Saturday, June 30, 2007

I Laughed. I Cried. I Laughed Again. I Got Sick.

Thanks to tiponeill (one of my favorite posters over at Faith-Based) for the link.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Endangered Law

The bald eagle was removed yesterday from the "threatened" list created under the Endangered Species Act. The eagle is the best example of how well the ESA has worked; populations of eagles in the lower 48 increased from 417 breeding pairs in 1963 to nearly 10,000 today.

Delisting of the eagle has been somewhat controversial. Environmentalists are concerned that removal of the eagle from the ESA list will enable developers to gobble up eagle habitat (one of the byproducts of the ESA is that protection of habitat of listed species also provides protection for unlisted species). Of course this is part of the reasoning used by the Bush Administration for delisting. Dubya's nature-hating bunch has missed no opportunity to undermine, dodge, or weaken the act. When that isn't practical, they simply change, ignore, or even supress the science behind the act, often with disastrous results. New listings under the act have dwindled to almost none, and every new listing since the beginning of the current administration has been the result of citizen action, rather than a response to government research.

The recovery of the eagle is a cause for celebration. It is also a signal to environmentalists that the Endangered Species Act works, and needs to be protected from the worst government in the nation's convservation history.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Gone to the Canyonlands

I'm leaving in the morning to take a group of students to the Canyonlands region of Arizona and Utah. I'll be back in about 10 days.

Michael Chertoff Tries to Ruin My Day

When I look back over my life, which has been pretty good overall, I sometimes think of days that stand out above the rest. Every great once in a while, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a day that was spectacularly good, from start to finish. One of those days took place at a tiny patch of thorn forest on the Rio Grande River, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in extreme southern Texas.

Before I was a biologist, I began watching birds, and I read about the spectacular birding in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In March of 1991, Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I loaded our binoculars and field guides in our Jeep and headed for Brownsville. Along the way, we saw whooping cranes at Aransas Refuge, and shorebirds at Laguna Atascosa. We visited the Brownsville City Dump to see Mexican (now Tamaulipas) crows, and stopped at a chicken farm to look for crested caracaras at the place where the farmer tossed his dead chickens (we refer to this spot as the “dead chicken ranch”). In Brownsville, we saw buff-bellied hummingbirds at the Sabal Palm Grove sanctuary. But the highlight of the trip was Santa Ana.

We arrived at the refuge early in the morning. Before we got out of the parking lot, we were racking up “life birds” (birdwatchers tend to keep score—any bird you’ve never seen before is a life bird), and as we walked around the pathways of the refuge it became difficult to keep up with all the new birds. We were seeing birds that we didn’t even know existed. Ever heard of a fulvous whistling-duck? We saw some. Least grebe? They were common. Olive sparrows, green kingfishers, tropical kingbirds, and black-bellied whistling ducks all hid in the underbrush or around the impoundments.

We had planned on spending a couple of hours at the refuge, but ended up spending the entire day. At one point, after we had decided to skip lunch to keep birding, I tried to take a picture of a great kiskadee (a type of large, colorful flycatcher, pictured above) who kept teasing me by flitting to the exact opposite side of the bush where he was perched. While I leaned out over the side of the impoundment where the bush was located, my wife pointed out the swarm of ants crawling on my shoe. “Weren’t there signs warning about fire ants?” she asked. The ants were biting me, but it didn’t seem to hurt much. “If these are fire ants,” I said, “they’re overrated.” I’d find out later that night, in our hotel room, that it sometimes takes a while for the “fire” part of the name to be appropriate.

At one impoundment, we watched while a more experienced birder attempted to lure a king rail out of the cattails by making a loud clicking sound. As we waited, other folks came up the trail and excitedly told us about a young jacana who was walking across the lily pads at a nearby pond. Jacanas are gangly-looking shorebirds that are common in Central America, but rare farther north, and we were very lucky to see it.

As we hiked around the refuge trails, we got caught in a sudden downpour, and we raced ahead to a photo blind to take shelter. On the other side of the blind was a feeding station, set up to attract birds out into the open for tourists to see, and we saw exotic-looking green jays and funny little inca doves gobbling up the seeds and cracked corn. After the rain passed, we were determined to finish hiking every trail in the refuge. Unfortunately, the rain turned the trails to mud, and every step we took recoated our sneakers with six or eight inches of sticky, black goo. It grew extremely hot and humid, but we pressed on. Around us, plain chachalacas, odd birds that looked like a cross between a turkey and a hawk, laughed their raucous call at us; we had seen a couple skulking through the underbrush before, but now there seemed to be thousands of them, incessantly mocking us and our slow, muddy progress. Finally we made it back to our car, exhausted, soaked, muddy, hungry, ant- and mosquito-bitten, and maybe as exhilarated as either of us had ever been. We've been back to the refuge several times, and we've always had a great day, but never one as spectacular as our first trip.

What made me think about this fantastic day was a news item I heard today on NPR. As part of its solution to the immigration "crisis" (the ongoing distraction from more important things), the federal government has decided to build a 20-foot tall wall at intermittent points along the Rio Grande in south Texas, apparently including a section through the middle of the Santa Ana refuge. Despite the fact that no one in south Texas wants the wall, that no one believes that the wall will keep illegal aliens out, and that no one knows what the wall will do to the Texas economy or environment, the Department of Homeland Security is going ahead with the building. Biologists at the refuge are worried about the effects the wall will have on the last remaining population of endangered ocelots in the United States. Unfortunately for the ocelots, Michael Chertoff apparently thinks that this wall is important to keep the nation safe from landscapers and nannies (meanwhile, as Letterman likes to say, no word yet on Osama bin Laden).

Thursday, June 14, 2007


This is not news to those of us who pay attention to this sort of thing. Numbers of some of the most common birds are dropping precipitously. Northern bobwhites were quite common in the part of Arkansas where I grew up 40 years ago--now they're rare. What's causing the decline? Habitat destruction, introduced species, pesticides, overharvesting--the usual suspects. Because they're ground nesters, bobwhites may be particulary susceptible to fire ant invasion.

Bobwhites are cheery birds; their perky little whistle was one of my favorite sounds when I was a child. When he was a teenager, my dad raised bobwhites to sell, but grew attached to them, and wasn't able to sell them for their intended use, training bird dogs. Had he lived to see it, he would have been proud of the fact that I studied bobwhites for my master's degree.

Lots of places in Arkansas look like good habitat for these quail, but most often, they're conspicuous by their absence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

With Friends Like These

Here's someone jumping to Mike Huckabee's defense with regard to his belief in creationism. My favorite part is this:
But was that flood a mythical story or historical fact? Some say it's a myth because an account of it appeared in civilizations all over the world. They assert that the tale of the ark, the animals and the flood was such a dramatic story, everyone must have copied off each other...For example, Australian Aborigines, who were rather isolated and not known for their Christian beliefs, have an account of a flood...In Babylon, the story is also remarkably similar, but in their version the boat was a cube seven stories high. Now, I'm not exactly a nautical expert, but it seems to me that that a cube isn't the best design for a floating vessel...
Let's see...are you using the flood myths of other cultures as proof that the flood actually happened, then making fun of the other stories? Oh, the irony. This woman mentions every ridiculous talking point of Young-Earth Creationism, all of which are refuted here, and ends with the astonishing claim that Lucy, the famous austrolopithicine fossil specimen, was a chimp. Huckabee has already established that he doesn't understand the meaning of the word "primate," and apparently his allies also aren't primatologists.

"Exotic" Isn't Always a Good Thing.

The bird in the picture next to this post is a common myna (Acridotheres tristis), a native of southeastern Asia. The picture was taken by me on a Marine Biology field trip. Unfortunately, the trip wasn't to India, but to Florida--I snapped the picture in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Homestead. Florida cities have more birds than do many. Among the most common birds I saw were mynas, collared doves, rock pigeons, starlings, monk parakeets, cattle egrets, house sparrows, and house finches. If you know anything about birds, you know that not one of those species is native to Florida. In fact, Florida has had reports of nearly 200 species of exotic birds. Many of them are known only from a sighting or two, but others, including all of those listed above, have established breeding populations in Florida. Many of these birds are escaped pets--or worse, pets that have been released into the wild by owners tired of caring for them.

So what? Why should we care if a new bird or two is introduced into an area? Exotic birds compete with native birds for food and nesting space. For example, many authorities blame the decline in populations of native bluebirds on the fact that starlings and house sparrows outcompete them for the best nesting sites. Non-native birds may carry infections to which native birds lack any immunity. Non-native birds (such as parakeets and mynas) may act as agricultural pests. If they hybridize with native birds, non-native birds may dilute the gene pool of native birds.

The problem of introduced exotic species receives less attention than some other environmental maladies, but it has the potential to cause great harm to natural ecosystems, and to human activities. Everyone has heard stories of the problems caused by zebra mussels, fire ants, tiger mosquitoes, and killer bees; stories of more bizarre exotics (such as monitor lizards, pythons, and monkeys) are less well known. Despite this, people still seem to ignore the exotic pet trade. Apparently folks in Louisiana are all excited about the possibility of selling red-eared sliders as pets, even though there is the possibility of the turtles carrying salmonella, the turtles don't live very long in captivity (they have the potential to live 40 years in the wild), and no one has determined just what increased pet trade will do to the wild populations. No one seems to be worried about the effects released turtles might have in areas outside their natural range.

Here's the deal: We already have dogs and cats, and they do enough damage to the environment. There is absolutely no need for people to have more exotic pets. This isn't about the "rights" of pet owners--you DO NOT have the right to put your local ecosystem at risk. If you need a pet, shelters are full of cats and dogs that need you, too. Do everyone a favor--pass on the baby alligator. Skip the boa constrictor. Leave the parrots where they belong.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Huckabee's Not a Primate? What, Then?

During the Republican presidential debate last night, Mike Huckabee was asked to clarify his position on evolution (CNN account of the question here). Huckabee didn't like being asked:
"It's interesting that that question would even be asked of somebody running for president," Huckabee said. "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I'm asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States."
Huckabee is showing the same whiny, thin-skinned lack of candor he displayed as governor of Arkansas. (He once cut off contact with the Arkansas Times because they refused to quit asking him tough ethical questions.) But guess what, Mike? You're running for President of the United States. If Bill Clinton could be asked about using a cigar for a sex toy, nothing is off limits--especially not this.

Huckabee answered the question by first seeming to endorse a form of theistic evolution, and if he'd stopped there he might have been okay. But then he defiantly embraced a literalist interpretation of the Bible, although he waffled on whether creation actually took only six days or not. He said, "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it." Apparently Huck doesn't understand the definition of the word "primate." Then he compared himself to Martin Luther, and finally complained about having to defend his beliefs on science, as if he didn't understand the importantace of his viewpoint.

So, let me lay it out for you, Mike: If you can't discern between fact (evolution) and fiction (the Biblical account of creation), whether it's due to stupidity, intellectual laziness, or bull-headedness, then you'll probably also have trouble discerning between Sunni and Shiite, or between Iraq and Al Queda. And we've already seen what a disaster that can be. So you're not qualified to be president OR to write eighth grade science texts (Messers Tancredo, Brownback, McCain, and Romney please take note).

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Sam Brownback--Evolutionist?

Senator Sam Brownback, the right-wing Republican presidential candidate from Kansas wrote an op-ed piece for the May 31 New York Times. In his column, he explains what he meant when he raised his hand during the May 3 Republican presidential debate when the moderator asked which candidates didn't believe in evolution.

The original question was asked of John McCain, who said "I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also." In other words, McCain endorsed a sort of theistic evolution. The question then asked was "is there anybody on the stage that does not agree, believe in evolution?" Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo raised their hands.

Brownback writes:
The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.
Here, Brownback is being disingenuous. McCain clearly stated that he believed in evolution, but that it didn't mean that he was an athiest--that he believed that God had a hand in putting together the world. Brownback is simply trying to have his cake and eat it, too--to claim that he believes in evolution, even though he makes it clear later in the piece that he doesn't agree with any science that contradicts his beliefs:

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
In other words, as long as reality doesn't interfere with Brownback's beliefs, he's all for paying attention to it. Brownback's support for the teaching of intelligent design--warmed-over creationism--is nothing new. My guess is that Brownback truly is a Biblical literalist, but has taken so much crap from the media for that ridiculous stand that he feels the need to disassociate himself from his beliefs--at least until the election is over. His base is not reading the opinion page of the Times, and if they do, they'll understand what's going on.

The Neverending Story--Now with Dinosaurs!

Here is another small skirmish in the neverending war between those who believe that birds are direct descendents of a group of theropod dinosaurs, and those who believe that birds and dinosaurs shared a common ancestor, usually said to be a thecodont reptile. For many, this is thought to be settled science--for example, see the Wikipedia article on the origin of birds. However, a few holdouts, led by Alan Feduccia, continue to maintain that there are many problems with the dinosaur-origins theory. Feduccia presents a strong case against dinosaur origins in his book The Origin and Evolution of Birds. This debate has been going on as long as I have been studying birds; I can't imagine that it will be finally settled any time soon.

Confused creationists sometimes mistake these scientific disputes for evidence that evolutionary theory has "holes" in it. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the way science is supposed to work--one scientist publishes his work, and others examine the work and offer criticisms.