Author Archives: Joe Eaton

Planet of the Pigeons

A guest rant by Joe Eaton

Nathanael Johnson’s “Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness” (Rodale 2016) is the kind of book I wish I could like. Johnson, who lives in Berkeley (as I do; we’ve never crossed paths), builds a narrative around his attempts to interest his young daughter in the natural world, or at least its urban representatives. With the exception of the American crow, most of his subjects are non-native species: rock pigeons, European garden snails, eastern fox squirrels. That’s OK; you watch what you got. He’s a competent writer and seems to have done a fair amount of research. But he stumbles badly at a couple of points, in particular in putting a Panglossian spin on exotic-dominated ecosystems and dismissing widely accepted ideas about biodiversity.

A tangential error involves the historic status of the American crow on the Pacific Coast. Johnson quotes corvid expert John Marzluff of the University of Washington: ” The American crow isn’t endemic to the West Coast, it followed suburban developments across the United States, glorying in the irrigated lawns that turned the inhospitable West into ideal habitat. They reached the West Coast sometime around 1960, Marzluff said.”

That’s’ demonstrably wrong, and I find it hard to believe that Marzluff, who knows crows, actually said that—unless he was talking about the Seattle area. It’s certainly not true of northern California. In their “Directory to the Bird-Life of the San Francisco Bay Region” (1927), Joseph Grinnell, founding director of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and his colleague Margaret Wythe wrote that the “Western American Crow” was common “north of the Bay, especially in those portions of Marin County immediately adjacent to salt water,” with additional records from all over the Bay Area. Grinnell and Wythe also mention that crows nested on the UC campus as early as 1872. Later, in “The Distribution of the Birds of California” (1944), Grinnell and co-author Alden Miller give the crow’s range as “southwestern coastal slope southeast to Mexican boundary” and “northern coast belt, north from Monterey County to Oregon line,” noting its predilection for tide-flats and sea-beaches.

A small thing in itself, although it suggests a certain lack of rigor in fact-checking. But there’s worse.

The big one, the unforgivably stupid one, comes in a chapter about Argentine ants—a species native to South America that has colonized California and other Mediterranean climate zones, displacing indigenous ant species and disrupting ecosystem processes like seed dispersal; horned lizards, which feed mostly on ants, find Argentines less appetizing and/or nutritious than the natives. Johnson tries to make the case that the Argentines are really not that bad. “ Immigrant species often do reduce native populations, sometimes significantly ,” he concedes. “But the ecologist Mark Davis has pointed out that they seldom cause extinctions, and when they do it’s of populations in isolated habitats like lakes or islands. All this mixing may yield more bidodiversity by producing more combinations, hybridization, and new species.” (I don’t know Davis, but it doesn’t surprise me that you could turn up an alleged ecologist who likes invasive species. You can still find climate scientists who don’t accept human responsibility for global climate change. You can probably still find medical types who believe smoking is good for you. I suspect Davis is that kind of contrarian outlier.)

Just lakes or islands, though ? Well, that’s all right, then. Does Johnson—or Davis for that matter—know how much of the planet’s biodiversity it owes to lakes and islands, the places where we can catch evolution in the act? Let’s just write off Darwin’s Galapagos and Wallace’s Malay Archipelago, along with Hawai’i and the rest of the South Pacific’s islands, Madagascar, New Zealand, Cuba, Socotra, Taiwan, the Canaries, the California Channel Islands. Let’s write off the great lakes of the East African Rift, with their famous species flocks of fish, and Baikal, and Titicaca, and Mexico’s Cuatro Cienegas, and the springs of the Edwards Plateau and Death Valley. Forget all the “islands on the land,” the tepuis of the Guiana Shield, the Sky Islands of the Southwest, the caves and sinkholes and lava tubes with their unique animals, the patches of serpentinite soil with their endemic plants. Just lakes and islands, or equivalents. They don’t count.

But there’s more. “ Disturbance and mixing spur evolution, and scientists are finding many new species and hybrids arising with migration,” Johnson continues. “On balance, it seems, the result of ecological immigration isn’t gray uniformity, but just the opposite: Naturalizing species have given us richer biodiversity. “

This is pernicious claptrap. Biodiversity is not a numbers game. Biodiversity is a matter of relationships—plant-pollinator, prey-predator, all the mutualisms and commensalities and symbioses—that came together over millions of years, and can be destroyed in the blink of an eye.

Let’s talk about Hawai’i. Let’s narrow it to the birds of Hawai’i, forgetting for the moment the silversword plants and lobelias, the tree snails and picture-winged flies. The landbirds of Hawai’i were the winners of a series of natural lotteries, migrants that veered off course and made landfall on newly-minted islands after the lava had cooled. This happened maybe a couple dozen times over a span of 5 million years: maybe a flock of geese, a pair of thrushes, a pair of finches. With a multitude of environmental niches up for grabs, the descendants of these founders morphed into something completely new, something unique in the world. The waterfowl became huge flightless grazers with beaks like the jaws of a tortoise. The finches evolved a whole panoply of bill shapes, for crushing seeds, sipping nectar from the curved corollas of flowers, tweezing insects from wood and bark. The hawks and owls developed new wing configurations to navigate the forests where their songbird prey lived.

Most of that diversity is gone. It happened in stages. The first Polynesian settlers ate the flightless ducks and geese (to be fair, they couldn’t have known there weren’t more waiting on the next island, had there been a next island), cleared the low-country forests for taro fields, and probably made a serious dent in the songbird population by collecting feathers for royal regalia. Their pigs and dogs, and the rats that stowed away in their voyaging canoes, did their own damage. But many bird species persisted, especially in the unpopulated high country.

Then came the Europeans, with their livestock and other dependents and their more powerful and efficient tools for deforestation. Hawai’i had no mosquitoes before European ships arrived in the late 18th century. Introduced accidentally, they vector diseases that wiped out most of the native songbirds. Mongooses imported to control rats in the sugar cane fields did in more birds than rats. Exotic plants outcompeted the native species that the birds relied on for food and shelter. The cumulative impact was devastating. A number of Hawai’ian birds have gone extinct in my lifetime, and they won’t be the last.

There are still birds in Hawai’i, of course. Some are the descendants of escaped cage birds. Others were deliberately released by a group called the Hui Manu (“Bird Society”), the territorial government, or private individuals, for various reasons. The islands today are full of Brazilian cardinals, Java sparrows, African canaries, North American mockingbirds, saffron finches from the West Indies, Indian mynahs, Japanese white-eyes and bush-warblers. It’s like a big walk-through aviary. This isn’t “richer biodiversity.” These birds don’t fill the roles of the extirpated natives; they don’t pollinate the native plants, and most of the native bird-eating raptors are among the extinct. Some exotics, in fact, are reservoirs for the pathogens that killed the endemic birds. Give the mynahs and cardinals a few million years and they might turn into something interesting. For now, they have as much in common with the original bird community as a random collection of strangers at a karaoke bar has with the San Francisco Symphony.

We have a long and unfortunate record of trying to improve nature by bringing in non-native plants and animals. There was Eugene Scheiffelin, the idiot who wanted to see all the bird species mentioned in Shakespeare established in the United States, which is how we got the pestiferous European starling. Sportsmen introduced rainbow trout to the previously fish-free lakes of the Sierra and European wild boars to any number of places. Nostalgic New Zealand settlers sent home for the birds and beasts of England, ferrets and stoats among others; the country is now engaged in a costly campaign to eradicate them. In Stalinist Russia, a crackpot biologist named Isaak Prezent promoted the acclimatization of exotic wildlife to fill allegedly vacant niches and further enrich Soviet biodiversity by hybridizing with the natives, or each other. That worked about as well as Lysenko’s approach to crop-breeding. But Johnson doesn’t seem to hear the echoes.

I can almost understand Johnson flinching from the fact that his daughter will grow up in a diminished, depauperate world. She will, though, pigeons and Argentine ants notwithstanding. Denial doesn’t do her—or her generation—any favors.

Bacon and its Discontents

Another guest post by Joe Eaton

The Bacon People have finally gone too far. And they’ve done it in a really strange and offensive way.

This is not about bacon per se, and I have not turned vegetarian. Bacon has always been one of life’s great consolations for me. There are times when you really need a BLT. Sometimes a BLAT (BALT?), with avocado. Yes, I know about the supposed intelligence of the domestic pig. A few years ago, Marin Sun Farms, a local meat purveyor, claimed on their web site that their pigs all enjoyed fulfilled lives before becoming pork products, and I have always wondered what the exit interviews were like. I know about the environmental impact of hog farming. In college my historical geology class did a field trip to a Cenozoic marine formation downwind of a pig farm in eastern North Carolina, near the small town of Tar Heel, deep in Jesse Helms country. The stench was impressive, and I wasn’t even thinking about the runoff at the time. I understand it’s become much worse since then. But this is not about that either.

What it’s about is bacon-flavored bourbon.

I’m not sure exactly when the bacon-flavored thing—part of a broader hipster/techie bacon-fetishization trend–took off. It may have started with chocolate. Tried a bacon chocolate bar once; tasty, but it didn’t change my life. I was dimly aware of a bakeshop in Portland that featured bacon-maple doughnuts. These probably inspired the Oregon-based Rogue brewery’s bacon-maple beer, which came in a lurid Pepto-Bismol-pink bottle. It didn’t look like anything I would want to drink. Later came bacon-maple potato chips, another line I have yet to cross, and bacon-flavored soda syrup (Italian) and soda (American.)

The bourbon was on the shelves of my neighborhood BevMo a few months ago, perpetrated by some people in Nashville and labeled “Ol’ Major.” (If that brand name rings a dim literary/political bell for you, as it did for me, see below.) I was not tempted to purchase a bottle. Bacon and bourbon should be separate realms, what the late Stephen Jay Gould, referring to science and religion, called nonoverlapping magisteria. Such a thing had been foreshadowed by another deplorable trend, the vending of maple- and honey- and peach- and cinnamon- and cayenne-flavored bourbon. None of those substances belong in bourbon any more than bacon—or whatever artificial bacon flavoring agent the Ol’ Major folks use—does.

It took me a while to seek out the manufacturers’ web site (google it yourself; I’m not sending them any more traffic). The first thing I encountered there was a screen that said “’murica:1…terrorists:0.” Huh? Another page offers bacon bourbon cocktail recipes, and there alongside the Bacon Sour, the Bacon Bloody Mary, and Babe’s Julep, is a drink called the Commie Crippler. Who says “commie” anymore? The drink, combining Ol’ Major with triple sec and licorice liqueur, might be fatal to a diabetic Marxist. Seems like an odd choice of nomenclature, though. But maybe this stuff is supposed to be a weapon in the Kulturkampf between militant Islam and the Christian West. Are these folks conflating communists and Islamists, and do they really think that patriot ‘muricans can strike back against ISIS by consuming their product? A drink for the Age of Trump? Whatever, I ain’t buying it.

So why did “Ol’ Major” sound familiar? Remember Animal Farm? Remember the porcine Karl Marx figure who lays the ideological foundation for the revolt of the animals, but dies before it comes to pass (and the other pigs display his skull on a pole as a sacred relic)? Old Major, with a terminal “d.”

There is nothing on the web site to suggest that bacon-flavored bourbon’s brand name was a conscious Orwell reference. (If anyone wants to organize a Society To Save George Orwell From His Friends, I’m in. Yes, I’m talking about you, Hitchens, and de mortuis nil nisi bonum my ass.) But maybe they thought they were posthumously recruiting the author of Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984 into their boozy crusade. I’m sure he’s been spinning in his grave for years, and a little more angular momentum won’t make that much of a difference.

Gators in the Cabinet

Guest post by Joe Eaton, and thanks again for the use of the hall

The headline in last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle read: “Trump filling Cabinet with ‘swamp’ denizens.” And my first thought was “Albert the Alligator for Secretary of Defense!”

Yes, a Pogo reference. Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”—the daily syndicated strip more than the precursor comic books—was a landmark in American cartooning. There’s never been anything quite like it, although George Herrimann’s “Krazy Kat” bears comparison. Herrimann’s strip was more surreal/absurd, though, without “Pogo’s” vein of satire. Kelly used a cast of critters in the Okefenokee Swamp, a real wetland that slops from southeast Georgia into north Florida, to comment on human political and other foibles. (It was pretty much in the funny-animal genre, with occasional appearances by human or humanoid characters: a clan of Cajun satyrs, cave people, centaurs.) When I was growing up in Little Rock, where the strip appeared in the Arkansas Gazette—its editor, Harry Ashmore, was one of that now near-extinct breed of Southern white liberals—“Pogo” was my first exposure to satire. A lot of it went right past me, but what I got, I enjoyed.

Kelly, formerly a Disney animator (he worked on “Dumbo” and “Fantasia”), editorial cartoonist (for the short-lived leftist New York Star and later for the Herald Tribune), and comic-book artist (where Pogo Possum was originally second banana to an African-American boy named Bumbazine and the swamp dwellers spoke a cringeworthy minstrel-show patois), launched the comic strip in 1949. It had a good long run, eventually done in by the cartoonist’s failing health and the format constraints that cramped the crowded word balloons and elaborate swampscapes, counterparts to the buttes and mesas of “Krazy Kat”’s Coconino County. (Herriman drew from personal experience of the Southwest; Kelly hailed from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and first laid eyes on the Okefenokee in 1955.)

Kelly didn’t adapt well to the Sixties; his attempts to include hippie and feminist characters were unfortunate, although to his credit he never veered as far right as “Li’l Abner”’s Al Capp. And he was very much a Cold War liberal, with recurring characters like the Cowbirds, mostly semi-covert Communist Party members (but sometimes professional ex-Communists in the Whittaker Chambers mold.) All through, though, Kelly had no use for bigots or bullies. After his death in 1973, other cartoonists, a couple of decades later, tried to revive the strip. The resuscitation was unsuccessful.

The daily strips were repackaged in a series of trade paperbacks, all long out of print. Fortunately, Fantagraphics Books has been republishing the dailies (and Sundays, in full color) in classy hardcover editions, a couple of years’ worth at a time. They’ve gotten through the vintage years of 1953-54, but there had been a long hiatus and I was afraid the project had been abandoned. Not so: the Fantagraphics web site says 1955-56 will be out in February.
http://www.fantagraphics.com/series/pogo-the-complete-syndicated-comic-strips/

That Chronicle headline was, of course, a reference to President-elect Trump’s (my fingers almost refused to type that phrase) choice of Washington insiders for key administrative positions, despite his avowed intention of “draining the swamp.” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown had commented: “This isn’t draining the swamp. It’s stocking it with alligators.”

Albert the Alligator was a fine exemplar of his species, a big green cigar-chomping crocodilian, not too bright but good-hearted, with an awkward habit of unintentionally swallowing smaller characters. Why Defense? Because he had a uniform, with a vaguely Masonic hat, and thought he looked great in it. And a cannon, in which he once got his leg stuck. (Graphically, Jeff Smith’s Smiley Bone is Albert without the tail.)

Other potential nominees come to mind. The eponymous Pogo, the strip’s Charlie Brown figure, was a peacemaker but too modest to accept the State Department portfolio. More than one character would be a good fit for Education: Barnstable Bear, who could write but not read, or Miss Sis Boombah, the Rhode Island Red hen, co-founder of Okefenokee University and coach of its intervarsity beanbag team. Howland Owl, a crackpot scientist forever trying to split the atom or shoot his friends into space, would be a natural for NASA. “Pogo” had a large cast, so hundreds of mice, birds, frogs, and bugs would be available for subcabinet appointments.

But who am I kidding? Trump would more likely draw from a pool of unsavory characters like the Mole (originally an avatar of the anti-immigration Senator Pat McCarran, a Nevada Democrat; xenophobia can be bipartisan) who wanted to police the travels of the migratory birds that cross our borders willy-nilly. Maybe Seminole Sam, the con-artist fox (Undersecretary of Poultry Housing?), or Sarcophagus MacAbre, the buzzard? The sanctimonious Deacon Mushrat, a member of the Jack Acid Society, would almost certainly be in the running.

I can’t help speculating what kind of “Pogo” character Trump himself would have been. Kelly included unflattering caricatures of many politicians, domestic and foreign: Joe McCarthy as a rifle-toting wildcat, Nixon as a badger (later a spider), LBJ as a Texas longhorn, Spiro Agnew as a hyena, J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog, Fidel Castro as a goat. The cartoonist didn’t appear overly fond of pigs (although the Dixieland jazz musician Solid MacHogany was basically a good guy. )William Randolph Hearst, whose papers ran “Krazy Kat” but not “Pogo,” turned up in the strip as a shady pig, as did Nikita Khrushchev. A porcine Trump would be almost too easy.

Anyway, I miss Walt Kelly, just as I miss others—Molly Ivins, Hunter Thompson—whose willingness not just to speak truth to power, but to ridicule the living daylights out of it, would do us all a lot of good just now.

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.