The Legacy of Rachel Carson – Silent Spring?

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According to The Guardian and every other source I consulted krill (zooplankton) have suffered an 80 percent decline beginning in the 70’s and currently the loss of krill is creating a starvation scenario for many marine animals from whales to penguins.

 

A recent article in The New York Times states that we have also lost 80 percent of the insects on the planet. Insects and krill (zoo plankton) are at the bottom of the food chain and the loss of these animals on land and in the water is nothing short of catastrophic because all other life forms including humans depend on them to survive.

 

On land the insect loss is directly tied to insecticide use. In the water, pollution (partially due to insecticide use), and increased industrial fishing for krill are culprits.

 

Human induced Climate Change is also a fundamental factor.

 

How is it possible that we are unwilling/unable to face the fact that we are actively engaged in the process of our own self – destruction?

 

I am writing this article on May Day. The cottonwood trees are feathered with pale green leaves, emerald green shoots and wildflowers abound. Gardens and fields are being tilled and planted. Adequate rain has blessed us creating seemingly unbelievable abundance. The river is a raging brown torrent ripping away the fragile shoreline; the acequias are running. The earth continues to celebrate renewal even as life on this planet becomes more threatened with each passing day.

 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson probably because I have had only one tree frog singing through the cottonwoods. I feel the loss of the abundance of these amphibians keenly, recognizing that pesticides are to blame. I have also spent time in gardening places where all sorts of deadly chemicals are still being sold much to my raging disbelief.

 

My relationship with Rachel Carson stretches back to childhood. I remember being so proud of the fact that I could read her book “The Edge of the Sea” at age twelve and understand everything she said. After moving from Monhegan Island to Southport Maine as a young mother, I discovered that Rachel Carson’s cottage was situated in the woods just behind my house. Although she died five years before I moved to Southport I suspect her influence on me lived on fueling my need to speak out as an environmental Earth activist, even now.

 

Rachel Carson, writer, scientist, and ecologist, grew up in the rural river town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her mother bequeathed to her a life-long love of nature and the living world that Rachel expressed first as a writer and later as a student of marine biology. Carson graduated from Chatham University in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

 

She began a fifteen-year career in the federal service as a scientist and editor and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Carson wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and edited scientific articles, but in her free time she wrote her first book, Under the Sea Wind. In 1952 she published her prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us. She won a National Book Award, a national science writing-prize and a Guggenheim grant, which, with the book’s sales, enabled her to move to Southport Island, Maine in 1953 to concentrate on writing. This book was followed by The Edge of the Sea published in 1955. Together, these books created a biography of the ocean and made Carson publically famous as a naturalist and science writer. Carson resigned from government service in 1952 to devote herself to her writing.

 

Carson’s prophetic Silent Spring (1962) was written in response to the chemical pesticide use that became rampant after World War II. She also recognized that pesticides were killing her beloved birds. The book was first serialized in The New Yorker and then became a best seller, creating worldwide awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution.

 

Silent Spring suggested that the planetary ecosystem was reaching the limits of what it could sustain. She challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. Carson courageously stood behind her warnings of the consequences of indiscriminate pesticide use despite the threat of lawsuits from the chemical industry and accusations that she was too emotional and grossly distorted the truth (criticisms I too have endured as a nature writer – at least I am in good company).

 

Carson was also attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but continued to speak out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem.

 

Outlining the dangers of chemical pesticides graphically, the book eventually led to a nationwide ban on DDT after Carson’s death, and sparked a movement that ultimately led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

 

From my point of view probably the most important aspect of Carson’s writings is her view that human beings were just one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irrevocably.

 

Unfortunately, except for a few folks and some Indigenous peoples, these ideas with respect to species equality and the human ability to alter the earth’s ecology permanently are not part of the dominant cultural reality, especially in this country.

 

It is difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that up to the present we continue to export DDT and other toxic chemicals to third world countries like Mexico and South America, apparently believing that the toxicity in their water, soil and air will not have an effect on us while those of us who can afford it buy organic whatever.

 

Silent Spring was written in 1962 and almost 60 years later pesticide use continues unabated. It is rarely mentioned that now we have even more lethal chemicals to use in our backyards. As far as I can tell the EPA was left behind somewhere back in the last century. By conservative estimates we have lost 50 percent of the non-human species on earth. How can we continue to believe that we will be able to survive these losses? We are on the edge of our own extinction.

 

As I walk out the door into this glorious blue, green, and gold May Day I am heartsick. Every year we draw closer to ‘silent spring,’ the one without renewal.

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On the Subject of Black Bears

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( a friend of mine named BB)

 

About two weeks ago my dogs and I had a glorious experience in a remote well wooded area. I had identified fresh bear sign and the three of us were following bear tracks into a steep gully when we came upon a young golden brown bear who emerged from behind a boulder to regard us with curiosity. When I spoke to him/her quietly the bear watched me intently; I lost time. Unafraid, the youngster eventually meandered on.

 

And then, twice in the last week, I attended presentations during which people literally winced and moaned when the subject of Black bears was raised.

 

As a researcher who conducted a formal fifteen – year academic study of these remarkable animals, I experienced the usual crushing dismay that Black bears continue to be perceived as such a threat to humans, when the truth is that they evolved as a prey animal, and remain so today. Black bears are cautious around humans unless they have been terrorized by them; then they avoid people at all costs. A human has a one in a million chance of being killed by a Black Bear; one is 17 more times likely to die of a spider bite.

 

How has the Black bear become such a perceived threat to humankind especially in this country?

 

One reason is that we are a culture that is hell bent on keeping the outdated “man against nature” paradigm alive. This perspective pits humans against all non – human species with a vengeance. In addition, the unconscious psychological mechanism of projection allows people to ascribe human killer tendencies/evil onto hapless animals giving us permission to kill them indiscriminately. We also imagine that we are separate and superior to every species but our own. How else could we continue to destroy the planet that is our home without whose resources we could not survive?

 

Of course, this cultural attitude of senseless fear of Black bears in particular (and all wild animals by extension) is also generated in this country by powerful special interest organizations like the NRA that deliberately uses the myth of the killer bear for its own benefit while pontificating that we have the “right” to bear arms, regardless of character or self responsibility. This current explosion of men with guns has created a crisis of monumental proportions at the cost of lives, human and non-human alike.

 

One critical lesson I have learned in my life is to watch what people say and what they actually do. If there is a split between the two, pay attention to what these folks do and not what they say – talk is cheap. The so called state Wildlife organizations say they are interested in caring for/saving animals but what they do is to make money from ordinary folk and support hunters who slaughter animals as a matter of course. These people also expose their colossal arrogance/ignorance by stating as “truth” that all wild animals need to be managed by humans when animals have been around for 350 million years and humans for about 200,000 years. How utterly absurd.

 

There is something deeply repellent to me about the state fish and game folks who want us to slaughter bears for “fun” and for trophies, rarely for food. In fact here in New Mexico the head of a black bear is the symbol for our state wildlife organization.

 

There are a number of theories that attempt to address why bears in particular are so feared by humans. One of the most popular (not scholarly) of these is that humans were originally prey animals so we “instinctively” fear black bears and all wild animals. In this way of thinking the story is written into our DNA. The problem with this theory (and please remember that theories are intellectual ideas, and not truth with a capital “T”) is that it contradicts a multitude of children’s studies that indicate just the opposite – namely that very young children appear to be universally drawn to wild animals, especially bears, and are not afraid of them. There are many European children’s fairy tales that focus on the special relationship between bears and children. The helpful bear saves, protects, or imparts hidden knowledge to the children (especially girls) – like how to trust one’s instincts. In this country Native peoples honor the bear as a great healer/protector. Children who are afraid of animals have been taught to fear them by the adults around them.

 

And this brings me around to the power of the image to influence human perception. Look at any hunting magazine and you will note the frightening predatory look of the animal on the front cover. In Maine I used to dread August not just because it ushered in bear hunting season but also because in every store the covers of all the hunting magazines portrayed a GIANT Black Bear as a vicious bloody killer roaring with a huge open mouth full of teeth (contrary to popular belief, bears don’t roar at all). Exaggerating the size of an animal to generate unrealistic fear is something that every hunting magazine and state agency routinely does. Most adult male Black bears run about 250 pounds and yet these magazines/agencies always use the pictures of the exception to the general rule – the one that weighs 400 pounds – and is probably a captive animal. Most Black bears don’t survive long enough in the wild to attain a weight that even approaches this number, because the majority are shot as yearlings or sub adults. Yet, these horrific images work on us below the threshold of our awareness especially if we have no relationship to the wilderness and the wild animals around us. We have all been socialized/inculcated into a culture that supports the idea that any wild animal is “automatically” dangerous to humans. And creating mindless fear and revulsion for profit is something advertisers do well.

 

In reality Black bears are extremely shy, intelligent, curious animals that learn to avoid people unless people choose to befriend them as I did. My trust-based study was based on my ability to develop a personal relationship with any bear that would tolerate my presence and allow me entrance into her/his world. Needless to say, many would not. Too shy.

 

What I discovered early on was that Black bears always clearly communicated what they needed/wanted from me. My initial challenge was learning to understand their language. For example, most bears needed me to respect their need for space. Even the bears that chose to interact with me let me know when I got too close by huffing or slapping the ground, twig, bush, tree with a paw. I learned quickly that talking to them quietly relieved their anxiety. When badly frightened Black bears moan like children, or do the opposite, hiss and slap branches while hugging the upper limbs of their trees which they co –evolved with. Too often a bear’s anxiety is interpreted as aggression. It’s worth repeating that the Black bear evolved on this continent as a prey animal who was/is totally dependent on tree cover for protection (Infant bears begin climbing shortly after birth, exploring the den, long before they emerge in the spring and are instantly “treed” by mother to keep them safe).

 

In New Mexico we have a population of about 6000 Black bears that live in remote mountainous terrain, always close to some kind of water. If you happen to meet a Black bear while hiking, please don’t panic. Speak quietly to the animal and give it the space it needs to go on its way. For anyone who is really terrified of bears it is useful to carry a whistle. When blown the bear will disappear in an instant, I promise you I know. Once I was afraid of bears too!

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.

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.