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Earthling

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  1. Today, Sept. 1, marks the anniversary of a dark day in the history of life on our planet and in the history of our species. Sept. 1, 1914 is generally considered the day that the passenger pigeon went extinct. This is the day that the last known passenger pigeon (a female named Martha who was housed at the Cincinnati Zoo) died. For those who are unfamiliar with the story of this species, the passenger pigeon once existed in incomprehensible abundance and was probably the most numerous bird ever—for example, a 19th century naturalist observed an immense mega-flock that he estimated to consist of 2.2 billion pigeons! Yet, in an unprecedented glut of greed and overexploitation humans drove this impossibly numerous species to extinction, and did so essentially within a mere 3 decade period. This is a hugely significant episode, particularly in the important lessons it conveys regarding the impact of our species on the other life on our planet. However, despite the extreme magnitude of this episode it languishes in relative obscurity. It’s surprising how poorly known this story is among the general human populace. For those who are unfamiliar with the story of the passenger pigeon and would like to learn more I highly recommend the book The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction by A. W. Schorger. Though somewhat dated, this is an amazing work. Schorger’s research on this extinct species was quite remarkable and he uncovered and included many startling, mind-boggling firsthand accounts. For an excellent, more recent book on the passenger pigeon I also highly recommend A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg. In addition to these books I recommend the DVD documentary about the passenger pigeon titled From Billions to None (this is the documentary that aired on PBS stations in the U.S.).
  2. One of the coolest instances of mimicry that I’ve heard is that of a Steller’s jay that mimicked the call of a red-tailed hawk. What was particularly intriguing about this was one of the circumstances in which I heard this jay (which I jokingly referred to as a red-tailed Steller’s jay) voice this mimicked red-tail call. At the time, there was a small building where I generally started my work day early in the morning on which moths and some other insects perched on the wall around some porch lights and a few other lights situated on the building. Ever the opportunists, the jays and individuals of a few other avian species typically began their daily foraging off by going to this building and picking these insects off the wall (in this case, the early bird caught the moth instead of the proverbial worm). On a number of occasions, it was during these early morning feeding periods on the perched moths that this jay voiced its red-tailed calls—and it gave the impression that it deliberately voiced these calls in order to scare the other birds away and thus reduce the competition vying for these moths. Of course, corvids in general are known for their intelligence so the possibility that this jay did make these calls with this intent does seem to be within the cognitive abilities of jays. Regardless of whether or not this was a deliberate strategy, it did tend to reduce the competition.
  3. Great satire but sadly all too true as exemplified by the infamous Central Park incident. As has been particularly made clear lately, racism has been and still is a huge problem in the U.S. Thus, as birding becomes more and more popular among the black community it may be necessary for black parents to recite these 9 rules to their kids along with "THE TALK" about how best to behave in order to survive an encounter with police.
  4. For those looking for something other than a bird ID book, something that transports you into the daily lives of individual birds then you might consider checking out the book Life and Loss Among the Reeds: A Tale of Two Pied-Billed Grebe Families by Andrew Abate. It’s a unique and original behavioral study about the chick rearing process of the pied-billed grebe that closely follows two PB grebe families through their chick rearing periods. The studies are remarkably detailed. They contain daily documentation of the chick rearing periods (recorded in journal form) so the story of these families can be followed chronologically. Also, each family member was identified as a distinct individual. Thus, the reader can come to know each individual and its personal story can be followed within the larger picture. This is undoubtedly the most detailed description and account of the chick rearing process for this species and perhaps for any avian species. And it’s about time that this fascinating, widely distributed little grebe received some focused attention within the extensive trove of avian books! (The book is available on Amazon.com)
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