On birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”

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“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”

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Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

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Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

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We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.

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We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visits several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”

squeeI was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.

My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.

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Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.

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Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:

collapseI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.

Moby_Dick_p510_illustrationIn Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.

The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.

Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:

10838762315_69b85f2e8a_zAnd equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.

Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.

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Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.

Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.

The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.

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Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.

Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:

The_Moth_Snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.

Cleaning splattered bugs off a windshield doesn’t sound like fun; drivers rarely have to do this anymore. But … we now have only a tenth as many insects as we did during the 1980s. Which means a tenth as much food for birds: their populations are falling too. Birds breed more slowly now, for lack of food, and many are killed off because our world sports unnaturally high population densities of predatory cats.

And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.

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Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.

Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.

From Ula Chrobak’s article on noise pollution:

noiseSome plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.

In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:

songsoftreesA tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.

As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.

But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:

In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.

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The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.

And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.