Saturday, November 22, 2014

This week in birds - #135

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

The Whooping Cranes of the last natural-occurring wild flock of the birds are returning to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast from their summer home in Wood Buffalo Park in Canada. They will be with us until around April next year when they will head north once more. Meanwhile, conservationists continue efforts to increase the numbers of a flock they have been working to establish that migrates from Wisconsin to Florida and back each year, as well as a non-migratory flock in Louisiana. The hope is to have healthy flocks in different areas so that the species is somewhat protected from a catastrophic event at any one site.

A hazard faced by any migrating bird, especially large birds like the cranes or like the Trumpeter Swan, is that some people like to blaze away at them with their guns. The Trumpeter Swan is not as endangered as the the Whooping Crane, but it is still pretty rare. Even so, every year a number of them get shot in migration, either accidentally or on purpose.


Despite protests from environmentalists and opposition from the governor of Virginia, the federal government has decided to allow fracking in the largest national forest on the east coast, the George Washington National Forest. I do not think the forest's namesake would be pleased.


Here's a weird one for you. On Marion Island, a sub-Antarctic island that is home to fur seals and King Penguins, scientists have observed some fur seals attempting to copulate with penguins and in some cases apparently succeeding. They speculate that the sexual harassment may be the behavior of a frustrated, sexually inexperienced seal. Or it could be an aggressive, predatory act or a playful one that turned sexual. The truth is they don't know. It should be noted that the fur seals also sometimes eat the penguins. 


Wars have an impact far beyond the lives which they destroy. There is also the damage that they do to the environment. The deadliest war in our country's history, the Civil War, took place on our territory and has had detrimental and long term effects on our ecosystem. This is true of all wars. The countries where they occurred still deal with the environmental consequences of World Wars I and II, Vietnam, Iraq, and so on and so on and so on. 


New Yorkers buried under five or six feet of snow right now might find it a little difficult to look on the bright side. Nevertheless, there is a bright side to winter. It is a great pest control system. Last winter's polar vortex weather did serious damage to many invasive species of insect pests.


Environmentalists have long lobbied to have the Gunnison Sage Grouse given protection as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. Well, this week they got half a loaf. The bird was given partial protection as "threatened" but not the full protection of endangered. Meanwhile a decision is still to be made on the status of the Greater Sage Grouse.


The hardest working bees of North America may well be our many species of native bees. The Mother Earth Network has some extraordinary facts about these bees


Scientists have been looking at the genetic recipe for making feathers and they have found that it is not just birds who have these genes. In fact, human beings have most of them as well!


Starfish on the west coast of North America are wasting away. They literally seem to melt. The condition is called starfish wasting syndrome and scientists now believe that it is caused by a virus. It is a virus which may find a friendlier environment in the warming waters of an ocean affected by global climate change. 


Exotic species have often been introduced to the continent through New York City. This has been true of the European Starling and the House Sparrow, to name two birds that have been extraordinarily destructive to native species. But it is also true of such things as the fungus that killed practically all the American chestnut trees and an invasive grass called cheatgrass. And too many others to list.


Some bats in Africa have been implicated in harboring the virus that causes ebola, but that doesn't mean that all bats or even most bats are vectors for the virus.


People who try to help the declining Monarch butterfly by planting milkweed should really try to plant native milkweeds rather than the tropical variety. Apparently, using the tropical milkweed may throw off the Monarch's inner calendar which helps it to migrate. Who knew? This is a real problem for gardeners because all I see in the nurseries around here is the tropical milkweed plants. I suspect that is true in many areas of the country.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Washed Up

Poor Simon's Cat. All he wants is a nap, but the world conspires against him. I know just how he feels.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Who won the Civil War?"

These are college students in Texas, USA. This is just sad.

I'm speechless. Really...just speechless.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Home truths about quackery

We live in an age of false equivalencies - the assumption that all opinions are equally valid. We see the most egregious examples of this with the media and its "he said, she said" coverage of events.

They even do it with things like climate change, where deniers are routinely given the same weight as the overwhelming mass of scientific opinion.

They do it with vaccination policy when they give time and space to the anti-vaxxers who make the discredited claim that vaccinations are responsible for autism.

They do it in covering the obstructionism that is rampant in Washington when they pretend that both political parties are equally to blame.

The equating of science-based critical thinking with quackery is surely one of the most disheartening signs of the times in which we live. But at least it gives the comics plenty of material.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (15) (A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers)The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (15) by Knopf Canada
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Precious Ramotswe's ruminations while driving her tiny white van around Gaborone and seeing a cow and calf standing under a tree:

We could stand under trees too, and look about us, and think about things. Not only could we do that, she thought, but we should. It was called meditation - she knew that - but she did not consider that we needed a special word for standing under a tree and thinking. People had been doing that well before meditation was invented. There were many things, she reflected, which we had been doing as long as anybody could remember and which had suddenly been taken up by fashionable enthusiasts and given an unnecessary new name. Mma Ramotswe had been invited to a Pilates class in a local church hall; it would be of great benefit to her, she had been told. But when she had gone to the class and seen what Pilates was, she had realised that she did not need to pay fifty pula a session to do the things that she had been doing for years anyway; lifting and pushing and stretching your muscles was nothing new; she did all of those things when she worked in her garden...  - from the chapter "Pilates With Cake." 

Of course, we don't read No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency stories for their "mysteries." We read them for the indefatigable good humor and faith in human nature (especially Botswanan human nature) expressed in the philosophizing of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the agency's founder. Philosophizing which often occurs as she is traveling the roads of Gaborone in her faithful little van.

The mysteries investigated by this unique agency are always the everyday mysteries of human life in Gaborone, Botswana. This time a kindhearted brother and sister request Mma Ramotswe's assistance in helping a woman, who is supposedly suffering from amnesia, to find out who she is. They claim that she turned up at their home without any identification and that she could remember nothing about herself. But when Mma Ramotswe and her new co-director Grace Makutsi visit the home, Precious notices a clue which leads her to think that the story may be a bit more complicated.

Meanwhile, Grace Makutsi seems to have been energized by her new role of motherhood and by being "promoted" to co-director of the detective agency. She is ready to take on new challenges. She wants to become an entrepreneur and in the pursuit of that goal, she decides to open a restaurant with the help of her husband Phuti's financial backing. In inimitable Makutsi fashion, she names her restaurant "The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe" because she believes that will attract Gaborone's most fashionable diners. She has much to learn about running a restaurant, hiring and managing a staff, and ensuring good service to her customers. Disaster threatens but friends come to her rescue.  

Next door to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors is also facing some hard decisions. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni must finally acknowledge that he is only able to pay one apprentice mechanic. Thus, one of the young men who has worked for him for many years and is like part of the family must be let go. And that young man does not take his dismissal well. Consequently, Precious makes a decision of her own - she will take on an "apprentice detective"!

This fifteenth entry in the series has all the elements that we fans have come to treasure over the years. Primarily, it has the sympathetic, loving character of the traditionally built proud woman of Botswana Precious Ramotswe. Spending time with her once again as she ponders over why a woman would pretend to have lost her memory, how to tactfully help a proud friend who perhaps does not realize what trouble she is in, and how to offer a way forward to a feckless but good-hearted young man who seems to have run out of options is like being warmly embraced once again by a dear friend after a long separation.

Alexander McCall Smith's writing in these books seems absolutely effortless. The stories seem to flow organically. I suspect that that illusion of effortlessness is just that - an illusion - and that he works quite hard at getting the atmosphere and the iconic speech patterns of the characters just right. As a devoted reader, I am glad that he chooses to make that effort.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Poetry Sunday: A Child's Calendar

"November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."-   Emily Dickinson

Leave it to the Belle of Amherst to put things very succinctly.

John Updike had a gift for putting things succinctly and simply as well. He did this very notably in his book, A Child's Calendar. Let's see what he had to say about this time of year.

from A Child's Calendar

by John Updike

The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain


The trees in my yard are not quite stripped of all their leaves yet, but they are disrobing fast. Even so, each season, each month of the year has its "certain loveliness" and that is true of November as well. As we wait for that first killing frost, we enjoy the gray morning mists and the last colorful blooms of the autumn and anticipate the starker shapes of December.