The Not So Common Northern Grackle

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Does anyone remember the days when the arrival of thousands of blackbirds announced that spring was on the way? As a child I recall the bare decidious trees around my grandparents farm were peppered with redwings, cowbirds, starlings and grackles. Most farming people disliked these birds because grackles, especially, loved to feast on grains and corn.

 

Today, redwings still mark the change of the seasons but the clouds of mixed blackbirds are absent because humans have decimated their populations.

 

When a shimmering blue – black Northern grackle appeared at my birdfeeder in late May I was delighted and hoped, that like the Redwing couple, this blackbird would choose to stay. In all these years I have never had a grackle nest here.

 

Last winter I developed a fascination and a deep respect for the grackle as a result of making regular visits to a Walmart in New Mexico that was built near a marsh. I couldn’t resist feeding the Great Tailed grackles hunks of bread as I observed these clever characters hopping about on the ground, dodging people and automobiles while searching for tidbits. These birds had surely adapted to human habitation and this fact impressed me greatly. Adaptability is sign of intelligence. Some of these birds always hung out on the roof with the fake owls that were put there to scare them away.

 

When the pair nested here down by the brook (all grackles like to nest near water) I was delighted because I could continue to observe another related species; I also hoped to learn some of their complex calls.

 

Although I herd the two conversing, for the longest time I never saw the female who is not black but washed in chocolate brown. Two months later I have three young male grackles that visit my feeder along with both of their parents. Although they are omnivores – they eat insects, frogs berries etc. they love sunflower seeds too. If given a choice by the Mourning doves (who scatter seed indiscriminately) grackles prefer to forage on the ground. Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, and raid nests. Grackles have a hard keel on the inside of the upper mandible that they use for sawing open acorns. Typically they score the outside of the narrow end, then bite the acorn open.

 

Northern populations migrate; the rest remain in areas east of the Rockies year round. Along with some other species of grackles, the Northern grackle is known to practice “anting” – rubbing insects that contain formic acid on its feathers to deal with parasites. Though the exact mechanism is poorly understood, several studies have examined the ability of the Northern grackle to interpret the variability of the earth’s magnetic field.

 

I have yet to learn all of the Northern grackle calls, which are complicated by the birds’ uncanny ability to mimic other birds and sometimes even me! The grackles seem to enjoy my company, because whenever I am outside some members of the family join me usually perching high in a nearby pine. They peer down at me with bright yellow – rimmed eyes often making remarks that I have yet to comprehend.

 

Grackles radiate ‘brilliance’, and in fact, studies that have been done on these birds reveal how adept they are at problem solving. For example grackle intelligence 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.

 

It’s important to note that grackles outperformed three species in the Corvid family.

 

Unfortunately the Northern grackle is listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; the species may be approaching extinction. Indiscriminate overuse of pesticides is probably the primary cause. What disturbs me is that most of the literature doesn’t address the issue of Northern grackle decimation probably because it is considered a pest by humans. Many sites continue to suggest that the Northern grackle is widespread and common when just the opposite is the case.

 

In contrast, the Great Tailed grackle seems to be thriving in New Mexico and has expanded its range. At least in the western part of this country one species is not threatened so perhaps all is not lost.

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The Monarch Butterfly

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(Author’s photo of first Monarch butterfly seen third week in July)

 

In late May a friend of mine in Abiquiu told me that he saw at least 10 Monarch butterflies clustered together in one group, a sighting that warmed my heart because the year before I had seen so few.

 

Last year I was fortunate enough to have a milkweed plant seed itself by the casita. When the seeds ripened in the fall I scattered the silky airborne parachutes under the original plant hoping that the milkweed would re –seed. This spring I was rewarded. Three new plants emerged in a place that would be watered as long as we had summer rains. When I left Abiquiu the plants were doing well, but summer would tell the tale…

 

Milkweed is the one plant that Monarchs love and the only plant on which they will lay their eggs. I hoped that a small cluster of these plants might provide sweet nectar that would entice a few more of these butterflies to visit the casita during the summer and during fall migration.

 

It should be mentioned that milkweed also provides an intriguing form of protection for this butterfly. The milkweed juices make the Monarch poisonous to predatory birds. Additionally, the deep orange color of the butterfly alerts predators to the fact that their intended meal might be toxic.

 

Here in Maine I have a field that is covered in milkweed from early July onward. I have raised many Monarch’s to adulthood over a period of thirty years because it has been relatively easy to find the eggs which are laid on the underside of the milkweed leaves beginning in late summer. The scent of the flower is, to me, intoxicating, and the clusters of tiny blossoms are so beautiful to look at in their myriad shades of pale pink salmon.

 

Ever since the milkweed started blooming this summer I have been on the lookout for Monarchs. I saw my first butterfly at Popham beach on the coast where Milkweed plants are plentiful growing amidst the sand dunes, and in wild coastal fields. I then glimpsed two around my house this week, and remain hopeful that I will see more…

 

Monarch butterflies are perhaps best known for their migrating habits. No other butterflies migrate as far; this insect flies up to three thousand miles each year. Millions of these butterflies will fly from Canada to Mexico this fall.

 

More astonishing, this entire trip will take four generations to complete. The Monarchs begin their southern migration September to October. Eastern and northeastern populations, originating in southern Canada and the United States, travel to overwintering sites in central Mexico. They arrive at their roosting trees in November. When the butterflies reach their destination in Mexico they return to the same trees that their forebearers did sometimes roosting deep in the forest. They remain in their roosts during the winter months and then begin their northern migration in March. No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip. Female monarchs lay eggs for a subsequent generation during the northward migration. Four generations are involved in the annual cycle.

 

Western populations, which would include the Monarchs in New Mexico, follow a similar pattern migrating annually from regions west of the Rocky Mountains to overwintering sites on the coast of California.

 

Many folks know that the Monarch butterfly population has dropped 90 percent over the past 20 years (Center for Biological Diversity). The species has become ‘functionally extinct’, meaning that the numbers are so low now that the Monarchs have little hope of long-term survival. Scientists look to Monarchs and other butterflies as indicators of environmental health, since they are easily affected by air and water pollution, severe weather, pesticides, the presence of other toxins and, of course, Climate Change. It breaks my heart to acknowledge that most folks have not paid attention to the decline of these beautiful insects. Globally we are paying a huge price for our blindness and indifference.

 

When it comes to Monarchs the present is what we have, and I encourage anyone that gardens to create a milkweed patch for these wanderers in the hopes that we might extend their collective lifetime a few more years. It’s important to note that milkweed needs adequate water. Refusing to use lethal backyard pesticides and planting milkweed are two things we can do to help these glorious orange insects in the short term.

Luna

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This morning when I took the dogs out around 6 AM I saw a beautiful Luna moth lying on emerald green moss covered ground. By the looks of its antenna I surmised this one was male because its ‘feathers’ were so long. In the past the sight of one of these deceased moths would have made me sad because I know that this moth in its present winged state is birthed without even a mouth to eat, and as soon as it mates it dies. But now I see Luna in a different light, as one whose time to die has come…Besides, I knew that the female that this male had mated with had laid eggs that would one day hatch…

 

When I bent down to pick up the pale green four inch wide insect with its double set of eyes, I noticed how torn and tattered its wings were, perhaps a result of a would be predator that discovered too late how unpleasant these moths can taste. Or perhaps it was just old age.

 

As defense mechanisms, larvae emit clicks as warnings. Surprisingly, they also regurgitate intestinal contents that have a deterrent effect on a variety of predators. The double sets of eyes on the lime green adult wings are believed to confuse predators as well. The elongated tails of the hind -wings are believed to jam echolocation used by predatory bats, although I hardly think bats are a problem around here. I am always amazed that insects have such sophisticated means of protecting themselves!

 

I brought the moth in the house to look at more closely wondering just where around here on the ground the larva had hatched into its adult form. Females lay 200–400 eggs, singly or in small groups, on the underside of leaves. Egg laying starts the evening after mating is completed and goes on for several days. Eggs hatch in about a week.

 

Each instar – the period between molts – generally takes about 4–10 days. There are five instars before cocooning occurs. At the end of each instar, a small amount of silk is placed on the major vein of a leaf and the larva molts leaving its green exoskeleton behind. After the final instar, larvae stay on the same tree where they hatched until it is time to descend to the ground to make a cocoon. At this point the caterpillar will spin its cocoon around a shriveled leaf that is lying on the ground. When females emerge from cocoons they fly to a tree, emit pheromones, and wait there for males to find them. Males can detect these molecules at a distance of several miles, flying in the direction the wind is coming from until reaching the female. Luna moth females mate with the first males to find them, a process that typically starts after midnight and takes several hours. The entire Luna Moth cycle usually occurs in the space of one year. In the North Country one generation of moths is produced.

Luna moths are what are known as giant silk moths – some have wingspans of seven inches. This moth was the first to be recorded in American insect literature. These most magnificent moths have a range that extends from Canada to Florida, and like every other insect this moth is succumbing to habitation loss, pesticides, logging, light pollution and other pressures associated with Climate Change.

There was a time when I used to see these moths each summer… I remember so well the year one fell out of the sky onto my head while I was standing on the porch of my camp… but these days, the sight of each one, living or dead, is a gift to be treasured and written about.

Firefly Night: A Language Made of Light

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My friend Iren from Abiquiu just wrote me that on the full moon some fireflies were lighting up the night down by the river’s edge. I was so happy to hear that news because last summer those diminutive lanterns were absent around the casita even though it is situated close to the river.

 

In my Maine backyard this summer some green and gold lights continue to flash their signals just before dark lasting into the night. I find myself looking for patterns, and counting firefly numbers obsessively, almost against my will, remembering what was…

 

When I first moved to the mountains 30 plus years ago I camped in the field next to the brook and couldn’t fall sleep at night, struck by “lightening bug” wonder. It seemed as if the field itself was on fire with thousands of these magical lights that blinked as they skimmed the tall grasses, glowing like emerald jewels from the ground. When my camp was built it was awash in firefly light, and each year I anxiously awaited magical, mystical summer nights when my nocturnal friends would appear. The first evening or so after they arrived, I couldn’t resist capturing a few to keep in a ventilated jar overnight, just as I had done as a child.

 

When it started I thought it was my imagination. Maybe it was a bad year for fireflies I rationalized, the first summer I noted the absence of an abundance of lights hovering over the field. But I was wrong. Year after year, journal entries confirmed my worst fears. The fireflies were disappearing and there was nothing I could do about it.

 

Even now that I know that our insects are experiencing a holocaust there is a child in me that cannot accept that fireflies are leaving us and that its just a matter of time before these insects disappear for good. I recently read that tourists flock to places where (synchronized) fireflies are still abundant.

 

The grief I feel is visceral.

 

Fireflies are winged beetles. When a chemical called luciferin inside their abdomen/tail combines with oxygen, calcium and adenosine triphosphate a chemical reaction occurs that results in bioluminescence. This ‘cool’ light is the most efficient in the world because almost 100 percent of the energy used is emitted as light and not heat.

 

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term “glowworm” can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult female fireflies—some of which are not in the firefly family Lampyridae. Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent.

 

Each species uses it own pattern of lightening flashes to attract a mate, and most fascinating is that some fireflies synchronize their yellow, pale red, green, or orange lights. Several studies have shown that female fireflies choose mates depending upon specific male flash pattern characteristics. Higher male flash rates, as well as increased flash intensity, have been shown to be more attractive to females in two different firefly species.

 

Many would be predators are repelled by firefly blood that contains defensive steroids which apparently taste awful!

 

Some firefly larvae can emit light from underground, and in some species the eggs glow. The underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous and feast on slimy slugs, worms and snails. Others live in the water, have gills and eat aquatic snails before coming ashore. Most adult fireflies feast on pollen and nectar.

 

Three main factors for firefly disappearance are habitat loss (when fields are paved over fireflies don’t migrate; they simply disappear – this fact may suggest that these insects may be tied to a particular place), logging, toxic chemicals like DEET (which tend to linger in aquatic environments where many fireflies start their lives), and light pollution.

 

Most species of fireflies thrive as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter at the margins of ponds and streams. And as they grow, they more or less stay where they were born. Some species are more aquatic than others, and a few are found in more arid areas—but most are found in fields, forests and marshes. Their environment of choice is warm, humid and near standing water of some kind—ponds, streams and rivers, or even shallow depressions that retain water longer than the surrounding ground.

As previously mentioned both male and female fireflies use their flashing lights to communicate. All species speak a language of light.

Human induced artificial light pollution (including those cute little solar lights) may interrupt firefly flash patterns. Scientists have observed that synchronous fireflies get out of sync for a few minutes after a car’s headlights pass. Light from homes, cars, stores, and streetlights may make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season. Where fireflies once had uninterrupted forests and fields to live and mate, homes with landscaped lawns and lots of exterior lights (that some people leave on all night) are now the norm.

I find it distressing that so many folks are obsessed with the idea and the reality of ‘Light’ in all its manifestations and yet we are losing the very creatures who actually speak the language made of light.

Consciousness – a universal reality?

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In Self Organizing Universe Jantsch writes that If consciousness is defined as the degree of autonomy a system has with its environment even the simplest autopoietic systems have a form of consciousness.

 

Christian de Quincy Dean of Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University states in interview with Dean Radin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences that consciousness is probably not “energy” as we commonly understand the word although it co-exists with energy. Consciousness according to de Quincy is not a result of complexity but is part of every living organism at every stage of its development.

 

Dr Rupert Sheldrake, biologist/plant physicist/author states the same idea when he posits that consciousness extends outward to include all of nature and that some kind of mental activity or consciousness is present in all physical systems at all levels of organization from electrons to galaxies.

 

In a Trialogue with Rupert Sheldrake and Terrence McKenna, Ralph Abraham, (the latter best known for his work on dynamical systems/chaos theory) speculates that all Nature is conscious. His notion that the origin of the unconscious is a relatively new phenomenon that arose as human began to populate the planet makes a great deal of sense. It seems to me that the shadow side of humanity/evil may be a human construction. Perhaps humans developed the unconscious so that they would not have to deal with living through instinct, or deal with suffering their “animal” (soul) selves? Certainly, humans regularly project their shadow elements onto hapless creatures in the wild in order to kill, identify with, or admire them.

 

Charles Russell a well known black bear and grizzly bear naturalist and author believes that co-existing peacefully with wild grizzly and black bears of is possible when trust, love, intelligent behavior, continual self assessment, and respect are present on the part of the naturalist. Furthermore, he believes that all animals when approached in this manner will expand human consciousness.

 

Rupert Sheldrake also suggests that consciousness includes both the field of the body as well as the mind. This field of awareness and subjectivity or consciousness could also be expressed as the soul of an individual, animal or human (personal communication 2011). In this way of thinking the soul is both within and around all species that inhabit this planet. This is not a new idea but it has been suppressed by our materialistic/technocratic culture with devastating results. To the Greeks the “Anima mundi” was the Soul of Nature or the World Soul. Anima, of course, is the Latin word for soul; Animal is derived from the word animate, and to animate is to breathe life into an organism.

 

Animals are experts at developing awareness for survival purposes. Humans have to make a more deliberate conscious choice to enter the field of the “other” especially if that field is not human. As I have already mentioned it has been my experience that we communicate with non human beings most effectively through our bodies, and that this bridge is created unconsciously from body to body when we enter each other’s archetypal/ morphogenetic form producing fields.

 

When I began my study with bears I already assumed that fields existed on an archetypal and biological level. Thus I was in the position to make an intention to enter the field of the bears in a participatory way to learn from them. I wanted to learn about bears from their point of view, as well as mine and this intention/attention probably helped me to keep an open mind.

 

Although the subject of consciousness in humans, let alone in animals, is hotly debated and beyond the scope of this essay to discuss in depth, it is important to recognize that there is an enormous amount of research being done in this area and what consciousness is remains an open question to scientists and philosophers alike.

A Blinding Light?

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Nature is a Living Being. Animals and plants have souls, and a spirit. Each species is unique, and yet we are all interconnected, human and non – human species alike. This is more than a both and perspective; its multi-dimensional.

 

Many books are written about using nature to heal humanity of its ills. ‘Recreate’. Climbing a mountain, or taking a walk are common examples of using nature to help ourselves, but how many of us are asking the question of how we can give back?

 

This is a question I was obsessed with for about thirty years and may be the reason I gained entrance into this seemingly secret world that we call Nature.* When I experienced unconditional love from both animals and plants I needed to reciprocate in kind. This idea of reciprocity between humans and the rest of Nature is probably similar to what Indigenous peoples experienced because they loved (or feared) and learned directly from animals, plants and trees. They respected animals, for example, for their unique qualities. Indigenous people never psychologized Nature the way westerners routinely do.

 

I rarely read books about Nature anymore because I am so troubled by this psychologizing. From my point of view psycho-babble is just another way of dismissing the reality of Nature as a living feeling, sensing, sentient Being.

 

To demonstrate this “normalized” way of looking at Nature I use an argument that I recently read as an example: Humans assign meaning to individual animals, trees etc. where there isn’t any, or because of projection (the unconscious human tendency to ascribe human tendencies onto other human/non human species). Or, more generously, these entities have intrinsic meaning of their own, but whatever it is has nothing to do with us. In the first meaning is absent. Projection dismisses nature as irrelevant, useful only as an appendage to human centered thinking. In the third argument nature may have meaning but it has nothing to do with humankind. With these arguments dominating our thinking, it is no wonder that we are destroying the planet.

 

We are totally split away from the experiential, the idea often based on personal experience, that we are related to other living creatures.

 

The purpose of Nature is not to serve mankind. Nature’s primary drive is to ensure the survival of all species. Does this mean that S/he has no interest in humans? Quite the opposite. There is a peculiar “both and” aspect to Nature. Although focused on the whole Nature seems to need and thrive on personal attention; S/he responds to our devotion allowing for example, the animals we befriend, to offer friendship in return. As a naturalist I have been privileged to enter into a relationship with Nature that allows me to ‘converse’ regularly with individuals and even the elements, especially that of water.

 

Experiences in Nature, if we are in relationship with her elements/creatures sometimes reveals new information or a glimpse of the immediate future. Here’s a painful example:

 

Yesterday I saw great blue heron fly into a nearby bog – the first thud. I call this one the ‘dark god’ because usually when I see a heron I can expect some personal difficulty to arise (it is ironic that I find these birds so beautiful). Later, on the phone with my son, I witnessed and dimly registered the retreating male grouse as a deadly mother – son conversation unfolded. The birds’ combined presence in one day: the heron, and later, the grouse (the one bird I associate with my son) retreating behind the fence as I was on the phone speaking with him revealed the eventual outcome before it occurred.

 

Desertion in time of need.

 

The appearance of these two birds also indicated that nothing I could have done would have mattered.

 

The script had already been written.

 

The reader is probably wondering how this happens. Here is one possibility: the soul aspect of an animal that is closely connected to a particular person might be constellated during a time of positive or negative emotional intensity. I define soul as the invisible bodily aspect of self – it’s personal – not transpersonal – that can move through the space between a human and a human or a human and an animal that an individual has a relationship with. Or both. The strength of relationship is key to this form of communication, which can also be termed telepathic. In this case I was familiar with the grouse as a bird that was tied to my son’s life in an intimate way. The birds’ behavior preceded my son’s actual rejection, which didn’t actually occur until hours after the phone call ended.

 

It is my experience that heightened awareness allows us to read Nature much like we would read a book and that what we have to do is to pay close attention to our relationships (either positive or negative) with our non – human relatives, something I do as a matter of habit during the course of each day. I note that these occurrences also seem to increase in frequency and peak during times of natural power like solstices and equinoxes. So it is not surprising to me that this incident occurred so near the summer solstice, a time of almost blinding light.

 

* I capitalize the word Nature not necessarily to deify the natural world but to highlight “Her” importance, and to protest the earth’s apparent insignificance to westerners. I experience different aspects of Nature as both female and male.

 

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Deet, a Hidden Killer?

We all know that ticks and mosquitos are a problem here in Maine. Recently, when I went to the supermarket to buy a non-toxic insect spray to use around my door I was astonished and dismayed to discover that all but one spray used Deet (I came home and ordered lemon eucalyptus oil). Granted, Deet is the most widely used insect repellent in the U.S. It has been around longer than any other active ingredient, and many scientists say it’s the ‘gold’ standard for all repellents.

Deet known to chemists as N,N – Diethyl – meta – toluamide is a yellowish liquid that, when applied to skin or clothing, repels a number of biting insects, including mosquitoes (some sources say it does not repel mosquitos at all!), ticks, and fleas. The chemical was created by USDA chemists in the 1940s for use by the U.S. military. It has been commercially available since 1957 and has since become commonplace.

 

“How this chemical kills insects remains a mystery to scientists.”

 

Does anyone besides me find this statement alarming?

 

Deet is a pesticide that has been banned in many countries in Europe – but is considered safe in US. Why? There is no direct (key word) relationship between D and neurological disorders say the “experts.”

 

Many people routinely use this product on their skin or clothes – What we do know is that this product kills amphibians, fish, and reptiles along with insects – and almost immediately ends up in the nearest water source. We all drink it and don’t know it.

 

Although Deet is not supposed to stay in the environment for long we have absolutely no idea what damage it does to the rapidly disappearing helpful insects etc. while it’s there.

 

After living in New Mexico where bees, butterflies and other insects are still relatively common pollinators I wondered why the loss of bees is so much more severe here in Maine. This year, although my many fruit trees were all blooming profusely I never saw more than a few bumblebees disappearing into the flower heads for nectar (I used to be able to stand under my fruit trees listening to a deafening collective bee hum).

 

To answer the above question I looked to the use of pesticides. While living in New Mexico I lived in a desert where grass was absent and the common garden variety of deadly insecticides like Round –Up weren’t needed to control pests. Annoying mosquitos were only found at the river’s edge and Lyme ticks were non – existent. No need to sell Deet in the desert. Of course agribusiness still uses other deadly pesticides, although not in Rio Arriba County where I live because people, especially Indigenous peoples, have banned the use of these products. Each Pueblo sells pure (and the most delicious) honey from honey bees that have not been exposed to antibiotics.

 

I reached the tentative conclusion that the use of common pesticides like Deet might be responsible for the shocking absence of pollinators here; at least that’s my present hypothesis.

 

I thought about biologist/scientist/environmentalist Rachel Carson’s prophetic book Silent Spring  that was written almost 60 years ago. Deet was one of the chemicals that environmentalist/scientist/biologist Rachel Carson objected to.

 

Written in response to all rampant chemical pesticide use after World War II. Silent Spring suggested that the planetary ecosystem was reaching the limits of what it could sustain. Rachel challenged the practices of agricultural scientists, the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world, warning the public about the dire consequences of indiscriminate pesticide use.

 

Maybe we should have listened.