Tag Archives: place

Fallout From a Fatal Gift

There’s this eerie sound that eucalyptus trees make when the wind is passing through the spaces between their belts of peeling bark. It’s not like any other tree I know of; when eucalypts talk, I hear the metal gate in front of the house my father grew up in, creaking on its hinges. That gate, along with the house and its porch and the purple and white periwinkles that grew in its garden, were all destroyed years ago to make way for new condos; but when I was little I used to stand on its bars and hitch the thing back and forth with all my weight. I was a very quiet child, and it was as much the creak as the swinging I enjoyed: a small assertion that I could disrupt the world.

I was waiting for something else to disrupt the world early this Saturday morning, lying on my back on a ridgetop in the Berkeley hills and listening to the eucalypts blowing in the oceanic wind:

We call them falling stars, as if they simply floated down like ash from someone’s cigarette late in the quiet night—as if they did what fond hearts do in love. We call them shooting stars, and this is a less gentled name; but if the incandescent streaks we see are missiles, who is hurling them?

They also call us.

It was the Geminids I’d come to answer at 4:45am. Forty-five minutes earlier I’d woken to my alarm, made myself a thermos of hot, sweet tea, petted a confused cat on the head, and driven up to Wildcat Canyon. Though city lights washed out the sky, the night was cloudless, fogless, and as dark as I could hope for it to be, since I had waited till the waxing moon had set like some great, aging cinder to the west. I was alone. Was quite awake. And waiting. God, I wanted the whole damn thing to fall.

It didn’t, but for over an hour and a half I watched pieces of the firmament break loose and arc across the sky, and was entirely happy to be where I was. One was a tremendous fireball that caught me in mid-step even before I’d settled down, bright as a sparkler and leaving a white trail behind it that remained for nearly a full minute afterwards.

Most were quite clear, but with short-lived trajectories; some were so faint they whispered in the corners of my eyes and on another night I might have talked myself into believing I’d imagined them. They came every few minutes, and I’m sure I missed a few pouring tea into a cup and sipping quickly as I could, unwilling to release the sky from view. But come they did, and after a while I knew I would not stop seeing them until the sun came up.

It’s a strange sensation, having confidence in shooting stars.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The year’s last major meteor shower goes by The Geminids because the shooting stars it sends out seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, whose twin stars ride high and clear in the winter sky. Every shower has a core like this: The radiant of the Perseids is Perseus; the radiant of the Leonids, Leo. And every shower has another, truer, core: a comet following its own eccentric path across the solar system. When comets pass the sun, they heat and simmer, and along with steam they boil off parcels of cosmic debris that linger in a stream in space, only to burn up in our planet’s atmosphere as we hurtle through them every year.

There’s no such thing as an ordinary display of shooting stars. No wild, incendiary hail could ever be pedestrian. But the Geminids are special even among meteor showers.

They’re relatively young, for one thing—people have been watching the Perseids since before the Common Era, and the Leonids for over a thousand years. The Geminids showed up out of the blue, out of the black, out of the winter night, fewer than two centuries ago. They’ve grown steadily in number and intensity since then, and seem still to be mounting; a single fireball last year burned brighter than the full moon. Their fusillade lasts longer than a day, so you can watch them everywhere on earth.

The Geminids are mysterious, too in that lovely way scientific mysteries have of deepening even as their details come to light. Their source, the mystery goes, is not obviously a comet. Instead it is a dense, rocky body that looks more like an asteroid, and wouldn’t seem to be capable of burning off meteoroids as easily as an icy comet would. The latest theory astronomers have is that the body is in fact an old comet, still carrying ice within its heart but covered now in a clotted crust of interplanetary dust that makes it look like solid rock.

This doesn’t, prettily, explain it all. The debris this asteroid-comet-comet-asteroid casts out every year isn’t enough—not by a long shot—to account for the mass of the Geminids. And so our modern skywatchers wait, and scan the heavens, and hope to understand a little more about their secrets every time our orbits cross.

One thing they did right in the meantime, I think: they gave the strange fountainhead of the Geminids a wonderful name. It’s called 3200 Phaethon. The 3200 is because it was the 3,200th asteroid (or asteroid-like object, anyway) to be formally named. The Phaethon? Ah.

I remember Phaeton, although he’s not one of the more prominent figures in Greek mythology, because when I was 13 we did a series of skits based on the classics and my group performed unlucky Phaeton’s story. I think it was the tragedy that appealed to us—the tragedy and the crisis of identity. In case your own checkered past did not include such dramatics, I’ll tell you Phaeton was the mortal son of Clymene, a water nymph, and Helios: the god of the sun.

Around the time Phaeton came of age, we’re told, Clymene revealed his shining origins. None of his friends believed he’d come from divine stock, and to be honest, the young boy didn’t know if he believed it either. Off Phaethon went to find Helios, who embraced him warmly. But this wasn’t enough for our hero; he wanted to become his father. Let me, begged Phaethon, drive your chariot, the sun, across the sky. Just for one night. Let me take your place.

This goes as well as you’d expect. Phaethon, incapable of controlling the wild horses of the sun, careens across the sky and scorches heaven and earth alike until Zeus shoots him down with a thunderbolt to save the universe.

Some scholars believe the Phaethon myth was based on real celestial event, or that its purpose was to explain the desertification of the Sahara some four or five thousand years ago. More recently, it’s been employed as a metaphor for our own passionate mismanagement of the earth. We too, you might agree, have lost control of the reins we took. And there are monsters on the road.

“Suppose I should lend you the chariot, what would you do? Could you keep your course while the sphere was revolving under you? Perhaps you think that there are forests and cities, the abodes of gods, and palaces and temples on the way. On the contrary, the road is through the midst of frightful monsters….Nor will you find it easy to guide those horses, with their breasts full of fire that they breathe forth from their mouths and nostrils. I can scarcely govern them myself, when they are unruly and resist the reins.

Beware, my son, lest I be the donor of a fatal gift; recall your request while yet you may.”

—Bulfinch’s Mythology

Backyard Drama

Ross’s family is in town and we’ve been doing a bit of gallivanting, so right now I’m supposed to be stealing an hour or two to catch up on some work. But since my sister-in-law and her husband are napping in the living room, I’m working on the bed. Facing the window. Which looks out into the garden.

There is a butterfly bush right opposite the bedroom window; it’s a tall one, and the lawn chairs and round wooden table that live in the garden sit underneath its patchy shade. I have never seen a butterfly so much as look through a brochure for this plant, let alone come for a visit, but almost all of the backyard’s birdy denizens are big fans.

About 45 minutes ago, when I opened up my laptop to get started on this work of which I speak, an extremely chatty male Anna’s hummingbird and his lady companion were really having a go at it, helicoptering from cluster to cluster like purple butterfly bushes were going out of style.

He of the pair was pitty-pit-pitting away, presumably in an attempt to keep the goods for the two of them—but maybe 20 minutes after that, two Bewick’s wrens horned in on the action. You’d think they’d be able to keep things civil, share the shrub, you take the nectar, we’ll take the bugs—but no. There were some seemingly grievous hostilities going on out there for a while.

Eventually the Troglodytidae displaced the Calyptes, and all the scolding switched to a hyperactive flurry of happier whee-it, whee-it! nonsense until the wrens decided they wanted to forage on the cane chairs for some reason.

Right now the Anna’s couple is back. This time they are wisely keeping mum. The wrens have moved on, moved up: no need to turn up one’s bill at the purple trumpet vine on the garden wall, after all. A temporary harmony’s settled, and all is quiet.

But the juncoes and the towhees in the grass are still going to stay well out of it, man.


Well, that attempt at labor was a flop. Looks like it’s going to be a late night.

Walking With Chris, Walking With Zeke

I didn’t take a lot of notes in college, so I’ve forgotten most of the discussions about books that went on around those scratched wooden tables I scrambled to. I can’t tell you what makes The Stranger a political novel, which misfit puzzle piece of Pale Fire connects to which other. But I’ll always remember what my dear A. said about Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pulling what in my memory is an old Dover Thrift edition from under the pillow of his dorm room bed—the book’s cover showing the dour, mustached face of Nietzsche himself, and not the cool and distant mountain of more recent editions.

“Sometimes when I really, really love a book,” said A., all blazing eyes, and curls, and wire-rimmed spectacles: “this is what I do.” And he brought Nietzsche to a pair of smiling lips and planted on his paper cheek a great big smackeroo.

I’m not sure either A. or I would make the same gesture of affection toward Zarathustra today. It remains beloved to me, not least because of this memory, but as with so many formative books that have not yet been reread, I can’t say what my present self would think of it. The gesture, though, I immediately adopted and have never relinquished. It was in this context that I posted the following tweet last week, and against this backdrop I’d like to tell you a little more about why this book deserves a kiss.


It is probably worth mentioning that Chris Clarke is firstly the author of Walking With Zeke, secondly the founder of the Coyot.es Network, where I write, and thirdly a person I happen to think is kind of the bee’s knees. I may not be the most impartial observer of his writing. But it’s also worth mentioning that a big part of the reason I like Chris so much—we’ve never met, and our digital lives have only recently become entwined—is that I’ve read his book.

His big-hearted, deeply intelligent, surprising, wholly satisfying book.

People sometimes volunteer that the highest compliment one writer can pay another is to say I wish I’d written that. I write about some of the same things Chris writes about—nature, place, identity, memory, the pull of wildness and the ache of home—and I had plenty of I wish I’d written that moments while reading Walking With Zeke.

Sometimes it was a single word I’d envy: the way Chris made me see that yes, coyote nostrils do “seine” breezes for scents. Yes, the partnership between a man and his dog is “thigmotropic.”

Sometimes I coveted a list: “I want no part of any enlightenment posited on the nonexistence of bird song, of capsicum, of salt water or libido or tooth enamel.”

And sometimes an image would arrest: “She is wearing black spandex, her body and the slickrock rhyming.” Chris is an incredibly gifted observer of the world, and I can’t count the times I felt like if I looked up quickly enough from the page I’d catch it: that screaming streak of a Steller’s jay or the trampled carpet of Bradford pears he was seeing when he wrote the words. I’d give a lot to be that clear and true.

But thing of it is, for me there are still higher compliments. I wish I’d thought that. I wish I’d known that. I wish I’d lived that. And in a way I have, now. Reading this book is to spend, in the course of a scant 150 pages, several years in great intimacy with both Chris and Zeke. It is anguish to be there when Zeke seems lost in the dark of a gathering storm in Nevada, and a thrill to be there when the aging, ailing dog has a wonderful day that involves explosive playfighting with a poodle, running circles around Chris, and making a clean 18-inch leap up a driveway wall.

This is not a book that feels confessional, though it is terribly, startlingly honest. It is not a memoir. But walk after walk, entry after entry, we cannot help but come to know the secret happiness and pain of someone who begins, to most readers, as a stranger. It is a book about a man and his dog; it is a book about the great, sweet, dizzyingly beautiful world. It is a book about growing older, and growing old, and growing something that is not quite wise.

Each chapter in Walking With Zeke was originally a blog post, and I will admit that when I bought it I was not looking forward to feeling like I was sitting at my computer clicking through a patchwork of random posts. Please don’t be put off by the origin of these words. The most surprising thing about them is how fluid, cohesive, and complete they feel. This is a work that seems to have come into the world fully formed, and it is extraordinarily hard to believe that Chris did not have a book in mind when he wrote these pieces.

If it seems I may be overstating how lovely this book is, and if it seems I may be doing so because of how much I admire and like its author, I can only say that I have read several books by friends and acquaintances, some much closer to my inner circle than Chris—but this is the first time I have ever written more than a dozen words about one.

I am not alone in encouraging you to pick up a copy of Chris’s book. Other people besides me—far more Internet-Famous people—have done so. Still, I may be alone in urging you to do this right: Learn from my mistake. Buy yourself an actual paper and ink copy. When you close the book on its last page, do not be surprised if you want to bring its lovely cover to your lips. (And do not be surprised if they are a little wet with tears.)

This photo of Zeke, courtesy of the Walking With Zeke Facebook page, was taken in his earlier years; Chris notes that "he didn't always look noble."

This photo of Zeke, courtesy of the Walking With Zeke Facebook page, was taken in his earlier years; Chris notes that “he didn’t always look noble.”

This Week at Tejon Ranch

I’m about an hour north of L.A. this week, on a small team helping out a U.C. Berkeley grad student with his dissertation research at Tejon Ranch. Tejon is a fascinating place, both biologically and politically—it’s a 270,000 ranch framed on all sides by four very different ecological regions, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert, California’s South Coast, and the Great Central Valley. It’s also the largest contiguous piece of land in the state that’s held in private hands.

About 5 years ago, the Tejon Ranch Corporation (driven by entwined motives, one idealistic and one economic), signed an agreement with five national and Californian environmental organizations. The contract was designed to help the company figure out how to shepherd its land in a responsible way, and it turned about 80% of the property into a conservation area while protecting the company’s ability to develop the other 20% without the threat of lawsuit. (More details on the rather intricate agreement, which has been great for the land but hasn’t quite worked out exactly as planned so far, in this excellent Sierra Club article.)

One of the stipulations of the agreement was that the environmental groups signing it would form a new conservancy whose role would be part natural resource management, part research, and part public outreach. Felix, the grad student whose project we’re helping to launch this week, is working with the Tejon Ranch Conservancy and the university to study 15 plots along creeks in the riparian areas of the ranch.

The research has a pretty broad scope: it aims to use soil and vegetation sampling, wildlife monitoring (of particular interest are the huge population of feral pigs that plague the ranchers, but we’re also setting up a herpetological study), and geomorphological data to create a comprehensive picture of:

a) What’s out there, and
b) How it’s affected by different patterns of land use (for instance, cattle will be kept off some plots and continue to graze on others, to see how livestock management practices affect species composition and abundance. Felix’s lab is particularly interested in comparing the relative impact of specific human activities vs. climate patterns on a landscape over time).

A previous project, which is now wrapping up, covered essentially the same ground in the ranch’s grassland areas.

We drove down on Sunday (there are five of us here; Felix, his lab manager Michelle, a recent graduate, and a current undergraduate) and had our first day of fieldwork today. To no one’s surprise, it was a tremendous learning experience: It took us all day to complete the long checklist of tasks for a single plot, and if we kept going at that pace there would be no way to even come close to finishing all 15 plots by Friday, our last day. So we’ll be streamlining the protocol for the rest of the plots, and Felix will have to save some bits of the data collection for future visits to the site.

We may not have accomplished everything we had hoped to do when we set out this morning, but I think it’s fair to say we had a great day. The ranch is beautiful—full of ridged and folded hills golden with Mediterranean grasses that came here in the bellies and on the hooves of Spanish cows, now dotted with North American cows. There are oaks and willows and cottonwoods and wild grapes. The sun was pretty intense, since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day, but down by the creek we had more shade and very few bugs. I might tell you a little more about the project later on, but before I crawl into bed tonight I wanted to at least share a few photos with you from the day.

We parked right next to this gorgeous sight.

Michelle showed us how to use a clinometer to measure the grade of a slope.

This Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) was riddled with galls, which are bad for the tree but lovely for birds and other wildlife which eat the insect larvae they contain.

This is a view of the dirt road where we parked our vehicles (you can barely make out the white Conservancy truck between the trees there) from plot CH3, where we worked today.

Michelle took and pressed a few plant samples today.

On our way out of the ranch, we stopped to look at a male red tailed hawk perched on a fence post. He flew off before I took this picture, but you can still see his mate tiny up at the top of the tallest tree. We aren’t doing any bird research, but it was a good bird day. No roadrunners or condors yet, though. Maybe tomorrow.


Spotted towhee by Larry McCombs

Give Thanks to Towhees

I don’t feel this way anymore, but for months after we moved from Chicago to Berkeley I had the strongest, strangest sensation of ignobility. I’d walk down a pavement lined with lavender and juniper and rosemary and sage (eight different kinds of each, plus a hundred other unrecognizable plants that looked like they’d exploded onto the street from Fantastic Planet), and instead of glorying in the amazing smells and textures all about I’d feel myself a fallen soul who’d slipped back into Eden without permit and would soon, very soon, be found out and expelled again.

I’d hike up and down sandy trails, a peerlessly beautiful landscape of water and mountain and meadow and sky rolling out before me like some kind of vision that first appeared in the teardrop of a god, and I’d think: My presence here can’t possibly be sanctioned. This place is so bright it hurts the eye, and nothing dark can be allowed to hide amidst it.

I don’t feel this way anymore partly because since then I’ve come to know the Bay Area as a real and very earthly place, and not a paradise at all—though sometimes it can feel pretty damn close. Partly, as well, my mind is very different now than it was then. It doesn’t hold as much disdain for itself, as much intolerance. I hope this means I’ll be more comfortable here as well, in this new online home I moved into and then proceeded to shut the door on. I named it Dispersal Range for a reason, after all. I am a migratory species.

But there’s a third part—even if it is a rather small one—of the how and why I’ve come to feel that northern California could really be a friend. That is, I met a native son of hers who seemed (at least at first) to also be a little bit ignoble. I met the spotted towhee.

The spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is technically a New World sparrow, but it is to most other sparrows as a middle-schooler is to a second-grader—much taller, stockier, and more awkward. A large spotted towhee could weigh three times as much as a small Savannah sparrow.

Their coloring isn’t very delicate, either—they’ve got jet-black or dark brown upper halves, white bellies, swathes of rusty red on either side, and untidy splotches of white on their wings and back that give them their name. Not for this towhee the Savannah’s sweet yellow brow or crisply streaked bib. They’re handsome, I suppose, but in a coarse sort of way. They’re like the Fonz, not Remington Steele (am I giving away my age with these very early television memories? Here, I’m 34. We recall what we recall).

That was the first comfort about the spotted towhee, during those sad and rumpled days. On some I failed to lift a brush to my hair, or change out of the clothes I slept in, and so I thank the towhee for this: No noble looks.

Spotted Towhee

Picture by Larry McCombs

The second comfort was its voice. I took a birding class a couple of months after we moved, and when the woman who taught it imitated the call of the ubiquitous California towhee, a cousin of old Pipilo, everyone in the room said “Oh, THAT’S the bird that drives me crazy.” Male California towhees sound like someone repeatedly hitting a triangle and then strangling it after a fraction of a second (only the birdcall is sharper, even more metallic, somehow), and they have a great deal to say.

But spotted towhees talk a lot, too, and they don’t call to mind a musical instrument. They sound like irritated cats, or a cross between a dinosaur and an insect. Or—in the words of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—”a taut rubber band being plucked,” “a piece of paper stuck into a fan.”

In those days I could barely make a sound myself; I either stuttered and repeated myself or let achingly long pauses fall between a question and an answer. I had forgotten how to speak, it seemed like. I felt foolish. The towhee’s crazy chat was a consoling thing: No noble song.

The final comfort I have taken in these dear west coast compatriots of mine is that thing they do. Towhees will eat anything, or just about: seeds, insects, acorns, fruit. They don’t, though, like to go very high in order to get it. Instead they forage at foot level, scrabbling about like manic (well, like even more manic) squirrels.

Both California and spotted towhees do this thing where they uncover hidden food by displacing the top layer of litter on the ground in two quick hops: Once forward, to build up some momentum, and once backward, both feet rising and then raking through the dirt, pebbles, and leaves to scratch away whatever’s in the way of lunch and leave it open to their search and capture. They can (says Cornell, again) make a shallow pit a meter square like this.

Often, walking through a garden or along the Ohlone Greenway, or just sitting quietly minding my own business on a bench or lawn, I’d hear a frantic scrabbling beside me and think, based on the sound alone: Lizard? Snake? Some small, excited dog? And then a spotted towhee would buzz grumpily amid the grass, and I would see its freckly body lurching backwards like a lunatic, and know it for itself.

One of the things I said to a friend a while ago is that when things were bad, I felt globally incompetent. My body wouldn’t obey any commands, and all my parts were clumsy. I dropped things, knocked into things. Almost every movement that I made seared itself onto the mind’s film-reel, and embarrassed me. But I could look at the towhee and understand that there were creatures careless of their bodies, comfortable in the things they chose to do no matter how ridiculous it all looked from the outside. Thank you a third time for this: No noble manner, though perhaps a noble spirit.

Things are good these days, I think. I enjoy Berkeley. I’m not afraid to grab lavender leaves and crush them as I walk, like I belong here and deserve to smell this place. The views I see from trails don’t look like postcards anymore. They are beginning to seem familiar.

I still love the spotted towhee, though. I always will. You never can tell exactly what will give you what you need, can you?

There are other, more pertinent things I might have told you about Pipilo maculatus, including why so many people call it the rufous towhee, and why the name towhee at all?—but I’m afraid I’m not always very pertinent.

If All The Human Race Had Perished

They live where we live and move where we move. They steal the grain from our fields and take their own measures from meals we have not yet finished eating. They seize our roofs, our railroads, and our drain pipes for their homes. Their chatter, as the rain, is little heard till it falls silent. When we kick them from our path, they scatter without fear, then quickly reappear. We have so much they need, and we have known them of old.

They were never summoned. They will never leave.


Tom came into the lab last Thursday as I was carefully rolling up a small sheet of cotton, shaping it into the right form to place inside the skin of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I couldn’t see the specimen he was about to start on, and I have an everlasting curiosity about what that man holds in his hands. So:

“Are you working on another African bird, Tom?”

In response he made a strange sound. It was the amused noise a person makes when he is about to tell you a riddle whose ingenuity pleases him. “Mmm. Yes! But not a native one. It’s a bird you know very well, in fact.”

In fact, it was. It was a bird you know very well, too. There is very likely one present within a few hundred meters as your eyes skim over this paragraph, chipping tirelessly in your eaves with a sound like comfort and rebuke, clinging to the side of your building, bathing in the dust next to your street, or shitting extravagantly on the floorboards of your back deck.

It was a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): a bird that is as common as dirt and only little more loved, perhaps because its personality reminds us of the worst aspects of our own nature. Though small in size, House Sparrows are bellicose in spirit—to protect their territory and their food they have, like some of us, the will to murder those more vulnerable and more rare. (They have been known to smash the eggs and kill the nestlings of competitors with their thick, finchy bills.) They lodge in nest boxes put out for more desirable confreres. They deluge and denude bird feeders, like plagues of locusts. They are like flies—ubiquitous.

What was noteworthy about this particular House Sparrow was that it had been collected in a surprising place. It hadn’t spent its life in any of the countries of Europe or Central Asia that have been its native habitat for millennia. And it wasn’t a specimen from North America, to which the species was introduced in small numbers in Brooklyn nearly two hundred years ago and across which it has since spread like a stampede. (As with some human newcomers, the House Sparrow’s arrival in America provoked a storm of avian xenophobia. But the bird itself has never spent a single breath on the worried contemplation of the difference between integration and assimilation. It quickly and simply chose occupation.)

No, this particular House Sparrow—as Tom explained, solving the riddle—had come back to the Field Museum from a research trip he and a few other Bird Division colleagues had made to Malawi.

Malawi is an African country of mountains, mists, and forests that is hugged, like the head of a little brother, between the shoulders of Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Its House Sparrow community, along with those that are now established in a host of neighboring countries, originated from the introduction of several small populations of birds to the coastal regions of South Africa around the turn of the 20th century. After landing in places like Cape Town, Durban, and Zanzibar—either stowaways or pets that traveled side by side with sailors on trading ships—the new immigrants came onshore, began to breed, and slowly spread inland.

Today, House Sparrows live in Malawi just as they live virtually everywhere in the world—as close to us as possible. Human settlements provide these birds with ready sources of food and an abundance of appealing nesting places. Passer domesticus is not exactly an obligate commensal (a species whose very survival depends on the benefits it receives from another organism), but it is vastly more likely to be found in proximity to people than it is to take its chances in open country.

Most House Sparrows are so spoiled by the year-round food supply our cities provide and the warm, protected cavities they find everywhere in our architecture that they have even forgone their old migratory tendencies. They are like distant relatives who, unaccompanied by invitations, came to visit with us for a week, remained a month, then three, then six, and now spend all four seasons snoozing on our sofas.

In this position, they are—domesticus in name, domesticus in nature—subject to the conditions of our lives.

Although they still seem ubiquitous to most of us in this country, House Sparrow numbers have actually been falling for several decades in much of Europe, some parts of Asia, and the United States. And given their intimate connections with humans, many of the proposed reasons for House Sparrow declines have to do with changes in how we live.

We use more pesticides in our agriculture, killing the insects nestlings rely on for food. We spill less grain and spread fewer weed seeds when we harvest crops, reducing food supplies for adults. The feral cats and metropolitan raptors that also inhabit our cities prey on House Sparrows. There is even some speculation that leaked electromagnetic radiation from cellphone towers could be having negative effects on the health and reproduction of many urban species, including this one.

They were never summoned; they will never leave. But they are not invincible.

Juvenile House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The 19th-century American naturalist Wilson Flagg, finding himself in what seems to have been a grimly apocalyptic mood some decades after the House Sparrow made its way to these shores, mused upon the unexpected comfort such an obstinate intruder might bring:

…since our people are resolutely bent on the destruction of our native birds, it may be fortunate that there exists a foreign species of such a character that, like the white-weed and the witch-grass, after being once introduced, they cannot by any possible human efforts be extirpated. When all our native species are gone, we may be happy to hear the unmusical chatter of the House Sparrows, and gladly watch them and protect them, as we should, if all the human race had perished but our single self, welcome the society of orang-otangs.

If Flagg is right, we would do well to keep one wary, sympathetic eye on the shadow-companions who came, and stayed, and bound their fate to ours.

New World Warbler

I’m back in the lab on Thursdays, and this morning I walked into it to find that Dave had set out three beautiful little New World wood warblers for me to prepare. Although I loved every bird I encountered in Sweden, I found myself missing many North American species while I was away, including our vivid warblers. It was a delight, therefore, to work today on a turmeric-yellow Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), an Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) with an especially large splotch of rust on its head, and a sleek Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia).

Male Magnolia Warblers always make me think of gentlemen who’ve dressed themselves in suits of the most conventional gray, white, and black—and then decided at the last moment that they simply must put on vests as bright as any daffodil.

Magnolia warbler, before

Magnolia warbler, in process

Magnolia warbler, after


The English word world can be traced, through only a few straightforward steps, to an ancient Germanic compound noun meaning “the age of man” (wer: “man”/ ald: “age”). Ald, in turn, is derived from an even older verb meaning “to grow” or “to nourish.” Thus, world: that place where human beings and their affairs flourish.

It’s a fine thing, friends, to be alive in such a place: whether Old or New. Ah; it is the only thing, you may remind me. But still—and despite all hardships—a fine, fine one.