Monthly Archives: April 2012

Effects of urban noise on the songs of wintering white-crowned sparrows

This is another day for me to be proud: my graduate student Jenny Phillips will present her thesis exit seminar at noon today! If you are reading this before noon, and are on campus today with some time on your hands, do consider joining us for what should be a very interesting seminar. 

She will present her work on “The effects of urban noise on song structure in a long distance migrant, Gambel’s white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)“. 

You can read the abstract and other details in the flyer below.

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Chimpanzee: a nature film where story matters. For our cousins. For ourselves.

It is something else to look into the eyes of a Chimpanzee staring out of a giant movie screen, the rainforest canopy reflected in those intent pellucid mirrors so like our own.

I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to really look into the eyes of our closest cousins, the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, in their natural habitat in the wild. I have seen them in captivity, and lingered around their captive groups, which appear not entirely unhappy in modern zoo habitats enriched to sustain their social behaviors. I have also seen them in a number of documentaries on the television, usually with the familiar face and voice of Jane Goodall (Jane-didu or Grandma Jane to my daughters) accompanying the story. Those have been the best avenues available to most of us wanting to understand something about the lives of these cousins of ours. Most of us will not be able to see those lives up close in person in the wild – and that is a good thing. It is enough, for the most part, to know that we still continue to share this planet with these evolutionary siblings of ours, even though their numbers have dwindled and we continue to ravage their habitats. As a wildlife biologist, I do hope/dream of someday making it to Africa to see them in person. I don’t know if that will ever happen.

In the meantime, I will take this incredible peek into their lives on the big screen at my local multiplex:


More about the campaign tying this film to chimpanzee conservation at

We saw the film a few hours ago, on opening night at the behest of our youngest, N, who can’t help but squeal in fangirl excitement every time she hears Jane Goodall’s voice or sees her face. N had already watched her appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (yes, my 6-year-old is also a big fan of Stewart and Colbert) earlier this week, delighted by the anticipated chimpanzee greeting they exchanged, and listening rapt to the story of the film as told by Jane. The moment N heard that a portion of the ticket price would go to the Jane Goodall Institute during opening week, it was decided: we were going to see it on opening day!

I went in with a fair bit of trepidation, given that the film comes under the DisneyNature (yes, its their own copyrighted version of nature) banner, and aware that the proliferation of nature shows has also dragged down the quality of these films in recent years. As George Black wrote in that pointed critique just a couple of weeks ago, …we’ve kept the thrills but we’re losing the story… … Think of it as nature porn. So I was wary of this film, and even said to my girls while heading to the theater that I wish we had the option to turn off the audio in such films and just enjoy the visuals.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. Because soon after the beginning, as the camera took us (slowly, without jump cuts or shaky cam effects) into the rainforest of West Africa, immersing us into the dark green world beneath the mist-shrouded canopy, giving us our first glimpse of the chimpanzees, it settled down to look into a pair of those pellucid eyes, letting the face fill much of the big screen – and I was lost.

As you can see from the two videos I’ve shared above, the film crew stumbled upon a truly remarkable story in the adoption of the orphaned Oscar by his troop’s dominant male Fred. I am glad, therefore, that the director and scriptwriter did not succumb to the tendency to overly dramatize such events, and bury them under a layer of schmaltz. They trusted the story, and let it unfold for us, taking the time to build a full picture of life as a chimpanzee in that rainforest: with remarkable footage of tool-use in the course of daily foraging, a thrilling sequence of Fred leading his friends in a well-coordinated colobus monkey hunt, and insights into the social dynamics of chimpanzee society both within and between troops. Yes, they labeled the neighboring troop as villains of the piece, but given that it appeared to be composed largely of males, with no young chimps (was this really the case, or merely a result of careful shot selection?), that bit of dramatic tension too hit the emotional mark.

I have seen such drama up close among bonnet macaques at my field site in southern India, and thought then that that would make for great soap opera. This film rises above even that, and tells a truly touching, thought-provoking, ultimately heart-warming tale, Even the voiceover narration stayed in the right zone, I thought, with just enough silly humor mixed with pathos that did not dissolve into sap even at the most poignant moments. It helped that the voice was not that of God (Morgan Freeman) but of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). And the anthropomorphisms too did not seem out of place – for these are, after all, the most anthropomorphic of animals we have left on the planet. Watching the complex behaviors, and the facial expressions of the chimps, it seemed perfectly natural to view them as our kin, whom we might actually be able to understand using some of our own framework of thinking – even as they may shed light on our own social evolution.

The anthropomorphic tone, which had seemed jarringly over-the-top when applied to penguins (by God, no less), is much more appropriate with chimps. Especially when the tale unfolding has such resonance for our own social lives: the mother-infant bond, the social bonds and anxieties of living in territorial groups, the culture of learning complex behaviors including making and using tools for various tasks, the orphaned young chimp trying to find a place in the troop, which is met with the truly remarkable altruism of the big alpha male, showing his tender side, adopting the child when even most females had rejected him. Why did he do it – the evolutionary biologist in me (fresh from teaching kin selection theory earlier in the day) wonders? Was he the father? Perhaps – but how could he be sure of that in a promiscuous society? Was he thinking ahead to the longer-term need for more male allies in his troop (seems far-fetched)? Or did he simply feel it was the natural, right thing to do? The human thing to do. Isn’t it?

N’s favorite scene was when, weeks into the growing relationship between Oscar and Fred, we see the little boy reach into the big male’s hand, and grab a bit of nutmeat from just in front of his mouth – just like she loves to do with me!

Who needs to amp up the drama when life is full of such moments? I’m glad the filmmakers didn’t yield to that base media impulse, instead choosing to deliver the first real dramatic story (at least the first I’ve seen) from the life of another species, projected on the big screen at our neighborhood multiplex.

Go see the film, for it has a “triple thumbs up” from N! I’m certain we will be adding it to our home library when it comes out on disc. But right now, if you can, see it during the first week to send some of your ticket price towards actual Chimpanzee conservation, or visit the Jane Goodall Institute for ways to make even more of a difference to this planet of us apes.

Just look into those eyes, on the big screen, and tell me that saving chimpanzees is not a crucial part of saving ourselves.

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

How the athletic tail wags the academic dog at the new “Fresno State”

As of yesterday, I no longer work for California State University, Fresno. I got my tenure at that institution almost two years ago and have been an Associate Professor in the Biology Department ever since. I still have my lab and office in the same Biology building, and I still have that view from my window of the Sierras, currently hiding under ominous dark clouds as the state reels under today’s rainstorm. But our campus too is under some dark clouds these days. So I’m still here. But I’m not at California State University, Fresno any more.

You see, amid continuing budgetary woes, fee hikes, classes being cut, labs straining to accommodate too many students desperate to graduate, understaffed offices, faculty unrest over stalled labor negotiations… a whole litany of troubles, the powers that be on our campus decided that what we really needed was a makeover!! Who doesn’t feel better after getting a fresh haircut, a snazzy dress, and some makeup, right? Maybe a spa treatment (and a colonic cleansing… nah, scratch that) too? What better way to cheer oneself up? So, while we faculty have been struggling to maintain the quality of education in our overcrowded classrooms (e.g., I’ve currently got 72 students in my upper division writing- and experimental-labs-intensive Ecology course this semester – up from the normal cap of 48!), and fighting off attempts to dissolve our entire college of science and mathematics and other “reorganization” plans, those powers-that-be were working with a makeover team to cheer us all up!

Who knew?! You guys… you shouldn’t have!! 

No, really: you shouldn’t have.

But – Surprise!! – you did it anyway. And so, with much fanfare, our new face was unveiled yesterday: all tarted up in skimpy red and white (our “traditional colors”) with a bulldog’s paw (from our sports teams’ mascot, a bulldog) tattooed across our cheeks, and brand new triple-Ds sticking out beneath our chin, like the cheap cheerleaders we are now for the all important athletic brand of Fresno State! Hurray!!


Feel better now? You sure? You really should, you know! After all, they’ve been deliberating on this re-branding for three years (the same three years that the university has been sinking under the budget cuts… but don’t think about how many people were working on this makeover during that time!). Further, they reassure us, it was truly a cheap makeover too (can’t you tell?), because they couldn’t hire an outside consultant to do a professional job either! Over these years, focus groups and surveys apparently kept telling them that the brand identity people associate with this campus is “Fresno State”, which has been the brand of our athletics division, along with the bulldog as our mascot. And they really identified us with those three D’s too: “Discovery. Diversity. Distinction.” Not, as a wag has it: “Denial. Desperation. Despair.” Call it the three stages of academic grief, and we’re clearly in the desperation stage of hoping for miracles from a makeover, even if much of the faculty is already in despair. But this is the age of education as a free-market commodity, so branded we must be!

The provost does reassure us though that we haven’t officially changed our formal name – but you’ll be hard pressed to find the old formal name on the new website. And with perception governing so much of reality these days, how long before that formal name is forgotten too? Indeed, we no longer even have the word “University” in our new brand name at the top of our new website! I wonder what those focus groups thought we do around here if they no longer think “university” when they think of this campus! So, after celebrating our centennial year just recently, that word doesn’t even fit in our new “brand identity” any more. 

Last November, during one of the series of open forums we had on campus over the proposal to dissolve the College of Science & Mathematics (among other colleges/departments also under similar axes), when someone on the Budget Task Force said that the reorganization plans under discussion only affected the “instructional side of the university”, one of my senior colleagues in the college stood up to remind the provost and everyone else assembled that “we are not simply the ‘instructional side of the university’ – we are the university.” Our passion managed to save the college, for now, but we may be losing the whole game. For little did we know, as we applauded that quaint sentiment that afternoon, that soon we would have to stop calling ourselves a university at all!

Why didn’t they go the whole hog though, I wonder, and actually sell out to a real brand name and bring in some real hard cash? Wouldn’t we have been better off branded as, say… the Doritos Locos Taco State? After all, Fresno was also one of the test markets that launched that exciting new product into the national fast food chain! Looks like consumer focus groups in the valley sure can pick winner brands… maybe there is hope for us after all in an exciting new world of branded drive-through fast-food style “education”! Who needs the sad old “university” any more?

Thus do we begin our second century, no more a university, but a brand, one that came branded in the minds of our sports fans, who apparently think nothing of the thousands of students we graduate from our classrooms every year, or the reams of scholarship we produce. Never mind that, during my tenure on this campus, my department alone has, under shrinking budgets, faculty attrition (down from 22 to about 16) and staff cuts, managed to not only hold the line, but raise the quality of our education. Or that my (shrinking body of) colleagues and I have produced (since 2006) with our hardworking graduate and undergraduate students: 128 peer-reviewed publications, 431 research presentations at conferences, and raised over $10 million in external grants; all while maintaining heavy and increasing class loads under a sharply higher student to faculty ratio. All this, at a non-research (non-RO1) campus where the running joke (on us, surely… hahaha…) is that research is a “required hobby” because we only get paid to teach (and serve on committees), but if we want to get tenure and promotion, why we must produce research and scholarship! Talk about an unfunded mandate. And these numbers are right at the tip of my typing fingers because just this week we had to submitt a deprtmental self-study as part of our 7-year program review where our entire department will be scrutinized to make sure we are up to snuff and maintaining standards on par with other biology programs at other universities. I wonder if the reviewers will notice that we’ve actually dropped the word “university” from our campus name, which should raise the question: what standards should we be upholding really? The normal academic ones? Or some new free-market benchmarks gleaned from some focus groups? Uh-oh… we forgot to do focus groups in our self-study! I hope we don’t get dinged because of that.

While we academics have been sweating to keep up our research productivity and make sure our students graduate successfully, the athletics guys must’ve been really burning up the tracks and fields something fierce, eh? Do tell me if that is the case, for I’ve been too busy in my classes and labs to notice the smoke. Until now… when I look up and realize that they’ve got their brand burned into our flesh now, and in the process have even burned off the word “university” from our “brand identity”. Oops!

We do get to keep the dog’s paw tattoo and the triple-Ds, though! At least Zaphod Beeblebrox may like us more now – and ain’t that something?

But I protesteth too much, for the only thing worrying local news organizations about our new branding ad logo is that Timeout, the campus mascot, isn’t featured in it more prominently! Time for mere academics like me to accept the writing on the wall, perhaps. For this is how the athletics tail wags the academic dog on our campus now. Enjoy the branding. Don’t mind me if I feel like a little flea about to be swatted off the fur of this overly-made-over bulldog.

Jennifer Lawrence should’ve hung on to Ree’s ragged wardrobe for Katniss of Panem


Just re-watched the haunting 2010 film “Winter’s Bone” with K, who could barely watch the shocking climax. It struck me again (as it must have others) that the Oscar-nominated 17-yr-old “Ree”, saddled with looking after two younger siblings and a chronically depressed mother, seems to have been Jennifer Lawrence’s audition role for the role of “Katniss” in the now mega-hit “Hunger Games“. Bone is grittier, more realistic, and therefore more shocking in some ways, although I also liked the Games very much for the punch it packs. Especially for S, who falls in the demographic for which that story is written/filmed.

I wish, though, that Lawrence had stuck with Ree’s ragged wardrobe and stark Ozark environs, instead of Katniss’s rather designer poverty-chic duds and the faux-retro 1920s coal miner / Appalachian look of District 12. Why on earth did they choose to make the poor people of Panem’s District 12, which is set in some indeterminately distant future of North America, look like they were from early 20th century Appalachia? There are plenty of poor folks in Appalachia (and the Ozarks) even now, and they for sure don’t dress like their ancestors did a 100 years ago! Why would they go back in the future? The contemporary Ozarks landscape as depicted in Winter’s Bone – which was filmed on location in real contemporary homes in Missouri’s hinterland – carries more degradation and menace than anything in the production design of the Hunger Games‘ District 12.

Even S, who now likes to pretend she is Katniss with home-made bow-and-arrow prowling the woods in our suburban backyard on lazy springtime afternoons, found the movie’s Katniss too fancily dressed up (even before the reaping and the Capitol makeover) to be the real huntress on the pages of the powerful book. Its like Ree from the Ozarks got a makeover to become Katniss from District 12, who was then transformed into a shiny recruit in the hunger games, and eventually the symbolic Mockingjay. Guess which incarnation came closest to winning an Oscar and which one is sweeping the box office?

Why didn’t they get Debra Grabnik (who crafted the sucker punch packed in Winter’s Bone) to direct the Hunger Games franchise too instead of Gary Ross, who did a good enough job sticking close to the book, but smoothed some of the potentially rougher edges even in the production design? Will they draw courage from the box office success now to make the next two episodes look more realistically grittier (like the Harry Potter franchise did)? Let’s hope so.