Joe Eaton calls “Fowl!” A Review

I know it’s a lost cause, but the sloppiness of the publishing industry continues to sadden me. Editing is a lost art, like scrimshaw. Likewise copyreading and factchecking. Latest case in point: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler, from Atria Books. Lawler is a science journalist with impressive credentials, including contributing-writer status with Science. His acknowledgements mention an editor, Leslie Meredith, but I find it hard to believe he or she did any actual editing. This book, which, as an admirer of the domestic chicken, I opened with some degree of anticipation, is so riddled with major and minor errors that I refrained from throwing it across the room only because it was a library copy and I did not want to pay for its replacement.

Where do I start with this mess? What a squandered opportunity! Lawler refers in passing to the pecking order in domestic chickens but doesn’t mention Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, the Norwegian biologist/psychologist who introduced the concept. Fascinating recent research on chicken cognition and behavior, much of it in Australia, is ignored. Having spent considerable time in the company of chickens in the last few years, I can tell you that their social life is more complex than you might think. Complex, hell: it’s a soap opera, with a strong tincture of Game of Thrones. I’ve witnessed chicken coups; it wasn’t pretty. You wouldn’t know that from this book, though.

The discussion of pre-Columbian chicken remains in South America and the Polynesian role in their introduction is confusingly written, and I suspect not just because the data is confusing. And there’s no mention of the wild chickens of the Kaua’i highlands, descendants of birds that came to Hawai’i in the great voyaging canoes and still close to the original red jungle fowl stock.

Chapter 8, “The Little King,” is a particular treasury of howlers. Lawler is talking about the shifting image of the rooster in medieval Europe: “Magical amulets displaying fierce creatures with snake legs and a cock’s head date back to Greco-Roman times, and were popular among ancient Jews and Persians as well as medieval Christians.” Snake legs? How can you write “snake legs” and not immediately think, “Wait a minute”? How could “snake legs” make it through any kind of editorial process? I don’t think he’s referring to the vestigial hind limbs of some boas and pythons, or the legs of ancestral snakes. Did he just mean “reptilian?” Or “scaly?” All bird legs are scaly, more or less.

But let’s move on. Then there’s this: “Scientists have been struggling since Aristotle to understand the mechanisms that determine whether an animal is male or female. The Greek philosopher believed that the hotter the sex a man had with a woman, then the greater likelihood that a resulting fetus would be male. This is not as absurd as it sounds, since temperatures can play a role in sex differentiation among some animals. The hotter the nest during incubation of alligator eggs, for example, the more likely than males will result.” Lawler may be right about what Aristotle believed, based on my recollection of Armand Marie Leroi’s recent (and excellent) book The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. And he’s right about nest temperature and the sex of hatchlings in alligators, an effect also documented in turtles and some lizards. But not in birds! Not even the megapodes, whose eggs are kept warm by rotting vegetation or geothermal heat. Besides, doesn’t he get the, um, metaphorical nature of “hot sex?” Ancient joke: “Do you smoke after intercourse?” “I don’t know; I’ve never looked.”

Still in Chapter 8, he mangles the names of a couple of dinosaur taxa and says Triceratops had feathers on its tail. Nope. That was Psittacosaurus, a basal relative of the giant horned dinosaurs, and the tail ornaments in question were bristles, not the true feathers of some theropod dinosaurs and their modern avian descendants.

Lawler recounts the rise of the American poultry industry in some detail, but inexplicably omits the saga of the Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma. California enters the book obliquely, in a reference to how the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II deprived the industry of most of its skilled chick-sexers. If true, this is remarkable, and I’d love to know more about this professional specialization.

I was shaking my head and muttering as early as page 10, on which we learn that all but two of the world’s 49 pheasant species inhabit the jungles of South Asia. Leaving aside the Congo peacock, a biogeographical outlier, it’s true that all other living pheasant species are Asian. But from the range maps in the definitive Pheasants, Partridges & Grouse by Steve Madge and Phil McGowan, the distribution seems as much East Asian as South Asian. A couple of species are endemic to Japan, not a notably jungly country; others restricted to scrubland in the Himalayas. I’m not even sure Lawler got the number of species right.

I could go on, but that would be beating a dead chicken. All right, just one more, in the context of poultry-raising among slaves in the antebellum South: “Since black women often did the cooking in plantation kitchens, West African foods like okra and kale crept onto plantation menus.” Kale? This man doesn’t know the difference between kale and collards! (Collards, of course, are only West African by adoption, but that’s another story.)

Joe Eaton is a science and natural history writer based in Berkeley, California.


My Young Elder

Since the Berkeley Ecology Center has seen fit to disappear the archive of columns that Joe Eaton and I wrote for the late great magazine Terrain way back when, I’m taking the liberty of republishing some of them here.

I planted a blue elderberry in the back of the yard some years ago, up against the fence, and then ignored it. Fortunately that’s a good strategy. Now it’s producing lots of berries to atone for its rambling, floppy habits.

I give it a serious haircut most winters, shape it a little, but I have no illusions that it’s going to take a disciplined form. That’s OK; I love the species in the wild, where half the fun is seeing what changes it can ring on the theme of Loose Arching Tall Shrub.

Sometimes it actually becomes a tree. I know some with respectable trunks; it takes a second look to recognize them. The first time I did, I found a Pacific Slope flycatcher glaring back at me from a nest in a branch crook—someone else thought it was a good enough tree too.

One odd thing about elderberries is the contradictory data about them. I’ve heard that they’re toxic;
that just the red ones are toxic;
that they’re delicious and by the way, here are five recipes for them;
that either the red or the blue are toxic to everyone or toxic to only certain people, either always (especially the red ones) or only when raw;
that the unripe blue ones are toxic; that only the blue ones are traditional food;
that the red ones are traditional food too;
that the leaves, stems, and other plant parts are toxic and “children have been made ill by using the stems as peashooters”;
that indigenous Californians have traditionally used the stems for flutes;
that it’s poisonous and that it’s good for what ails you; that it’ll give you a bellyache and that it’ll cure a bellyache.

I speculate that what’s going on here is that some people are susceptible in various ways to a compound in the plant—apparently there are plenty of suspects, like some lectins. (Lectins are proteins; they’re various, ubiquitous, and often poorly understood. Hocus-pocus material, and also something to watch with interest as research proceeds.)

Whatever causes the problem, it can be neutralized by drying or cooking, so elderberry flowers for tea and elderberries for pie are often dried and then reconstituted before use. Those kids being poisoned by their peashooters would be better off if they dried the sticks before using them—which is what the Miwok do for their flutes.

These traditional flutes are made from elderberry twigs, which are already hollow, or pithy and easy to hollow out. They cut them green and let them dry; one writer says they burned out fingering holes with a hot coal at random, so no two flutes had the same scale. If so, that would make for some interesting compositions.

Californians traditionally make clappersticks out of elderberry branches too. With both the wind and the rhythm sections accounted for, some people call it the music tree. For all these and for arrow wood, elderberry plants were coppiced to produce straight stems, and so far my bush has been cheerful about such serious pruning.

There’s a Miwok legend that, back in the days before the sun shone everywhere, only the Valley people had fire, and the Mountain people wanted some too. Robin guarded fire in the Valley roundhouse, and Coyote went out searching but couldn’t find it.

White-footed Mouse figured out where it was, and sat down at a gathering in that roundhouse (either with just the Valley people or with the visiting Mountain people too, depending on who’s telling) and played his elder-twig flute till everyone was lulled to sleep. Then he hid some of the fire inside the flute, and after more adventures and a merry chase, brought it to the mountains, where it was tucked under some leaves.

When Coyote lifted the leaves to find the fire, most of it shot into the sky and became the sun. Some was left behind, and the people put that into the buckeye and the incense cedar, where now anyone can find it.

Elderberry does occupy that margin between wild and garden, forest and field. Donald Culross Peattie mentions it in his Natural History of Western Trees as “a ruderal little tree”; that is, a plant that grows on “waste ground.” That’s a loaded term, but it just means disturbed areas; you often see wild elders on road margins—their white flowerheads light up mile after mile of highway in Florida—and along trails, a sort of forest doorkeeper.

That’s appropriate for a garden, too; you’d want it between your beds and whatever boundary of big trees you have. Ask your elder relatives for pie, tea, and fritter recipes, or try Carolyn Niethammer’s American Indian Cooking. Share the berries with the birds, and you might even get a flock of waxwings to visit.


Polymorphic Polyandrous Perplexity (by Joe Eaton)


We’ve been spending a lot of time in the company of Swainson’s hawks lately, at an undisclosed location in San Joaquin County. They seem to be everywhere, even in semi-suburban areas. It’s been an education. I didn’t know Swainson’s hawks hovered; they’re quite good at it, even in a stiff wind. I’d never heard their scream, much like a redtail’s but somewhat thinner and more wavering. And I’d never seen a pair mating or building a nest. All this has been happening just around the corner, within an easy walk of where we’re visiting.

Swainson’s hawks, like many other buteos (including red-tailed, rough-legged, ferruginous, broad-winged, and short-tailed hawks), come in multiple plumage morphs. “Morph” is the preferred term, not “phase,” because it’s permanent.The extremes are the light morph (brown bib, white belly) and the dark morph (all dark below), with rufous and intermediate variants. Proportions of different morphs in a population vary geographically, with dark birds predominant in the Central Valley and light birds on the Great Plains. Mixed pairs are not unusual.

We were out for a constitutional last month and watched three Swainson’s hawks—two dark, one light—interacting in what you could probably call a walnut savanna. The two dark birds were acting like a pair, calling back and forth, eventually touching down on a gnarly old walnut and mating. So I thought I had this relationship figured out: the dark hawks are on territory, the light bird is an interloper. But then we saw the larger dark hawk, the presumed female (female buteos being larger than males in most species) flying in tandem with the smaller light hawk and briefly locking talons with him. Sure looked like courtship.

I consulted the trusty Cornell Birds of North America site, which is really worth the cost of the annual subscription, and found a reference to Swainson’s hawks in northeastern California forming stable polyandrous trios. A female and two (related? unclear) males defend a territory, build a nest, and jointly care for the young, sometimes for several years in succession. Was this what I was watching? The following morning, though, I caught the two dark hawks carrying sticks into an isolated live oak, where they had already constructed a sizable nest, deep and bulky, near the crown. No sign of the light male; might have just been passing through, looking for an extra-pair copulation. As it turns out, that was the last time we saw him.

Polyandry, it seems, is not that unusual in buteos and related hawks. It’s more or less standard for the Galapagos hawk, which genetic studies indicate is the Swainson’s closest relative. (The i’o or Hawai’ian hawk is also near kin. Swainson’s is typically a long-distance migrant, with most of the population traveling from the North American plains to the Argentine pampas every year. You can see how accidental colonization of remote islands might happen.) Polyandrous mating groups also occur in the more distantly related Harris’s hawk. The advantage? Male raptors often provide prey for their incubating mates and nestlings. A female with two male providers would have a better chance of successfully fledging her brood.

Central Valley Swainson’s hawks migrate, but not to Argentina. Migrants travel only as far as western Mexico and Central America; a few spend the winter in the Valley or Delta. This, along with the different morph proportions, led to speculation that they might be genetically distinct from the Great Plains population. And they are, kind of, according to recently published research by Joshua Hull and colleagues at UC Davis–but not genetically different enough to meet the criteria for federal protection as a Distinct Population Segment. There’s apparently enough gene flow between Valley and Great Basin hawks to keep the populations from diverging too far. That’s too bad, given the Valley hawks’ widespread loss of habitat and precipitous (90 percent in the last century) decline in numbers.

Look Me in the Pistil


It’s been a scarily dry/snow-deficient year in the Sierra Nevada. Nevertheless, there are some brave souls showing up in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Here’s one: Fivespot, Nemophilia maculata.

(I might be a bit behind the curve on its specific epithet, but that’s another rant.)