The Walmart Birds : The Great Tailed Grackle

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I have developed a fascination and a deep respect for the Great Tailed Grackle as a result of making regular visits to Walmart. I began feeding these birds bread crumbs this winter because I like them so much and because I wanted to observe these clever characters hopping about dodging automobiles and people who apparently don’t have much use for them. Some always hang out on the roof with the fake owls that were put there to scare them.

 

I wonder how many people have actually looked at the Great Tailed Grackle because both sexes are quite stunning. The male is glossy black with an ecclesiastical purple iridescence. He has a long, keel-shaped tail, massive bill and yellow eyes. The female is about half the size of the male and looks as if she’s been dipped in brown oil; she has a smaller keel shaped tail. The visual characteristic that stands out the most to me is the brilliance of those bright yellow eyes. These birds radiate intelligence!

And, in fact, studies that have been done on these birds reveal that they are adept at problem solving (even from a human point of view).

For example, the Grackles problem-solving power was tested by posing glass cylinders full of water with bits of food floating just outside the birds reach. To grab the morsels, the birds had to drop in pebbles to raise the water levels. After a number of trials most of the Grackles figured out that dropping pebbles into the water raised the water level so they could feed. They also learned that it was usually more efficient to use heavy pebbles to reach the snack, but if provided with too large stones the birds turned back to small pebbles to reach their goal.

Another test done had even more dramatic results. Silver and gold tubes of food were presented to the grackles but only the gold tubes had peanuts and bread in them. The Grackles immediately chose the gold tubes, but when the food was placed in silver tubes the birds instantly chose them. These tests reveal not only problem solving ability but also the birds’ flexibility in terms of learning.

Its important to note that Grackles outperformed three species in the crow family (Corvids).

This desert-adapted bird doesn’t need much beyond food, trees, water, and its own wits for survival. Once confined to Central America, the species began moving north 200 years ago, and now covers an immense region from northwestern Venezuela up to southern Canada. In 1900, the northern limits of its range barely extended into Texas; by the end of the century it had nested in at least 14 states and was reported in 21 states and 3 Canadian provinces. This explosive growth occurred mainly after 1960 and coincided with human-induced habitat changes such as irrigation and urbanization.

Where people have gone, Great-tailed Grackles have followed: you can find them in both agricultural and urban settings from sea level to 7,500 feet that provide open foraging areas, a water source, and trees or hedgerows. In rural areas, look for grackles pecking for seeds in feedlots, farmyards, and newly planted fields, and following tractors to feed on flying insects and exposed worms. In town, grackles forage in parks, neighborhood lawns, and at dumps. More natural habitats include chaparral and second-growth forest.

Great-tailed Grackles are loud, social birds that can form flocks numbering in the tens of thousands. Each morning small groups disperse to feed in open fields and urban areas, often foraging with cowbirds and other blackbirds, then return to roosting sites at dusk. This evening routine includes a nonstop cacophony of whistles, squeals, and rattles as birds settle in for the night.

As near as I can tell Grackles forage almost anywhere and will eat almost anything. What this says to me is that these kinds of birds have learned to co – habit with humans in very ingenious ways that must include being able to deal with pesticides.

During the last month (March) I have noted that there are fewer Grackles hanging around the parking lot. One reason for this absence may be that during the day some birds are moving into more rural areas to feed. In addition to country foraging and prior to actual nesting, both males and females begin to collect material for the nest site about four weeks before actual breeding begins in April.

Nesting occurs in colonies of a few to thousands, with the nests often placed close together. The actual nest construction is done after this period of “gathering,” which although not mentioned in any of the sources I consulted, must be related to the mating process. The females choose the nest site, and often “borrow” nest-building materials from other females. The nest is made of grass, twigs, reeds, and mud and is woven by the female in about 5 days in a tree, shrub, or hidden in marshland vegetation placed anywhere from 3 to 30 feet off the ground or water. Nest size varies from four inches across to 13 inches deep.

The female will lay 4 to 7 eggs that are pale greenish brown with blotches. The young are ready to fledge in a month. Mother is responsible for brooding and feeding. During this period some male Grackles may guard the nest while the female forages. In contrast some others may pair with a second female during this time leaving the female to manage on her own.

Curiously, fewer male than female nestlings survive. Adult male survival may also be lower than adult female survival, which would result in a female-biased adult sex ratio.

Although there is considerable overlap in the distribution of the three species, the Common Grackle occurs throughout the eastern United States and Canada, the Great-tailed Grackle is found in the Midwest and south/western United States, and the Boat-tailed Grackle is confined to Florida and coastal areas of the Gulf states and the eastern United States.

The Grackle is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which as far as I can tell, means practically nothing. People routinely haze, shoot, or use pesticides to eliminate these birds but their numbers continue to increase

In this time of great uncertainty due to Climate Change and continued overuse of lethal pesticides I can’t help but feel reassured that some non – human species will survive, and whenever I spend time with the Walmart birds I feel flickers of hope rising. I am already looking forward to seeing the Great Tailed Grackles once again flooding the Walmart parking in Espanola by the middle of May.

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Bumblebee Vibration

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In physics waves explain how energy is propagated or transmitted. Vibrations are the physical evidence of waves/particles. Waves and vibrations are everywhere in Nature. Vibration is a patterned or random change over a period of time and the wave is a length traveled during the vibration period.

Something that is vibrating may shake at the same time. … This vibration will send sound waves to the ear and to the brain. I would add that vibrations are also experienced directly through the body, and that bodies may actually pick up signals that the brains (in humans) routinely miss. Indigenous peoples have intuitively understood that every living thing has its own wave/vibration – which to me is like a kind of signal or signature that says,“ I am a bumblebee or a pear tree” or in this case “I am a bumblebee that needs pollen so I shake my body”.

Intuition and sensing are non – rational, experiential ways of knowing not much valued in a culture like ours.

Scientists have discovered that wild bumblebees are born with the ability to remove pollen from nectarless flowers using high-frequency vibrations.

The study, published in the Journal of Insect Behavior, is the first to show that the ability to vibrate flowers to extract pollen is an innate behavior in Bumblebees and one that is refined over time and gives a rare insight into the complexity of the pollination services provided by these creatures.

The research was carried out by evolutionary biologist Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, along with other colleagues.

Vallejo-Marin states: “We studied captive bumblebees from their very first exposure to flowers that need to be vibrated to extract pollen and found the creatures instinctively and almost immediately begin vibrating their bodies.

We also found that over time and with practice, bees are able to tune down their vibrations, removing pollen while potentially saving energy. Initially bees tend to vibrate on the flower petals, but after two or three visits they focus their efforts exclusively on the part of the flower where pollen is produced. Bumblebees learn to reduce the frequency of the vibration they are using during pollen extraction as they gain more experience manipulating flowers that require vibrations to release pollen.

This shows the extensive capacity of these insects to learn complex motor skills to maximize their rewards from each flower they come into contact with.”

Although bumblebees’ ability to learn how best to collect nectar is well documented, this study is the first to show how vibrations change while foraging for pollen. The study also “proves” (westerners must have documented proof) that the buzz bees produce during flight and during pollen collection have clearly distinct acoustic signals.

20,000 species of plants including major crops, such as tomatoes and potatoes, rely on vibrating bees for pollination services. Apparently only some bees use vibration to collect pollen.

The study concludes that it is only by learning how bees pollinate that we can understand the consequences of declining bee populations. I find it fascinating that scientists are catching up to the Indigenous understanding that each creature uses its body vibration to ‘communicate’; bees use it to communicate with the flower in order to gather its pollen, but the above scientific conclusion seems simplistic to me because it neglects to mention what we already know, namely that pesticides are killing all insects including bees at an alarming rate.

Bees – Who Knew?

 

 

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With Honey bee populations in decline due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other factors, one study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Massachusetts seems to offer some hope. It showed that two different species of bees fed a diet of sunflower pollen had dramatically lower rates of infection by specific pathogens. These pathogens have been implicated in slowing bee colony growth rates and increasing bee death. Bumble bees on the sunflower diet also had generally better colony health than bees fed on diets of other flower pollen.

However, the study also revealed that Honey bees on the sunflower diet had mortality rates roughly equivalent to that of honey bees not fed a sunflower pollen diet, so the positive short term effects don’t include longevity. Bumblebees, (our most efficient pollinators) didn’t seem to have the same problems with longevity.

Bees are adept at collecting sunflower pollen. Annually, some two million acres in the United States and 10 million acres in Europe are devoted to growing sunflowers, making sunflower pollen a ready and relevant bee food.

Sunflower pollen is low in protein and some amino acids, so it’s important that bees have many diverse wildflowers to choose from in addition to sunflowers, especially for generalists like bumble bees and honey bees.

Bees fed exclusively sunflower pollen often develop poorly, slowly, or not at all. What remains a mystery is that many bee species who are not generalists like Honey or Bumblebees collect pollen exclusively from the sunflower family; in fact, it is believed that bees specializing in sunflower pollen have evolved multiple times.

Another study done on (solitary) Mason bees discovered that bee species specializing in sunflower pollen were not attacked by a common brood-parasitic wasp, (Sapyga). One probable conclusion is that some bees, at least, are protected from (some) parasites by feasting on sunflowers; this may help explain the frequent evolution of specialization on sunflower pollen among these insects.

While I was researching bee related articles I came across some startling and disturbing information about the use of pyrethrum. Pyrethrums are naturally occurring compounds extracted from chrysanthemum plants that are used to make pesticides; this family includes sunflowers. Pyrethroids have the same basic chemical make-up but are not naturally occurring and are a man-made product also used as pesticides.

 

What I didn’t know is that pyrethrum is considered to be a low toxicity pesticide only from a human standpoint.

 

Supposedly, there is also a relatively low toxicity level with respect to birds and mammals. (I can’t help wondering how many non – human species have actually been studied). What we do know is this natural insecticide is toxic to cats and extremely toxic to fish. It follows that amphibians would also be negatively impacted by the use of pyrethrum. And what about the catastrophic decline in songbirds who are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine”?

 

Animals that are exposed to toxic amounts of pyrethrum may experience loss of coordination, paralysis, convulsions, respiratory failure, and death. With bees, foraging behavior may change, and as with more deadly agricultural pesticides, the bees may lose their ability to learn the skills needed to extract nectar and pollen.

 

According to a recent New York Times article the Earth has already lost 80 percent of her insect population for reasons are ‘unclear.’ Yet we know how deadly the use of backyard and agricultural pesticides are, and we continue to use them. How is it that we didn’t pay attention to insect losses until CCD occurred with our bees? Our astounding lack of awareness and attention with respect to Nature is backfiring. Without insects as pollinators, humans will be left without food. We are all connected. Clearly there is an increasing need for field-realistic research into the reasons behind the decline and loss of any species and the impact of any pesticide on bees, humans, and non – humans alike.

Sandhill Cranes and Migration Theories

 

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We know from fossilized records that the Sandhill Cranes are one of oldest birds in the world, and have been in their present form for 10, 30, or 60 million years (depending on the source). They have apparently maintained a family and community structure that allows them to live together peacefully and migrate by the thousands along a central flyway twice a year. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and in the spring the adults engage in a complex “dance” with one another. During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as “unison calling.” They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating, but all year long (Even young birds begin dancing and throwing sticks and grasses into the air while jumping around enthusiastically).

In their northern habitat, the female lays two eggs a year in thick protected areas at the edge of reed filled marshes. Before nesting these birds “paint” their gray feathers with dull brown reeds and mud to reduce the possibility of being seen by a predator. Born a couple of days a part, the second chick rarely survives. The fuzzy youngster that does (if it survives the first year – delayed reproduction and survival rates factor into the difficulties inherent in crane conservation and to that we must now add Climate Change) stays with its parents for about three years before reaching sexual maturity and striking out on its own, but even then the adult stays within the parameters of its extended family, and it is these families that comprise the small groups of cranes that we see flying together. During migration, a multitude of these groups travel together by the hundreds or thousands. There are no leaders and often it is possible to observe what looks like an unorganized random group (but isn’t) or diagonal thread made up of cranes flying (up to thousands of feet) above the ground.

 

In every roosting place there are a few cranes that remain awake all night alerting their relatives to would be predators, and in fact I have been awakened during the night by crane warning cries that sound higher pitched than normal. I think it’s significant that these very ancient birds have survived so long in their present form. Could it be because they understand the value of living in community, perhaps acting as models for humans who, for the most part, seem to have forgotten what genuine community might consist of?

 

Most recently these birds have been a presence in my life since last November when they first arrived, I believed for a brief stopover, before moving south to places like the Bosque del Apache to spend the winter. When I first came to New Mexico almost three years ago I was astonished and bewildered by their haunting collective cries even when I couldn’t see them which was most of the time during the month of November…

 

But this year the cranes not only stopped by but many decided to spend the winter here much to my great joy, perhaps a result of Climate Change which is shifting their migration patterns and created conditions like the extreme drought that dramatically lowered the level of the river over this last year.

My hypothesis is that the resulting shallow riffles in Red Willow River (one of which just happens to be below my house) provided many cranes with the safety they needed to roost there all winter long. For three precious months I listened with awe and wonder to pre-dawn crane murmuring and on sunny mornings watched groups of cranes take to the air with their haunting br-rilling cries. Every night I would stand outside to listen to that same contented collective murmuring just before dark as the cranes settled in for the night.

 

When they are all talking to one another (cranes need to be in constant contact with each other) it is hard to distinguish one voice from another because listening to the whole is a symphonic masterpiece. But this winter I slowly learned to identity various cries by listening to smaller groups as they took to the sky. The highest pitched belong to the youngsters, the lowest and most full bodied calls come from the males and the females speak in tongues from the middle.

 

Sandhill Cranes are omnivores and feed on land or in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water during the warmer seasons. They prefer a diet of seeds and cultivated grains but also include berries, tubers, crayfish worms and insects and frogs depending on the season. In the field next to me they fed on wild sunflower seeds and grasses.

 

As previously mentioned Climate Change is shifting migration patterns. Some groups are now spending their entire lives in one place like Florida (these are endangered), others are no longer migrating further south than Tennessee, although they also fly north in the spring. It is unusual to have cranes living in Northern New Mexico, although I understand from local fishermen that a few have occasionally remained here throughout the winter. I recently learned that Sandhill Cranes have even been seen in parts of Maine.

 

Their normal migration routes take them from Mexico as far northwest as Siberia into the Canadian Shield and Alaska to breed with one major stopover in Nebraska at the Platte river where 600,000 cranes meet to rest themselves before making the last leg of their arduous and dangerous seasonal journey (another group that settles further northeast makes a stop in Mississippi). In the fall all northern populations will make the trip south for the winter because of inclement weather and lack of food.

 

New Mexico and Texas have the dubious distinction of being the first states to legalize crane slaughter and now every state along their central flyway except Nebraska engages in spring and fall hunting. We can thank the state Fish and Wildlife organizations for “managing” the crane population by issuing licenses to kill these magnificent birds to bring in even more money when these organizations are already extremely well supported financially by the NRA and our taxpayer money. A Caveat to those that don’t know: All State Fish and Wildlife agencies, that purport to support wildlife have a deadly hidden agenda: to kill birds and animals at their discretion.

 

When I first began to hear the cranes I never imagined that I would start to see them or watch them make gracious descents into a neighboring field at all times of the day, every day for months. Watching them cup their wings, drop their long legs and spread their tails as they parachute to the ground is a gift that I have never taken for granted. A solitary musical rolling rill, a haunting cry that raises the hair on my arms is a sound that now lives on in my mind and body.

 

Spring migration has begun and the largest aggregations of cranes are moving north. Some days the bowl of blue sky feels too empty, but some small flocks are still visible especially during the early morning and again at dusk. I noted the sudden loss of large flocks just before this last full moon and wondered if these birds also migrated at night. Further research confirmed that Sandhill cranes sometimes do migrate after dark during the week before and after full moons.

 

A few days ago the core of engineers opened the dam raising the river and the protected riffles below my house disappeared, so during this last week in February I am without the morning joy of listening to nearby pre-dawn murmuring, but can still see and hear some cranes flying by. According to my friend Barbara R. some flocks remain at the Bosque del Apache, so hopefully we will be hearing their haunting cries for a while. It isn’t until April that all Sandhills reach the Platte River …

 

Pueblo people say that humans were once Cranes who lived in the clouds… they came to earth and danced for joy in the rain… Cranes also watched over ceremonies and remain a part of some Indigenous rituals today. Sandhills also act as Guardians for the People easing transitions from life to death and beyond….

 

Cranes are Elders in every sense of the word, ancient relatives and they continue on, some adapting, others following unknown scripts or patterns that stretch back to antiquity. The way they live, migrating out of seasonal necessity, returning to home – places, celebrating through community and song in life and death is a way of being that embodies flowing like a river… And for that, their magnificent beauty and inherent wisdom, I thank them.

 

I close with a Zuni prayer about the relationship between Cranes, Water and the Rebirth of Spring.

“When our Earth Mother

is replete with living waters,

When spring comes

The source of our flesh –

All the different kinds of corn

We shall lay to rest in the ground.

 

With their Earth Mother’s

Living waters,

They will be made into

New Beings…

 

That our Earth Mother

May wear a fourfold green robe

Full of moss

Full of flowers

Full of pollen,

 

That the land may be thus

(S/he has made you)

I have made you into living beings.

 

 

 

What is Migration?

Migration is the process or act of migrating, i.e. the movement of animals and birds from one region or place of habitat to another. Migration occurs in all major animal groups – birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and crustaceans. (Migration may also occur at the cellular level). The triggers for migration are complex and poorly understood. Climate variability, availability of food, seasonal changes, and reproduction, are some reasons that animals migrate.

Like scientists, I have been captivated by this process especially since we know so little about how animals know what they know, and because whatever capabilities they have developed over millennia are being interrupted by Climate Change (cranes for example have been in their present form for 30 million years.).

Studies have shown that migrating species appear to use a wide variety of mechanisms to navigate, including the stars, the sun and the moon, olfactory (chemical) cues, and Earth’s magnetic field. Some birds like cranes that normally migrate during the day also migrate at night a week before, during and after the full moons. Many species learn their migration routes by first traveling with experienced individuals, but others are able to migrate and navigate successfully without prior experience, an ability that still perplexes scientists and keeps me attached to field theory as a possible explanation. Field theory postulates that each animal has access to its own morphic family field and can tap into that field for information and guidance. This would explain why some animals are also able to find their way over thousands of miles without parental assistance. Migration requires a lot of energy and many individuals die during migration. Despite these heavy costs, the potential benefits of migration are great, which is why migration behavior has evolved in so many species.

One of the driving factors that leads to migration is the season. Many animals move from one place to another at certain times of the year or during a particular period of their life cycle. Some animals migrate only once during their lifetime, often just before they reproduce like the salmon do. Other animals, including many species of birds and many marine animals, such as sea turtles and whales, migrate long distances to their breeding grounds many times during their lives.

In other instances, animals are forced to leave an area when conditions in their environment deteriorate. Many bird species that nest in Canada and the northern regions of the United States and Siberia like the Sandhill cranes do migrate south as winter approaches because they seek a warmer and more hospitable climate. Another critical reason that birds migrate south is because their food supply disappears during the cold months. However, it must be said that some birds normally begin migrating south before their food supply has disappeared, and often even before it has begun to decline.

Approximately 1,800 of the world’s 10,000 species of birds migrate each year in response to the seasons. Many of these migrations are north-south, with species feeding and breeding in high northern latitudes in the summer, and moving some hundreds or thousands of miles south for the winter.

Birds probably utilize circadian rhythms (internal twenty four hour clocks) to regulate their migrations in both the fall and the spring. Apparently the changing length of the days may stimulate hormonal and behavioral changes that also result in migration. Scientists believe that natural selection favors birds that use predictable environmental cues, like the seasonal change in day length to initiate migration before their food source disappears.

The tilt of the earth’s axis is shifting because Greenland’s ice melt is causing sea level to rise. In general, the redistribution of mass on and within Earth affects the planet’s rotation but this effect is sudden and more extreme and seasonal migrators are struggling to adapt.

Seasonal migrators must migrate every year. For other animals, migration is less predictable. For example, the Snowy owls that live in Canada have to move south when the lemmings crash.

Irregular (non-cyclical) migrations called irruptions also occur under pressure of famine, overpopulation or other unknown influences but are not considered to be true migration.

The shifting range of the Sandhill cranes is a source of fascination to me and appears to be a result of global warming. These birds once migrated into Mexico each winter. Now some populations only fly as far south as Tennessee, and others remain in Florida. At one time these cranes were mostly found in the Midwest before they moved north or northwest to breed, but since the year 2000 they have been seen in south central and western Maine.

We may not know how migration works, but we do know the patterns of migration are changing and that Climate Change is a reality. My fervent hope is that somehow most species, who are all our “elders” – humans, after all have only been around for 200,000 years – (plants for 450 million years, animals for 350 million years) – may possess strategies that we can’t even imagine to survive the damage that we have brought upon all living things including ourselves.

For Love of Cranes

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We know from fossilized records that the Sandhill Cranes are one of oldest birds in the world, and have been in their present form for 10, 30, or 60 million years (depending on the source). They have apparently maintained a family and community structure that allows them to live together peacefully and migrate by the thousands along a central flyway twice a year. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and in the spring the adults engage in a complex “dance” with one another. During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as “unison calling.” They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating, but all year long (Even young birds begin dancing and throwing sticks and grasses into the air while jumping around enthusiastically).

In their northern habitat, the female lays two eggs a year in thick protected areas at the edge of reed filled marshes. Before nesting these birds “paint” their gray feathers with dull brown reeds and mud to reduce the possibility of being seen by a predator. Born a couple of days a part, the second chick rarely survives. The remaining fuzzy youngster, if it survives the first year, stays with its parents for about three years before reaching sexual maturity and striking out on its own, but even then the adult stays within the parameters of its extended family, and it is these families that comprise the small groups of cranes that we see flying together. During migration, a multitude of these groups travel together by the hundreds or thousands. There are no leaders and often it is possible to observe what looks like an unorganized random group (but isn’t) or diagonal thread made up of cranes flying (up to thousands of feet) above the ground.

 

In every watery roosting place there are a few cranes that remain awake all night alerting their relatives to would be predators, and in fact I have been awakened during the night by crane warning cries that sound higher pitched than normal. I think it’s significant that these very ancient birds have survived so long in their present form. Could it be because they understand the value of living in community, perhaps acting as models for humans who, for the most part, seem to have forgotten what genuine community might consist of?

 

Most recently these birds have been a presence in my life since last November when they first arrived, I believed for a brief stopover, before moving south to places like the Bosque del Apache to spend the winter. When I first came to New Mexico almost three years ago I was astonished and bewildered by their haunting collective cries even when I couldn’t see them which was most of the time during the month of November…

 

This year the cranes not only stopped by but many decided to spend the winter here much to my great joy, perhaps a result of Climate Change which is shifting their migration patterns and created conditions like the extreme drought that dramatically lowered the level of the river over this last year.

 

My hypothesis is that the resulting shallow riffles in Red Willow River (one of which just happens to be below my house) provided many cranes with the safety they needed to roost there all winter long. For three precious months I listened with awe and wonder to pre-dawn crane murmuring and on sunny mornings watched groups of cranes take to the air with their haunting br-rilling cries. Every night I would stand outside to listen to that same contented collective murmuring just before dark as the cranes settled in for the night. When they are all talking to one another (cranes need to be in constant contact with each other) it is hard to distinguish one voice from another because listening to the whole is a symphonic masterpiece. But this winter I slowly learned to identity various cries by listening to smaller groups as they took to the sky. The highest pitched belong to the youngsters, the lowest and most full bodied calls come from the males and the females speak in tongues from the middle.

 

Sandhill Cranes are omnivores and feed on land or in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water during the warmer seasons. They prefer a diet of seeds and cultivated grains but also include berries, tubers, crayfish worms, frogs, small animals and insects. In the field next to me they fed on wild sunflower seeds and grasses.

 

As previously mentioned Climate Change is shifting migration patterns. Some groups are now spending their entire lives in one place like Florida (these are endangered), others are no longer migrating further south than Tennessee, although they also fly north in the spring. It is unusual to have cranes living in Northern New Mexico, although I understand from local fishermen that a few have occasionally remained here throughout the winter. I recently learned that Sandhill Cranes have even been seen in parts of Maine.

 

Their normal migration routes take them from Mexico as far northwest as Siberia into the Canadian Shield and Alaska to breed with one major stopover in Nebraska at the Platte river where 600,000 cranes meet to rest themselves before making the last leg of their arduous and dangerous seasonal journey (another group that settles further northeast makes a stop in Mississippi). In the fall all northern populations will make the trip south for the winter because of inclement weather and lack of food.

 

New Mexico and Texas have the dubious distinction of being the first states to legalize crane slaughter and now every state along their central flyway except Nebraska engages in spring and fall hunting. We can thank the state Fish and Wildlife organizations for “managing” the crane population by issuing licenses to kill these magnificent birds to bring in even more money when these organizations are already extremely well supported financially by the NRA and our taxpayer money. A Caveat to those that don’t know: All State Fish and Wildlife agencies, that purport to support wildlife have a deadly hidden agenda: to kill birds and animals at their discretion.

 

Although at present these birds appear to be maintaining a stable population the low survival rate of even one chick a year alerts us to the fact that uncertain survival rates and delayed reproduction factor into the difficulties inherent in crane conservation, and to that we must now add Climate Change – the ultimate unknown. It is prudent to recall that by conservative estimates we have already lost 50 percent of our non – human species.

 

When I first began to hear the cranes I never imagined that I would start to see them or watch them make gracious descents into a neighboring field at all times of the day, every day for months. Watching them cup their wings, drop their long legs and spread their tails as they parachute to the ground is a gift that I have never taken for granted. A solitary musical rolling rill, a haunting cry that raises the hair on my arms is a sound that now lives on in my mind and body.

 

Spring migration has begun and the largest aggregations of cranes are moving north. Some days the bowl of blue sky feels too empty, but some small flocks are still visible especially during the early morning and again at dusk. I noted the sudden loss of large flocks just before this last full moon and wondered if these birds also migrated at night. Further research confirmed that Sandhill cranes sometimes do migrate after dark during the week before and after full moons.

 

A few days ago the Core of Engineers opened the Abiquiu dam raising the river and the protected riffles below my house disappeared, so during this last week in February I am without the morning joy of listening to nearby pre-dawn murmuring, but can still see and hear some cranes flying by. According to my friend Barbara R. some flocks remain at the Bosque del Apache, so hopefully we will be hearing their haunting cries for a while. It isn’t until April that all Sandhills reach the Platte River …

 

Pueblo people say that humans were once Cranes who lived in the clouds… they came to earth and danced for joy in the rain… Cranes also watched over ceremonies and remain a part of some Indigenous rituals today. Sandhills also act as Guardians for the People easing transitions from life to death and beyond….

 

Cranes are Elders in every sense of the word, ancient relatives and they continue on, some adapting, others following unknown scripts or patterns that stretch back to antiquity. The way they live, migrating out of seasonal necessity, returning to home – places, celebrating through community and song in life and death is a way of being that embodies flowing like a river… And for that, their magnificent beauty and inherent wisdom, I thank them.

 

I close this narrative with a Zuni prayer about the relationship between Cranes, Water and the Rebirth of Spring.

 

“When our Earth Mother

is replete with living waters,

When spring comes

The source of our flesh –

All the different kinds of corn

We shall lay to rest in the ground.

 

With their Earth Mother’s

Living waters,

They will be made into

New Beings…

 

That our Earth Mother

May wear a fourfold green robe

Full of moss

Full of flowers

Full of pollen,

 

That the land may be thus

(S/he has made you)

I have made you into living beings.

Migration and Sandhill Cranes

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(murmurings at dawn)

 

Migration is a patterned movement from one place to another that occurs in all major animal groups – birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and crustaceans (Migration may also occur at the cellular level).

Migration can occur seasonally or just once in a lifetime. Animals migrate primarily to find food and to reproduce.

It’s important to distinguish between animals that migrate seasonally for food and reproduction from those who are forced to leave one place for another because of human induced habitat loss, insecticidal use, and Climate Change.

Like scientists, I have been intrigued by both processes (one normal, the other not) since we know so little about how animals know what they know, whether theories about migration are true or not, and because unfortunately whatever capabilities animals have developed over millennia are also being interrupted by Climate Change in ways that we can rarely comprehend. Animals must adapt faster than ever before to survive.

Multitudes of studies indicate that migrating species probably use a wide variety of mechanisms to navigate, including the stars, the sun and moon, olfactory (chemical) cues, internal circadian rhythms that change in response to the seasons, and Earth’s magnetic field (which is shifting more dramatically due to ice melt in the arctic).

Some species may learn their migration routes by first traveling with experienced individuals, but other species are able to migrate without prior experience, an ability that still baffles the scientific community and keeps me mindful of controversial field theory as a possible partial explanation for successful patterned migration.

The latter postulates that each animal has access to its own biological/morphic (family) field and can tap into that field for information and guidance. This theory might help explain why some animals are able to navigate thousands of miles without direct parental assistance. Migration requires a lot of energy and many individuals die during migration. Despite these heavy costs, the potential benefits of migration are great, which is why migration behavior has evolved in so many species.

Approximately 1,800 of the world’s 10,000 bird species migrate each year. Many of these migrations are north-south, with species feeding and breeding in high northern latitudes in the summer, and moving some hundreds or thousands of miles south for the winter. However, it must be mentioned that some birds begin to migrate before food supplies even decline, suggesting that seasonal changes in day light or some innate and/or evolving mechanism tells the birds that it’s time to leave.

The shifting range of the Sandhill cranes makes me particularly curious because it seems to be related to Climate Change/global warming. These birds once migrated into Mexico each winter. Now some populations only fly as far south as Tennessee and other south –eastern states, and others remain in Florida throughout the year.

Every spring 400,000 to 600,000 Sandhill cranes—80 percent of all the cranes on the planet—congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska, to fatten up on grain in preparation for the remainder of their journey to Siberian, arctic and subarctic nesting grounds. This migration used to begin in mid-February and end in mid-April but for the last two years the birds have begun arriving in Nebraska earlier than ever before. The cranes have also been spotted in western and southern Maine during the spring since the year 2000.

Sandhill Cranes have been in their present form for 30 million years. They have a life span of 35 years and are slow to reproduce delaying breeding from two to eight years so population growth is slow (0.3 chicks actually survive the first year). Fortunately, people have been captivated by the migrations of these magnificent birds so a few sanctuaries have been established to help the species survive. A slow reproductive rate has been a key obstacle to conservation and ‘management’ of the species, keeping these birds at risk.

Sandhill Cranes hold an important place in art throughout the world figuring in traditional Japanese and American Indigenous peoples art where their mesmerizing dances and graceful postures find their way into Native weavings, paintings and dances as well as appearing in contemporary culture.

This winter Abiquiu has been graced with flocks of Sandhill Cranes who have stayed for the whole season, much to my joy and delight. Although, I understand that some cranes have wintered here in previous years at least three big flocks have been flying overhead and roosting down below my house on the other side of the river since late November making me appreciative of the possible short term positive consequences of Climate Change.

We may not know how migration works, but we do know the patterns of migration are changing and that Climate Change is a reality. My fervent hope is that somehow most species, who are all our “elders” – humans, after all have only been around for 200,000 years – (plants for 450 million years, animals for 350 million years) – may possess strategies that we can’t even imagine to survive the damage that we have brought upon all living things including ourselves.

The Amazing Scarlet Runner Bean

 

IMG_1503.JPG(Phaseolus coccineus) – photo from my garden

 

About 30 years ago I was visiting a neighbor for the first time early one August when I spied the most extraordinary vine of brilliant orange pea sized flowers cascading from an emerald climber that stretched across the entire wire wall of a huge vegetable garden. Eileen left an eight foot arch open by tying back some of the vines for an entrance. The vines were massive, at least 12 to 15 feet high and at least 100 feet long, and I could see and hear the sound of joyful ruby throated hummingbirds as they buzzed from one blossom to another as millions of bees, swallowtails, and monarchs swooped through the air lighting upon loose tendrils that were attempting to find purchase somewhere by climbing on the backs of their neighbors. To say I was transfixed by the sight is an understatement. I lost time in the blue and gold mountain field in Western Maine as I stood there astonished and bewildered by such abundance and beauty.

 

Returning to ordinary time, and gathering my wits about me, I asked my new friend about the vine and was only then I was formerly introduced to the magnificent Scarlet Runner bean. As we wandered down the fence line Eileen told me that she had grown up in the south and had been surrounded by these vines since she was a child; she was then a woman in her late sixties. As we peeked into the plethora of leaves I was delighted to see small green beans developing from the flowers and was told that these beans were delicious to eat, especially when picked while still young. I had been a gardener all my life – how had I missed learning about such a plant?

 

By the time I left Eileen’s house that afternoon I had a whole handful of shiny deep mauve and black kidney shaped beans in my hand for next year’s planting. These were heirloom seeds that Eileen had been given by her own mother. I was ecstatic.

 

This was the beginning of my love affair with Scarlet Runner beans, an affair that continues into the present. The first year I grew them they took over the entire back porch. I soon learned to plant even more vines like Eileen had so the deer could feast on the bounty too.

 

One spring a black bear watched me place my seeds into rich loam from behind his spindly screen of bushes, and that very night Little Bee came back and dug up every bean that I had planted (An endless curiosity is a fundamental aspect of friendly backyard bears)!

 

As the years passed my own wild unkempt garden was covered in more and more Scarlet Runner vines, flowers, and beans. I discovered to my surprise that black bears also loved to eat the blossoms and seed pods. Even with all the competition, I had plenty of fresh green beans and took endless joy out of watching so many bees, butterflies, bears, deer, and hummingbirds feast along with me.

 

About ten years ago when colony collapse devastated the honey bee population the bumblebees took over, but I couldn’t help noticing that overall there were less and less bees and butterflies drinking sweet nectar. Diminishment of various species is invisible to some. Only during the last two summers I spent in Maine did I have fewer hummingbirds…

 

Every year after the harvest I gathered and gave away seed gems to friends who seemed to appreciate them as much as I did – passing on the priceless gift of un contaminated heirloom seeds – seeds that held a future free of human manipulation within each be- jeweled skin.

 

When I moved to New Mexico I brought a few beans with me and my friend Iren was the first recipient of this precious bounty. She, in turn, passed some seeds onto others. Last summer her entire back fence was covered in gorgeous plants. Here in New Mexico the vines don’t grow quite as tall but they are still abundant, and during July deer and elk ate some of Iren’s blossoms (but there were plenty left for her to harvest).

 

Here, I planted my beans in a pot above ground. I do not recommend this practice. These beans need ample water and need to be planted in the Earth to thrive (mine had yellowing leaves). I also noted the effect the intense heat had on the beans. The plants didn’t start producing beans until August though we planted in mid – May, I believe. It’s important to know that Scarlet Runners will not survive frost. What I did notice is that butterflies (swallowtails) and a number of different bees flocked to the flowers. Hummingbirds loved them!

 

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the history of Scarlet Runner beans began in North America. These beans are native to the highlands of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years.

 

This climbing plant is one of the oldest documented beans known to humans!

 

Native Americans consumed almost every part of the plant including the starchy root. Some Indigenous tribes regard the Scarlet Runner bean as a sacred plant. The plants seem to pulse with the life force, at least for me.

 

Today, Scarlet Runner beans are usually grown as annuals for the obvious reasons – their showy flowers and their edible pods and seeds. I recently learned that they are unusual among bean species because they are perennial in places where the ground doesn’t freeze and they climb in a clockwise direction. In retrospect I wondered if they were grown as perennials in the south where Eileen once lived.

 

I remember Iren asking me if you could cook the dried beans. My friend Eileen had never mentioned the practice so I didn’t know until I did this research that here in the U.S. consumers, up until recently, were more likely to find the shelled dried beans to cook than seeds to plant! Mature dried Scarlet Runner beans are ¾ inch in length. They can be cooked like Pinto or Pink beans and used in dishes such as soups and stews. Scarlet Runner beans are less starchy than Lima beans with a nutty garden-fresh flavor. These beans are also known by the common names of Scarlet Conqueror, Fire beans, Mammoth beans, Red Giant beans, and Scarlet Emperor beans.

 

Today, of course there are many cultivars to choose from but I prefer the lineage I have because I know those seeds originated at a time that preceded spraying etc.; they also have sentimental value. If anyone is interested in the gift of a few seeds please contact me at Sara@megalink.net.

 

With that much said so much is happening with seed savers across the country that it is now possible to buy heirloom seeds from a number of companies. This year when I attend the Tewa Women’s Seed Exchange I plan to bring some of my Scarlet Runner beans from last year’s harvest. My guess is that Iren will do the same!