House Finches: The Hollywood – New York Connection

moldyandy_jmlandin

How could we have resisted spying on our new neighbors? Upon their arrival, they would sing by our windows and occasionally tap on the glass. Soon the couples expanded their families, turning each home into a mosh pit of hungry, but oddly cute, ragamuffins. At some point, we came up with nicknames for them (but more about those later).

Our new neighbors were house finches, and they had built nests inside two awnings. During the past few weeks, we had been checking in on them. Not only did the nests afford us the opportunity to intimately watch these birds give rise to a new generation, but we were able to further ponder how a species native to the western parts of North America, especially Mexico,1 had come to call North Carolina and the rest of the eastern United States home. Common today in all fifty states, this bird has a rather remarkable story.

From Tinseltown to Gotham

When Americans settled westward during the nineteenth century, they took a fancy to house finches. As many people today know, these birds love to build nests along human dwellings, which means that trapping them would have been relatively easy, likely resulting in part to their being sold as caged songbirds. Once captured, the creatures could be transported to other places—and indeed they often were. By the 1880s, American travelers had introduced house finches to the Hawaiian Islands.2, 3

In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act banned the human trafficking and sale of house finches. However, the practice continued for decades in the United States. The caged birds were even dubbed “Hollywood finches” by illegal bird traders so as to glamorize the species, making it more exotic and attractive to potential buyers. The “Hollywood” part of the name was a promotional gimmick, for the finches are native to the West Coast but also to other western states, not just Tinseltown and surrounding areas of California.4

As late as 1940, “Hollywood finches” were being sold in New York City. Increased enforcement, though, eventually ended the illegal sale of the birds—but with unintended consequences. Fearing visits by authorities, traders and pet shops ended up releasing their caged house finches into the wild. Eyewitness reports of the birds began circulating in New York City but quickly radiated out to neighboring states.5, 6 Today, house finches are found from northern Florida up to southern parts of Canada, but their rapid expansion has come at a cost.

“Moldies” and “Andies”

Our recent neighbors are likely descendants of those birds released in New York City over seventy-five years ago. In most cases, each clutch gave rise to four youngsters. Covered partially in spots of down, the new hatchlings were not much to look at. My wife jokingly likened their appearance to moldy strawberries. But these hungry creatures quickly grew, sprouting other feathers. By the time the fledglings left their nest, the only visible sign of their down was several unruly sprigs above their eyes, a characteristic reminiscent of the brow hair sported by the late 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney.

To differentiate the birds’ stages, my wife and I often made tongue-and-cheek references to them as “Moldies” and “Andies.” They grew up fast! In a matter of days, the Moldies became Andies. And, boy, did those ravenous bushy-eyed juveniles keep their parents busy. The last of them, though, took wing a couple days ago. For now, our spying eyes have returned to the bird feeders.

Sources:                                                                                                                                                  

  1. Mexico’s connection to the bird is reflected in the species’ scientific name, Haemorhous mexicanus.
  2. Hill, GE. A Red Bird in a Brown Bag: The Function and Evolution of Colorful Plumage in the House Finch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. pp. 21, 224.
  3. Grinnel, J. “The Linnet of the Hawaiian Islands: A Problem in Speciation.” University of California publications in zoology. The University Press. Vol. 7, No. 4 (1911), pp. 179–195.
  4. Hill, GE. pp. 21, 221–222.
  5. Elliott, JJ, Arbib, RS. “Origin and Status of the House Finch in the Eastern United States,” The Auk. Vol. 70, No. 1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 31–37.
  6. Hill, GE. pp. 222–223.
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Staying Warm!

snowygoose

A winter storm struck our area recently, bringing a bit of snow and ice but not nearly as much as expected. The worst part was that for several days temperatures stayed below freezing. What fell stuck around, keeping most people inside. Yet the neighborhood squirrels and birds were undeterred from going about their usual business.

Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, northern cardinals, blue jays, and several species of sparrows were frequent guests at our backyard feeders. There were a few dark-eyed juncos, brown-headed nuthatches, and brown thrashers, too. During an outing, my wife spotted the usual Canada geese at a nearby pond. They all managed just fine, thanks in part to their feathers.

Cuddy’s Duck

Feathers serve many functions, one of the most important in cold environments is helping keep birds warm. And of the types of feathers on birds, the innermost layer (down) is critical for insulation. Much shorter than contour and flight feathers, down has flexibly stubby structures that stick together to trap air and shut in body heat.1, 2 People ages ago, in their struggles to adapt to extreme cold, figured out waterfowl are equipped with down that’s well suited for human use. Today, manufacturers of winter jackets and bedding products rely on down feathers primarily from ducks and geese.

Of all avifauna cherished for their down, the common eider duck remains the gold standard.3 In the United Kingdom, the species is sometimes referred to as “Cuddy’s duck,” in reference to St. Cuthbert, perhaps the first person to decree protections for birds.4 Legend holds that the seventh-century cleric of Great Britain’s Inner Farne Island developed a special bond with the eiders, forbidding the other monks to harm the nesting birds. While killing or eating Cuddy’s ducks would have been off limits, eiderdown “harvesting” could have been acceptable.5 Harvesting often involves collecting feathers from the nests while the birds are there, but the intent is to disturb the ducks as little as possible. In Scandinavian island communities, such practices had been going on for centuries prior to Cuthbert.6 They still continue today, with Iceland being the largest producer.7, 8

The Downside

Unlike harvesting, other methods are far from innocuous. China is the world’s largest provider of down, mostly from ducks and geese, which are raised then slaughtered for food.9 Though feathers are considered a by-product of poultry production, disturbing accounts of live-plucking have been reported.10 The negative publicity has forced the fashion industry to reevaluate its suppliers and offer synthetic options.11, 12

So what can we do to help out? Before purchasing a down jacket or bedding, investigate the manufacturers. As part of your Internet search, check whether they comply with the voluntary Responsible Down Standard (RDS). Note that the nonprofit Textile Exchange offers an online list of certified compliers and extensive information about the down industry.

The other choice, of course, is to just look for down alternatives.

Sources:

  1. Thompson, M. “Everything You Need to Know About Feathers – Feather Anatomy: How Do Feathers Work?” Bird Academy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/2/.
  2. Brakhage, D, St. James, E. “Waterfowl Feathers.” Ducks Unlimited: http://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/understanding-waterfowl-waterfowl-feathers.
  3. “Down and Feather Quality.” Downmark, Canada: http://downmark.com/consumer_information/down_feather_quality.htm.
  4. “St Cuthbert Provided Blueprint for Nature Conservation,” 6/30/2012. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-23048394.
  5. Jenkins, J. “St. Cuthbert’s Ducks,” 10/29/2015. Pilgrimage & England’s Cathedrals project: http://www.pilgrimageandcathedrals.ac.uk/blog/st-cuthbert%E2%80%99s-ducks-1446120484.
  6. “World Heritage and the Arctic,” United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO): http://whc.unesco.org/archive/websites/arctic2008/annex.html.
  7. Morris, J. “Iceland: Grail Trail,” 4/20/2002. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/iceland/724009/Iceland-Grail-trail.html.
  8. “Ask IR,” 1/30/2014. Iceland Review On Line: http://icelandreview.com/stuff/ask-ir/2011/11/10/can-you-tell-me-about-eiderdown-production-iceland?language=en.
  9. Schmitz, H. The Sustainable and Humane Practices of the Down and Feather Industry. International Down and Feather Bureau: http://www.idfb.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/IDFB_White_Paper_6.07.16.pdf.
  10. Gibson, K. “A Foul Truth behind the Down in Pillows and Comforters,” 5/26/2016. MoneyWatch, CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-foul-truth-behind-the-down-in-pillows-and-comforters/.
  11. Milman, O. “‘Ethical down’: Is the Lining of Your Winter Coat Nothing but Fluff?” 1/14/2016. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/14/winter-coat-ethically-produced-down-goose-feathers.
  12. Dobson, J. “The Growing Fashion Trend for Winter Travelers, Cruelty-Free, Vegan and Sustainable,” 12/19/2016. Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jimdobson/2016/12/19/the-growing-fashion-trend-for-winter-travelers-cruelty-free-vegan-and-fabulous/#6e9420a467cb.

 

Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

One of my favorite poems about birds is “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire” by the American poet David Wagoner. It’s a short but powerful piece depicting in psychological imagery the clash of man with nature, specifically in this case a chicken farmer and the hawks he persecutes.

The poem (available from this link to the Poetry Foundation’s website) neither praises nature nor condemns it. Hawks kill animals and consume their flesh not out of choice but due to what the poem’s speaker refers to as an “ancient hunger.” To despise the birds for their livelihood is to misunderstand wildlife. The hawks are part of an ecological balance; they hunt not out of vengeance but from necessity. On the other hand, the farmer who shoots the hawks has options but acts with “nearsighted anger.” There are better ways to protect one’s fowl1 than by killing potential predators and hanging each out like a “bloody coat-of-arms.”

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

Displaying corpses as a deterrent, as the farmer has done in Wagoner’s poem, is known as gibbeting. It’s an ancient and barbaric form of intimidation that’s been inflicted upon both humans and animals alike.  The word generally conjures up morbid images of heads on spikes, impaled bodies, crucifixions, and hangings. Such brutality has occurred throughout history as a stark warning to enemies, criminals, trespassers, and undesirables: Beware, for you could suffer the same fate.

Similar treatment was once widely permitted for birds and other animals considered pests. (Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-eye View of a Changing World are among the most recent books to discuss the horrible practice in Britain’s past of gamekeeper gibbets, vermin poles, and the like.) Landowners and their gamekeeper underlings, for example, used to shoot or trap unwelcome birds, especially raptors, hanging them on a line, fence, or board. Again, the basic idea was that exhibiting the corpses of so-called “vermin” would frighten away their living counterparts so that they would not harm desired game.

The problems with such approaches are many. One is that they are typically ineffective as deterrents. Even when the tactics initially work, the birds quickly adapt and return. This has been the age-old issue with traditional scarecrows. Recent real-world scenarios demonstrate similar results with the effigies of dead birds being used today to ward vultures off water towers2 and Canada geese away from ponds.3 Another problem is that many of the creatures killed and strung up in the past, such as crows, magpies, jays, kites, kestrels, and barn owls, posed little or no threat except to small birds and mammals.4

A Lesson in Empathy

Fortunately, wisdom prevails in Wagoner’s poem when the speaker invokes a dream upon the farmer, one in which he is transformed into a hawk that’s been shot and gibbeted. The turnabout in circumstances seems an almost apt illustration of the assertion from another poet (Percy Shelley) that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination,”5 that is, to feel empathy toward another, one must dream of or imagine actually being that person or creature.6

We human beings do have the capacity for compassionate and reasonable response even when it involves beings outside our own kind, as demonstrated by the wildlife laws and regulations enacted to preserve endangered species and thwart harmful practices. By considering how these creatures live, as well as our mutual and often indirect impact on one other, we are able to reflect then act more skillfully. This process often begins out of a sense of wonder, and it can help us continue to cultivate an appreciation today for all wildlife, including for birds such as those despised in “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire.”

Sources:

  1. Hygnstrom, SE, Craven, SR, “Hawks and Owls” (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Paper 63. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdmhandbook/63.
  2. Drumm, S (Associated Press). “Town Losing Battle with Vultures at Water Tower,” 7/20/2014. The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/20/town-losing-battle-with-vultures-at-water-tower/.
  3. Seamans, TW, Bernhardt, GE. “Response of Canada Geese to a Dead Goose Effigy.” USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 384. Davis, CA: Univ. of Calif., Davis, 2004. pp. 104–106. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdm_usdanwrc/384.
  4. Watkins, MG. “The Keeper’s Gibbet.” Longman’s magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 40 (Feb. 1886). London: Longman, Green and Co. pp. 430–438. ProQuest, 2007.
  5. The nineteenth-century British Romantic poet Percy Shelley writes, “A man, [sic] to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” (See Shelley, PB. A Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. 487–488.)
  6. Obviously Shelley speaks of men in A Defense of Poetry, but the sentiment he expresses could apply to women, as well as to animals and other life-forms. After all, in his essay “On Love,” he writes of “the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists.” (See Shelley, PB. “On Love.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. pp. 473–474.)

 

Owl Cafés

owlcafe

Looking for a date? A close and personal opportunity to gaze into the big eyes of some cutie?

Don’t expect much of a conversationalist. However, he or she may be willing to clasp your wrist. The possibility of posing for a picture or two is not out of the question either (but sorry, no flash photography). Did I mention that this acquaintance can be flighty?

Oh, and one more thing. Visits can get a little messy. More on that later. Apparently, lots of strings are attached—literally—in the owl cafés of Japan.

Who-hooo Gives a Hoot?

In the past few years Japan has spawned many animal-themed cafés, including those dedicated to goats (1), rabbits, goats, cats, and lizards (2). As for birds, parrots (3), falcons (4), and penguins (5) have become part of the scene. Yet none compare to owls, a sensation all their own. That trend has garnered attention from major news organizations, inspired visits from bloggers, and triggered criticism from wildlife conservation groups.

The fascination that residents of cities like Tokyo have toward owls, of course, is understandable. (London, UK, had its own controversial stint last year.)  In most cases, urbanization and technology have widened the rift between people and nature. Yet the human urge to reconnect persists. Owls are appealing because they paradoxically embody aspects that are both accessible and remote.

In fact, few animals seem as simultaneously familiar and strange as these avian creatures. On the one hand, owls are recognizable to just about anybody, even folks with only a cursory knowledge of birds. The frontal setting of the eyes and surrounding facial disks give the creatures’ heads a slight human appearance. Nevertheless, owls also seem exotic and mysterious. That most species are nocturnal and hence hidden from view must largely account for this. Their amazing head-turning abilities—a range of 270 degrees or three-quarters of a circle—and strange assortment of cries have to be factors as well. Add, too, the representations of owls throughout popular culture, most notably Harry Potter, and in mythology, including that of Japan’s own Ainu people (6).

Too Close for Comfort

At the owl cafés, the birds are tethered in dimly lit establishments that serve beverages. Visits last around an hour, with the opportunity to usually get close to a more than one fukurō (the Japanese word for “owl”). Supervision is customary. After all, unlike many birds including other raptors, owls do not have an extensive history of domestication.

Situations can get messy, so visitors have to be mindful of more than just the creatures’ sharp beaks and talons. Owls poop whenever the mood strikes. This means that coffee stains are the least of one’s worries. Some visitors seem to take the splatterings in stride, reporting that getting dinged by droppings is considered good luck (7). Wow, talk about marketing!

Of course, that people in metropolitan areas are excited about wildlife is great. However, there are much better alternatives than these cafés. In the United States, where for legal reasons owl cafés do not exist, raptor centers are a good option. Another possibility is going on a nature hike at dusk with friends or while camping. Why not see these amazing creatures without any artificial barriers at all? Make a “date” to hear and glimpse an owl in its own habitat.

Sources:

  1. Opar, A. “Japanese Cafés Use Live Owls to Attract Customers”, 11/11/2013. Audubon magazine: audubon.org/news/japanese-cafes-use-live-owls-attract-customers
  2. McKirdy, E. “Night Life: Owl Cafés are Tokyo’s Latest Animal Café Craze”, 12/10/2015. CNN: cnn.com/2015/12/09/travel/tokyo-akiba-fukuro-owl-cafe/.
  3. Kugan, J. “Owl Cafés in Japan are the Latest Hoot!”, 8/7/2014. The Star Online: http://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/features/2014/08/07/owl-cafes-in-japan-are-the-latest-hoot/.
  4. Lombardi, L., Associated Press. “Owl Café a Hoot in Tokyo”, 2/1/2015. The Columbus Dispatch: dispatch.com/content/stories/travel/2015/02/01/1-hoo-knew-that-interacting-with-owls-would-be-a-hoot.html.
  5. Opar, A.
  6. Morris, D. Owl. London: Reaktion Books, 2009. pp. 57–58.
  7. Siese, A. “I Went to a Japanese Owl Café and Felt my Soul Take Wing”, 1/31/2016. The Daily Dot. http://www.dailydot.com/lol/japan-owl-cafe/.

How One Man Forever Changed How We See the Albatross

albatross

Chances are you’ve never glimpsed an albatross in the wild. What you likely know about this bird instead persists from other sources, namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a widely influential poem based loosely on a historical maritime event.

One of Literature’s Greatest Symbols

Perhaps no bird resonates more as a literary symbol than the albatross. Since these creatures spend the majority of their time at sea, people rarely see them. The same cannot be said of crows, ravens, owls, and hawks—birds with a rich symbolic tradition as well—but who are far from elusive. The scarcity of sightings is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the albatross’s enduring mystique.

For many of us, at least in Europe and North America, the thought of this sea bird instantly conjures associations with Coleridge’s famous late-18th-century poem. Again, this may be due to the fact that many of us don’t have opportunities to see an albatross for ourselves outside of photographs and documentary films. Oddly enough, even the poet who impacted the way so many people view this creature today never actually saw one! (1, 2)

Yet Coleridge’s poem has continued to shape our cultural view of the albatross as a benign emblem of nature transgressed. Not surprisingly, we come across references and allusions to the British Romantic poet’s albatross later in other major literary works, such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake” (3). Coleridge’s albatross, thus, remains larger than life, continuing to live on in our collective imagination. Yet it’s also a symbol as relevant today, if not more so, than when first introduced over two centuries ago.

The Poet’s Cautionary Tale

The power of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” lies in how it exists as an amalgam of so many things. A story within a story about a sailor’s incredible journey, the poem takes the reader back in time with its archaic language to a cold, remote location near Antarctica. There, in narrative verse evocative of a ballad, we encounter superstition and haunting supernatural imagery, punctuated with a strong moral made possible by a bird metaphor.

After weeks of suffering through a storm, the ancient mariner and his crew spot an albatross through the fog. Its appearance strangely coincides with the dense clouds of smoke-like vapor. Welcomed for days by the sailors with “food and play”, the bird lingers along with the ship. However, as the troublesome fog endures, the old grey-bearded sailor eventually grows exasperated. Blaming the albatross for the horrible weather conditions, he decides to take down the bird with his crossbow. Unknowingly with this act, the mariner unleashes problems unlike any encountered before.

The old man of the sea may have been right about the albatross’s link to the fog, but he didn’t anticipate that the creature was also responsible somehow for the breeze that once filled his ship’s sails. As the winds stall, the crew’s morale falters. The sailors eventually turn on the ancient mariner (“what evil looks / Had I from old and young”), as if forcing him to wear the slain bird (“Instead of the Cross the Albatross / About my neck was hung”) (4, 5). And later, plagues ensue. Only after a change of heart towards other non-human forms of life around him and many, many travails at sea, does redemption at last come. But such salvation has its limits, for that same change of heart must also occur in all of humanity—the reason why the mariner continues to share his story.

Coleridge’s message is quite clear. Any reader could easily take his poem as an environmental cautionary tale: be warned that tampering with nature for a small group’s narrow-minded, selfish interests can provoke unintended consequences.

Based on an Actual Event?

One important source of inspiration for Coleridge included the account of Captain George Shelvocke’s early 18th-century global expedition, a long voyage beset with numerous problems. Early on, Shelvocke’s ship, the Speedwell, was separated during a storm from his larger companion vessel. By the time the skipper’s vessel had advanced beyond the Le Mair Strait, near the southern tip of South America and not far from the Antarctic Peninsula, the crew faced a horde of challenges: frigid temperatures, harsh tempests, and a lack of available fish (6).

At this point, Shelvocke recounts how his second captain, Simon Hatley, decided to shoot a black albatross. This poor lone bird had been deemed an omen, targeted for both its color and hovering by the ship for several days (7). Interestingly, Hatley seemed to have a propensity for taking to the seas on voyages that somehow would later inspire major works of literature. The Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe notes from Robert Fowke’s The Real Ancient Mariner, a biography of Hatley, that the sailor oddly enough also had connections to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (8).

Although “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” came later—in 1798 as part of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of verse from both Coleridge and his friend William Wordsworth—Hatley’s role in the poem was more crucial than in those earlier works by Swift and Defoe. Also, Wordsworth, who had been recently reading Shelvocke’s account, seems to have been the one to have suggested the incident to Coleridge during one of their walks (9). As ornithologists Roger Lederer and Noah Strycker have noted, Coleridge never encountered a living albatross (10, 11). It’s ironic that the poet, perhaps best known for his connection primarily to this one particular bird, never actually got to see his subject gliding in all its glory over the ocean.

“A sadder and a wiser man”

Due to the popularity of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, many people today think that killing an albatross was universally considered bad luck by sailors, a surefire way to curse your voyage. But this was definitely not the case. For some seafarers, yes, harming an albatross was taboo. For others, though, killing these birds was far from prohibited, as demonstrated by Shelvocke’s account, and also by the 1857 French poem “L’Albatros” (“The Albatross”) by Charles Baudelaire. Reasons for taking down these birds included superstition, but also practical matters, as their meat could be eaten, certain bones could be made into stems for smoking pipes, and their foot webbings could be turned into tobacco pouches (12, 13). With one poem, Coleridge eventually revamped the general public’s perception of this elusive bird and our relationship with it.

In his book Birds in Literature, scholar Leonard Lutwack discusses the popular theme involving the “wanton killing of sacramental or totemic animals” and the “atonement” necessary for this aggression against nature (14). It’s a motif that occurs in several works about birds, in plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, as well as in other poems such as Robert Penn Warren’s “Red-Tail Hawk and the Pyre of Youth” and Gwen Harwood’s “Father and Child” (15). Lutwack notes all of these and more, including several works by Coleridge that revisit the theme most poignantly expressed in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

“Both Coleridge and Melville,” Lutwack explains, “are stating the ecological principle that our survival depends on our recognition of the worth and interrelatedness of all living things” (16). That message, as many of us continue to discover, is one of growing significance in a world with the decline and disappearance of many species. Fortunately, the albatross is still around today, and lives as a poetic reminder that not only conservationists—but all of us—have lots more work to do.

Sources:

  1. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 13.
  2. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. p. 259.
  3. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. pp. 178, 180-181.
  4. Coleridge, S.T. “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”. Wordsworth, W., Coleridge, S.T., Owen, W.J.B. (editor). Lyrical Ballads. Second Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. pp. 7-32.
  5. Coleridge, S.T. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The Literature Network, Jalic Inc.: http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/646/.
  6. Shelvocke, G. A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea: Performed in a Private Expedition during the War, which broke out with Spain, in the Year 1718. Second Edition. London: Printed for W. Innys and J. Richardson, M & T Longman, 1757, pp. 75-76.
  7. Shelvocke, G. pp. 75-76.
  8. Thorpe, V. “Uncovered: the man behind Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner”, 1/30/2010. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/31/man-behind-coleridges-ancient-mariner.
  9. Coleridge, S.T. p. 135.
  10. Lederer, R. p. 13.
  11. Strycker, N. p. 259.
  12. Barwell, G. Albatross. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2014. pp. 59, 95-96.
  13. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. 214.
  14. Lutwack, L. pp. 177-178.
  15. Lutwack, L. pp. 181-186.
  16. Lutwack, L. p. 180.

Happy Birthday, John James Audubon

Audubon

One of America’s first great success stories began 230 years ago today. Back then Audubon’s rise to fame was far from certain and definitely not easy. Viewing him as a controversial figure, the scientific community in his adopted homeland even initially rejected his work. Only due to his perseverance and talent was the man whose name today is synonymous with all things bird-related able to secure his rightful place in history.

Born on a Caribbean Plantation

On April 26, 1785, our hero’s unlikely story started in a French colony in an area known today as Haiti. An illegitimate child born to the owner of a sugar plantation, the boy initially resided in the Caribbean. Within a few years, though, his father brought him to France. There he began drawing. Audubon later in life attributed several childhood experiences with his passion for birds, one of which oddly enough involved a parrot-killing monkey. Reportedly, the young Audubon wailed for the dead pet bird, which was later “buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one” (1).

Immigrating to the United States, where he soon married and became a citizen, Audubon continued his lifelong fascination of studying and illustrating birds. His travels took him through much of the continental United States, including parts of New England, the Ohio River Valley, and the Louisiana territory. He interacted with the Native Americans of the frontier, especially the Osage tribesmen (2). On one occasion while hunting a great horned owl, Audubon reported falling into “quicksand up to my armpits” but was pulled free by his companions (3, 4). Like other ornithologists of that day, he often had to kill his specimens. Instead of photography—cameras had not been invented yet—he had to rely on his shotguns (5, 6).

Continuing to perfect his artistic skills, Audubon developing a special grid-board with wires for mounting his avian specimens in life-like poses. The belted kingfisher was the first bird he painted via this new system, a method that he would eventually share with other ornithologists (7). His first successful depictions of birds in flight were of a whippoorwill and nighthawk (8). Throughout his lifetime, Audubon illustrated at least 440 species of birds, according to an estimate made in William Souder’s Under a Wild Sky (9). Among these creatures, the wild turkey ranked among his favorites, its image used for his own personal seal (10, 11). Known primarily today for his paintings of birds, Audubon also illustrated other animals (12). He even made a living during some of his travels by working on portraits (13).

A Few Missteps

Richard Rhodes’s John James Audubon: The Making of an American and Souder’s book, both published in 2004, are wonderful sources for an in-depth view of Audubon’s triumphs and struggles. Much of the information cited here is available in those two biographies. From these books, one can easily sense that Audubon was a man of remarkable expertise, talent, ingenuity, and fortitude. Yet, all these traits beg an important question: Why was he forced to seek endorsement and financial assistance in Britain to publish his magnum opus?

Part of the problem likely involved Audubon’s personality. He was known on occasion to stretch the truth. He frequently misrepresented his origins, but understandably so due to social stigma and legal issues (14, 15). Other statements he made, though, seem less reasonable, such as his dubious claims about receiving instruction from the French portrait painter Jacques-Louis David and hunting with Daniel Boone (16, 17). Some of his field studies and accounts drew ridicule for misinformation, in particular those regarding rattlesnake behavior (18) and his claim that turkey vultures cannot smell (19, 20). While such circumstances are notable blemishes, one must keep in mind that reputable ornithologists of that time period were not immune to mistakes.

Like all great men and women in history, Audubon had his share of flaws. For instance, he and his wife for a few years owned several slaves (21). As noted above, he may have been dishonest at times. Some people, too, may find fault in that he killed hundreds of birds to complete his drawings. Let’s not overlook the fact, though, that he also kept several as pets (22), and that he was concerned about the effects of industrialization on avian habitats (23). But most importantly, besides being the foremost expert on American birds in his day, Audubon was a pioneering artist.

Success First in Britain then America

Some influential people in U.S. ornithological circles refused initially to acknowledge the value of his work, most notably, George Ord, who held prominent positions in the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Believing Audubon lacked the necessary integrity and aesthetic style for science illustrations, Ord and others within the establishment treated the outsider with disdain. Most likely, Ord, who had played a role in the late Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, felt Audubon a personal threat (25). No such resistance occurred in Britain, where Audubon was able to secure the means to print volumes from 1827 through 1838 of his Birds of America, a masterpiece of unequaled quality and scope.

Unlike previous illustrations of ornithological specimens from the United States, Audubon painted his birds in life-sized proportions. He also chose to represent his subjects interacting with one another and their environment. And, as a special thank-you to his supporters, Audubon named several species of birds for international ornithologist-friends, such as Charles-Lucien Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), William Swainson, and William MacGillivray (26).

Later, praises and admiration followed in his adopted homeland. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest and most respected conservation groups in the world, was named in his honor. In fact, digital reproductions of Audubon’s work are featured on the group’s website. Also, several historic sites in the U.S. share his namesake, including John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky.

Sources:

  1. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 4-5, 21-22.
  2. Rhodes, R. pp. 82-83.
  3. Rhodes, R. p. 116.
  4. Souder, W. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America. New York: North Point Press, 2004. p. 147.
  5. Rhodes, R. pp. 11, 73-74.
  6. Souder, W. pp. 97-99.
  7. Souder, W. P. 71.
  8. Rhodes, R. pp. 101-102.
  9. Souder, W. p. 286.
  10. Souder, W. p. 245.
  11. Rhodes, R. p. 273.
  12. Rhodes, R. pp. 240-241, 262-263, 335.
  13. Rhodes, R. pp. 145, 216.
  14. Rhodes, R. pp. 4-5, 315.
  15. Souder, W. pp. 11, 19-21.
  16. Rhodes, R. pp. 315, 346.
  17. Souder, W. pp. 11, 264-266.
  18. Souder, W. pp. 223-225.
  19. Souder, W. p. 219.
  20. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 53-54, 62-63.
  21. Rhodes, R. p. 115.
  22. Rhodes, R. pp. 117-118.
  23. Rhodes, R. p. 280.
  24. Rhodes, R. pp. 221-223.
  25. Souder, W. pp. 286-287.

Oh, the Wonder—and Ugh, the Disgust!

starling_JML

People seem to either really like or loathe starlings. Videos of these creatures’ aerial maneuvers have become Internet sensations. On the other hand, agriculture officials frequently regard the birds as avis non grata, going so far as to employ mass extermination measures in the United States. What’s with both all the love and so much hate?

Those Amazing Murmurations

A murmuration, the name for a group of starlings, is an amazing sight, something my wife likens to a moving sculpture in the sky. “Murmuration” is also the title of a short online viral video posted a few years ago by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith. In their footage, the young women are paddling in a canoe before coming across a sudden swarm of starlings. Their recorded close encounter immerses viewers in nature’s serendipitous beauty, each sweeping movement a spectacle of wonder. Watching the feathered formations bound in flight over Ireland’s River Shannon must have been something special. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, we can partake in their experience vicariously.

“A Bird Ballet”, Neels Castillon’s short film from Marseille, France, evokes similar feelings of amazement. Both his and the “Murmuration” videos are professionally edited and include music. Occasionally, one hears the wowed responses of those shooting the footage. However, the rhythmic sky dance of starlings is so mesmerizing that I prefer watching with the sound muted. No enhancements necessary!

There’s nothing like seeing starlings fly en masse. In the poem “Starlings in Winter”, Mary Oliver refers to the birds as “acrobats”. She marvels at how “they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented, then closes again …” (1). Of course, she’s just one of many poets that these birds have fascinated. Once while watching a murmuration during a coach ride, Samuel Taylor Coleridge compared the shapeshifting formations to “smoke” and “mist”, always in flux, “… expanding or contracting, thinning or condensing … thickening, deepening, blackening!” (2).

Thousands of these creatures engage in ever-changing flight maneuvers somehow without getting tangled and crashing—that’s the spectacular thing about murmurations! How do these birds do this? In the 2014 book The Thing with Feathers, ornithologist Noah Strycker devotes an entire chapter to starling flocks. There he discusses how a collection of the birds form a magnetic system while in flight, and why the number seven is significant in this process. Due to these discoveries, researchers can now generate models that successfully predict the aerial patterns of a murmuration based on its size (3).

For Many, Still Avis Non Grata                                         

Strycker touches as well on humans’ love-hate relationship with starlings. He writes about the “Murmuration” video that garnered millions of views in just a matter of days, and also of Google search results easily confirming starlings as “America’s most hated bird” (4). Only introduced to North America in 1890, the European starling ranks today among the ten most populous avian species on the continent. With millions migrating across the country, starlings are generally regarded as an invasive pest. Strycker questions whether the birds deserve their negative reputation (5). Nevertheless, for nearly 50 years, a pesticide has been employed to poison these birds. It’s a practice that continues to this day.

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that multitudes of dead starlings had been discovered in the northern parts of Nevada. At first, many residents were uncertain as to what had happened to the birds. People learned later, though, that the United States Department of Agriculture had used DRC-1339, a chemical sometimes referred to as Starlicide, to kill them. In that article, an official provides the rationale for the baiting and extermination of the starlings: “Bird feces can contaminate food and water sources, putting cattle at risk for salmonella and E. coli infections if ingested” (6). In short, the measure was performed for the sake of public safety.

The U.S. has used this chemical since 1967 to kill starlings. Once ingested, the agent quickly damages a bird’s heart and kidneys, often resulting in death within one to three days. Officials have also employed DRC-1339 to control populations of pigeons, mynas, gulls, blackbirds, ravens, crows, and other birds (7, 8, 9). Proponents of the compound tout that its toxicity is quickly degraded by exposure to sunlight and moisture. Also, most raptors, with the exception of owls, are not sensitive to the chemical. So birds of prey, as well as many mammals, that may consume the dead starlings are deemed safe. Cats, however, are at risk, and research indicates that the chemical can be “moderately toxic to fish” (10).

A Balancing Act

Several animal organizations continue to frown upon employing DRC-1339 baits. Both the National Audubon Society (11, 12) and the Humane Society of the United States (13, 14) have been critical of its use. Despite claims that DRC-1339 is relatively safe, questions remain, especially regarding whether such mass-killing measures are warranted. And the debate looks to continue, especially with the recent bad publicity in Nevada. In the balance hangs the considerate treatment of wildlife on one hand and the wellbeing of cattle and crops on the other.

Starlings are marvelous beings, easily adapting to and flourishing in new environments. While their feathered formations awe many folks, the birds still provoke fear and revulsion in others. The dynamics of how humanity perceives these creatures persist in closely bound, twisting motions just like their flight patterns. Acrobats indeed.

Sources:

  1. Oliver, M. “Starlings in Winter”. Best Poems Encyclopedia: http://www.best-poems.net/mary_oliver/poem-13085.html.
  2. Dee, T. Year on the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life with Birds. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2009. p. 113.
  3. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 43-48.
  4. Strycker, N. pp. 29-30, 39-40.
  5. Strycker, N. pp. 40-43.
  6. Griffith, M. “Feds Under Fire for Mass Killings of Starlings in Nevada”, 3/24/2015. Associated Press. MSN.com: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/feds-under-fire-for-mass-killings-of-starlings-in-nevada/ar-AA9WqTh?ocid=AARDHP.
  7. Feare, C.J. “The use of Starlicide® in preliminary trials to control invasive common myna Acridotheres tristis populations on St. Helena and Ascension islands, Atlantic Ocean”. Conservation Evidence (online journal), Vol. 7, 2010. pp. 52-61: http://www.conservationevidence.com/collection/7.
  8. “Compound DRC-1339 Concentrate—Staging Areas”. Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339StagingAreas.pdf.
  9. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide)”. Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339Starlicide.pdf.
  10. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide)”. Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001.
  11. Jonsson, P. “Bye Bye Blackbird: USDA acknowledges a hand in one mass bird death”, 1/20/2010. The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2011/0120/Bye-Bye-Blackbird-USDA-acknowledges-a-hand-in-one-mass-bird-death.
  12. Williams, T. “Red Baiting”, 11/2001. Audubon Magazine (online archive): http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0111.html.
  13. “What to Do About Crows”, 10/3/2009. The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/crows/tips/solving_problems_crows.html.
  14. Griffith, M.