the rules I've be-astrixed the species I've seen in the wild. In disaccordance with the rules I will neglect to select successors, happy to watch this meme die, as I place my hands around its neck and twist.

To further the agony, this list will be serialized.

1) California Condor* (Gymnogyps californianus).

Some may find the selection of bald-headed scavenger to top my list of beautiful birds a bit questionable. Those people have obviously have not seen a California Condor in flight. My astrix however is a bit of stretch. I saw three captive-raised condors at the south rim of the Grand Canyon in the summer of 2000. They were three of more than 49 released in and around the canyon over the past 10 years. Despite the bird's name, fully half of the current "wild" Condor population lives in Arizona. The struggle to maintain this Pleistocene relict1 is not so much an up-hill battle as a giant vertical leap, but seeing an animal with a 3-meter wingspan take to the air provides some needed inspiration at least.

Fossil evidence shows that Condors occupied the canyon in prehistory. Analysis of fossil nests suggests that the Condors there fed largely on "megafauna" (mammoths, camels, horses etc.) and the extinction of many of these large mammals following the arrival of humans some 10,000 years ago may have prefigured the Condor's decline across much of western North America. Stable isotope evidence suggests that Condors living near the coast ("near" being a relative term for an animal that can easily soar hundreds of miles in a day) used the carcasses of marine mammals as a supplemental food source, allowing them to persist long after Condors in the interior disappeared. This study may have implications for the attempt to re-establish a viable Condor population in California.

Condors in the wild today, including those living in the canyon, have developed the detrimental habits of eating lead-tainted carrion and human garbage. No word on whether the trash cans at the Condor Gulch section of Disney's California Adventure theme park are Condor-proof.

It's a tempting to think of the natural world as a perfectly balanced system, perturbed only by the machinations of a problematic bipedal ape. Of course a system in perfect equilibrium is a static system, one in which evolution is unnecessary. The biosphere is actually an oblate spheroid, a historical melange of the hyper-successful, the merely mediocre and the doomed. From this perspective our efforts to save a bird who has become something of an evolutionary anachronism may seem futile. In fact it almost certainly is. But even if our struggles to save Gymnogyps bring only failure, that failure should at least serve as a valuable lesson for our own species which may also fall rapidly out of style in the not-so-distant future.

I've never seen a Condor at the observatory perched atop the mountain behind the house where I grew up, but I have seen a Condor-Lady there. That, however, is another story.

Rigor Vitae has a nice post on condors that touches on many of the same themes.

Episode II of Decimating Birds will treat another endangered bird of prey, but one doing quite a bit better than the Condors.

1Relict is a term for a species which was once widespread and successful (or part of a formerly successful group) but now has a restricted range and population. The concept and term are perhaps not so misleading as the more popular oxymoronic "living fossil", though one person's relict could be another's highly specialized endemic.

Much like the Condor, a number of plant species co-evolved with the Pleistocene megafauna, using them not as a food source but as a seed dispersal vector. Some of these, such as the well-loved avocado (Persea americana) were able to take advantage of the agricultural abilities of the very species that exterminated the ground sloths and gompotheres whose large digestive tracts were so crucial to the plants pre-cultivar survival.

The wonderful recent report of Condors nesting in Big Sur also brought to light a previously unknown relationship with another relict species, Sequoia sempervirens, the Coast Redwood.

Harlequin Histrionics

13 May 2006

Drama excessive?

Harlequin Cabbage Bugs (Murgantia histrionica)

The soldier beetles have an interesting arrangement:

Soldier Beetles (Cantharis sp.)