Posts Tagged ‘place’

If All The Human Race Had Perished

November 20th, 2011 | Meera

They live where we live and move where we move. They steal the grain from our fields and take their own measures from meals we have not yet finished eating. They seize our roofs, our railroads, and our drain pipes for their homes. Their chatter, as the rain, is little heard till it falls silent. When we kick them from our path, they scatter without fear, then quickly reappear. We have so much they need, and we have known them of old.

They were never summoned. They will never leave.

*******

Tom came into the lab last Thursday as I was carefully rolling up a small sheet of cotton, shaping it into the right form to place inside the skin of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I couldn’t see the specimen he was about to start on, and I have an everlasting curiosity about what that man holds in his hands. So:

“Are you working on another African bird, Tom?”

In response he made a strange sound. It was the amused noise a person makes when he is about to tell you a riddle whose ingenuity pleases him. “Mmm. Yes! But not a native one. It’s a bird you know very well, in fact.”

In fact, it was. It was a bird you know very well, too. There is very likely one present within a few hundred meters as your eyes skim over this paragraph, chipping tirelessly in your eaves with a sound like comfort and rebuke, clinging to the side of your building, bathing in the dust next to your street, or shitting extravagantly on the floorboards of your back deck.

It was a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): a bird that is as common as dirt and only little more loved, perhaps because its personality reminds us of the worst aspects of our own nature. Though small in size, House Sparrows are bellicose in spirit—to protect their territory and their food they have, like some of us, the will to murder those more vulnerable and more rare. (They have been known to smash the eggs and kill the nestlings of competitors with their thick, finchy bills.) They lodge in nest boxes put out for more desirable confreres. They deluge and denude bird feeders, like plagues of locusts. They are like flies—ubiquitous.

What was noteworthy about this particular House Sparrow was that it had been collected in a surprising place. It hadn’t spent its life in any of the countries of Europe or Central Asia that have been its native habitat for millennia. And it wasn’t a specimen from North America, to which the species was introduced in small numbers in Brooklyn nearly two hundred years ago and across which it has since spread like a stampede. (As with some human newcomers, the House Sparrow’s arrival in America provoked a storm of avian xenophobia. But the bird itself has never spent a single breath on the worried contemplation of the difference between integration and assimilation. It quickly and simply chose occupation.)

No, this particular House Sparrow—as Tom explained, solving the riddle—had come back to the Field Museum from a research trip he and a few other Bird Division colleagues had made to Malawi.

Malawi is an African country of mountains, mists, and forests that is hugged, like the head of a little brother, between the shoulders of Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Its House Sparrow community, along with those that are now established in a host of neighboring countries, originated from the introduction of several small populations of birds to the coastal regions of South Africa around the turn of the 20th century. After landing in places like Cape Town, Durban, and Zanzibar—either stowaways or pets that traveled side by side with sailors on trading ships—the new immigrants came onshore, began to breed, and slowly spread inland.

Today, House Sparrows live in Malawi just as they live virtually everywhere in the world—as close to us as possible. Human settlements provide these birds with ready sources of food and an abundance of appealing nesting places. Passer domesticus is not exactly an obligate commensal (a species whose very survival depends on the benefits it receives from another organism), but it is vastly more likely to be found in proximity to people than it is to take its chances in open country.

Most House Sparrows are so spoiled by the year-round food supply our cities provide and the warm, protected cavities they find everywhere in our architecture that they have even forgone their old migratory tendencies. They are like distant relatives who, unaccompanied by invitations, came to visit with us for a week, remained a month, then three, then six, and now spend all four seasons snoozing on our sofas.

In this position, they are—domesticus in name, domesticus in nature—subject to the conditions of our lives.

Although they still seem ubiquitous to most of us in this country, House Sparrow numbers have actually been falling for several decades in much of Europe, some parts of Asia, and the United States. And given their intimate connections with humans, many of the proposed reasons for House Sparrow declines have to do with changes in how we live.

We use more pesticides in our agriculture, killing the insects nestlings rely on for food. We spill less grain and spread fewer weed seeds when we harvest crops, reducing food supplies for adults. The feral cats and metropolitan raptors that also inhabit our cities prey on House Sparrows. There is even some speculation that leaked electromagnetic radiation from cellphone towers could be having negative effects on the health and reproduction of many urban species, including this one.

They were never summoned; they will never leave. But they are not invincible.

Juvenile House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The 19th-century American naturalist Wilson Flagg, finding himself in what seems to have been a grimly apocalyptic mood some decades after the House Sparrow made its way to these shores, mused upon the unexpected comfort such an obstinate intruder might bring:

…since our people are resolutely bent on the destruction of our native birds, it may be fortunate that there exists a foreign species of such a character that, like the white-weed and the witch-grass, after being once introduced, they cannot by any possible human efforts be extirpated. When all our native species are gone, we may be happy to hear the unmusical chatter of the House Sparrows, and gladly watch them and protect them, as we should, if all the human race had perished but our single self, welcome the society of orang-otangs.


If Flagg is right, we would do well to keep one wary, sympathetic eye on the shadow-companions who came, and stayed, and bound their fate to ours.

New World Warbler

August 11th, 2011 | Meera

I’m back in the lab on Thursdays, and this morning I walked into it to find that Dave had set out three beautiful little New World wood warblers for me to prepare. Although I loved every bird I encountered in Sweden, I found myself missing many North American species while I was away, including our vivid warblers. It was a delight, therefore, to work today on a turmeric-yellow Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), an Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) with an especially large splotch of rust on its head, and a sleek Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia).

Male Magnolia Warblers always make me think of gentlemen who’ve dressed themselves in suits of the most conventional gray, white, and black—and then decided at the last moment that they simply must put on vests as bright as any daffodil.

Magnolia warbler, before

Magnolia warbler, in process

Magnolia warbler, after

*******


The English word world can be traced, through only a few straightforward steps, to an ancient Germanic compound noun meaning “the age of man” (wer: “man”/ ald: “age”). Ald, in turn, is derived from an even older verb meaning “to grow” or “to nourish.” Thus, world: that place where human beings and their affairs flourish.

It’s a fine thing, friends, to be alive in such a place: whether Old or New. Ah; it is the only thing, you may remind me. But still—and despite all hardships—a fine, fine one.

The Vagrant in Sweden

June 27th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I heard it as soon as I swung the car door shut: a dizzy, fever-pitched fizz more like an insect’s song than a bird’s, slicing through the cool Midsommar night. The meadow in front of me, glowing in the eerie illumination of a June’s-end one a.m., looked no different from so many others here. What covered its slope was a dense mat of close-growing, un-gardened stalks of the humble wildflower that is known in English as cow parsley, and which in Swedish goes by the even more embarrassing name of hundkex: dog biscuits. There was no sign that this was a place where you might find something rare.

Stefan and I had just spent several hours feasting with his family on pickled and fermented herring, potatoes, roasted pork, and all manner of breads and cheeses, and with both beer and cool, sharp snaps in my belly I had been ready for bed a long time ago. Instead, we were drawing out the longest day of the year in a sleepy haze beside a village road. We had come to the dog- biscuit meadow to see a single, very special, vagrant.

A vagrant is a bird that has, by some mistake of birth or meteorology, strayed far from the path it was meant to follow in its life. Vagrants are also called accidentals, and both names go some way toward capturing the pathos of their situation: not only lost, but alone. Somewhere in the meadow’s stalks perched such an individual. It was a male lanceolated warbler (träsksångare). As songbirds go, the lanceolated warbler is not particularly flashy; it lacks the jewel-like colors of a bluethroat or a goldfinch. It is, however, marked by a beautiful series of dark striations on its breast, crown, rump, and flanks. To look more closely is to see that the lines are formed from tiny lance-like shapes, each one a thin oval tapering to a point. It is these that give the bird its name.

In looks and song, the lanceolated warbler is rather similar to the grasshopper warbler, a relative that spends the spring and summer breeding in this region. But compared with a grasshopper warbler, a lanceolated warbler will have more—and more distinct —streaking, a higher voice, and a well-defined, as opposed to a diffuse, border between the dark center and pale edge of each of its tertial feathers. I could not have identified these subtle differences on my own. But they had not gone unnoticed when the little warbler appeared here some nights earlier, and a rush of expert Swedish birders had already given their say-so to the characteristics that separated it from its common relative. Let us say that if this bird had been aspiring to sainthood, it would have been five times confirmed by the highest of priests.

Because we knew its provenance, Stefan and I also knew that as far as we had traveled to see it—150km from the observatory in Handöl to Östersund, where Stefan lives; 32km from Östersund to Nälden, where we had celebrated the holiday in a tiny lakefront cabin with his family; another 27km or so from Nälden to Bleckåsen—the tiny bird in the meadow had come much further. A lanceolated warbler within its normal range can be seen throughout Siberia, on the lower slopes of Russia’s Ural mountains, and in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan. At this time of year, a male of the species ought to have been nesting with a female in a wet, shrubby meadow somewhere perhaps a thousand or two thousand kilometers east or northeast of the spot where we stood. This one was calling for a mate it would never find.

It’s a bit like a sewing machine, Stefan had told me three mornings earlier, after his first pilgrimage to this spot in Bleckåsen. The sound coming from the meadow wasn’t, in fact, so far from what he had described—notes of metal whistling and punching, whistling and punching, at speed. It was an obsessive little racket, the kind of sound that might come reeling at midnight from beneath the door of a red-eyed tailor in a fairytale, running stitches through cloth faster than his hands could keep up. This was the voice of instinct, I thought—the voice of conviction in the face of loss.

We saw the source of that voice as soon as we descended the makeshift path that dozens of eager birders had trampled over in the past few days. The warbler had alit on a branch in the midst of the hundkex blooms, singing with its bill so wide open that I imagined a great stream pouring from its mouth. As it sang it turned its head fastidiously from one direction to another, throwing its call to all points. And the singing lasted for minutes on end. This was unusual behavior for its species.

I hate to anthropomorphize; I hope I manage to avoid it here. But witnessing this unabating, probably futile summons (futile, anyway, unless a female vagrant happened also to have been blown here), it was hard not to feel that it resounded with a note of desperation.

To many birders—especially the ones who make a fetish out of each new species, but even those who don’t—vagrants are objects of fascination. It’s no trivial thing to be able to look upon a creature that you’d otherwise never expect to see. Real though they are, vagrants are so out of place, so unexpected, and so carefully inspected for signs of authenticity that seeing one is perhaps the closest any of us will come to seeing a unicorn or a mermaid.

Even if you can relate to it, though, you might dismiss this motive for visiting a vagrant as thrill seeking. That’s why, when Ulla first heard about the lanceolated warbler, she resisted making the effort to see it. Her serious heart didn’t want to think of itself as longing after the unusual and the rare. But days later, when the warbler failed to leave, Ulla too drove up to the incandescent meadow late at night. She listened, and she felt her heart contract.

Ulla didn’t have to explain why. What runs beneath the urge to see a vagrant is something more powerful than the desire to collect a rara avis. The wonder we feel, I think, is centered on the knowledge that this creature once had a plan—had an object, had a bone-deep, gene-deep map to follow—and somewhere along the way, got lost.

Since I have spent most of my life in search of such a map, the vagrant’s fate is bittersweet heartache to me. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself envious of another creature’s indelible blueprint. I have coveted the existence of periodic cicadas, which lie years in the buried dark readying for one great emergence, and somehow know exactly what to do when that day comes.

But I never realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There’s very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return. It wasn’t until I heard the vagrant in Sweden that I understood my good fortune. I happen to know I am wandering; I understand there’s no such thing as a home that doesn’t change with you. And so, I now believe with all my heart, I can never be lost.

*******

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1862


*******

P.S. As most of you know, I’m writing a little book of essays about my summer adventures. In case you were wondering what that might look like, consider this post—which will appear in the book, with revisions—a preview. And thank you, as ever, for reading.

An Avian Initiation

December 26th, 2010 | Meera

Sometimes you have to sneak yourself in love with home, sideways, long after the fact of your leaving. It’s been more than a dozen years and I’m still figuring out what I love about the place where I grew up: how to be fond of what I once felt was pricking me in a hundred tiny ways. I’m still learning that I actually enjoy the hot, damp embrace that held me tight for so long, until I slipped free from it and catapulted into the cool, dry world. It is very easy indeed to love Singapore for my family, big and crazy and beautiful; but loving it for itself is a little more complicated. The reasons not to can loom large.

Which is why it’s a good thing I finally got the birds involved on this last visit. By 6am on December 3rd, our second full day in Singapore, having slept briefly but well under the rhythmic orbit of the ceiling fan in my sister’s guest room, and having woken early to the loud and familiar provocations of a male Asian koel (the koel is a type of cuckoo with a fantastically hard-to-ignore two-note whistle; you can hear it if you follow that link or if you ask my mother, mimic-extraordinaire, to produce it for you), Ross and I were standing outside the gate of the sleeping house, watching the stippled moon in the still-black sky. We were waiting for local birder Kim Seng to come and give us an initiation into the avian family of my funny little island—a family which, although it is perhaps not that big, definitely has its share of crazy and beautiful.

We were prepared to be pleased.

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Dragonfly as Jabba the Hut

(Ross’s happiness at being outside is more the result of bugs than birds, so it was a good thing carpenter bees, orb spiders, termites, dragonflies, and ants as long as your fingernail also accompanied us on our travels.)

The day was long, but galvanizing—one of those days that would take more stamina to write about than it did to live. We hiked through muddy, green-smelling rainforests (some parts of which were located right next to immaculately maintained golf courses being hoovered dry by attendants, but still). We wandered about wetlands thick with water birds and bathers of all kinds. We bore the burning afternoon sun as we peered into the sky at raptors soaring above flat grasslands, shot through with wide paved roads and enormous pools of leftover rain. We saw, or heard, or both, 55 different bird species, including various shrikes, doves, kingfishers, terns, sandpipers, herons, mynas, sunbirds, flowerpeckers, eagles, bulbuls, orioles, tailorbirds, flycatchers, warblers, babblers, and cuckoos. We were spoiled by flying, calling, preening life. And while I really can’t speak for Ross, I can tell you that I fell in love on at least four separate occasions that day.

Do you want to hear about my new loves? Because, listen, they are total charmers, these four, and not one of them happens to make its home on this side of the earth—so if you’re not ready to start looking up airfare from where you live to where they live, you might want to stop now. Ready?

Here we go, in order of appearance.

Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus):
We’d been hearing this bird in the gloaming for several minutes before I actually saw one; Kim Seng had pointed one out, but I hadn’t been fast enough with my binoculars to catch it in my sights before it took off from the tree where it had been perched. The greater racket-tailed drongo is a skilled mimic that practices a huge variety of calls—partly, ornithologists believe, so as to attract a large, mixed-species group of fellow insect-feeders to its side. Having done so, it can hover above them and snatch up any prey they happen to disturb but fail to catch. In exchange, the drongo keeps an eye out for predators; and if one should arrive, it cries an alarm in the language of its hunting companions.

The call we heard that morning, though, was not borrowed. It was a sweet, pure, three-note song that rose into the air like glass. To me it sounded, more than anything else, like three drops of water dripping clear and cold into a stream. In truth, based on its limpid voice alone, I was half in love with the greater racket-tailed drongo sight unseen. We kept hearing those exquisite notes as we hiked through the moist morning shadows of Singapore’s sprawling Central Catchment Nature Reserve (so called because it serves as the main catchment area for the handful of reservoirs that surround it). And after a while, as the sun began to rise upon the trees, I spotted one for myself.

Drongos are an inquisitive, aggressive family comprising about two dozen species of mostly black birds, distinguished by their long and often unusually shaped tails. Some have forked tails, some curled, and some—like the greater racket-tailed drongo—have besides all else two lovely, elaborate tail feathers shaped like flags: feathers that trail far, far down from their bottoms and twirl in the air as they fly. But I saw this one sitting, straight-backed as a teacher, on a long exposed branch by itself. I watched it through my binoculars for as long as it would let me, hoping to hear it let those three perfect drops of water fall. The drongo, though, was silent. I was not worthy of its wheedling. It simply sat, with its tail like a straightened Dali mustache, and its crest a pompadour as good as any the Fonz ever wore, and let me admire it.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
(Photo by Nimesh M.)

Blue-Tailed Bee Eater (Merops philippinus):
Our first encounter with blue-tailed bee eaters took place very shortly after our first encounter with the rather impressive, and comparatively rare, grey-headed fish eagle. This particular eagle was perched in a tree by the edge of the MacRitchie reservoir, apparently sleepy, full, and quite undisturbed by our attentions. It felt like a privilege to watch him so hungrily and for so long, but after we had spent a good long while observing the mild-mannered raptor through Kim Seng’s spotting scope, we found ourselves distracted by two smaller, brighter, and much livelier forest inhabitants. The bee eaters, which is what they were, kept flying off from, and then alighting on, the same branch—a not uncommon behavior among avian predators.

Their restlessness was welcome, because it meant that we had a chance to see their brilliant plumage—iridescent green, orange, yellow, chestnut, black, white, and, of course, blue—from all directions and at all angles of light as they swooped and dived like a pair of painted circus acrobats in search of breakfast. If the drongo had won me over with his voice, these two stole it with their dress and deportment. They were absolutely fascinating; even Ross was besotted with them. And do you know what? I think they knew it. We kept seeing and recognizing blue-tailed bee eaters as we went along for the rest of the day, even as we moved to different areas and different habitats. Perhaps, in fact, they wanted to be recognized. After all, if you were a bird so gorgeous as this, wouldn’t you care to show off?

Bird - Blue Tail Bee Eater
(Photo by najeebkhan2009.)

Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis):
This was another bird we’d heard earlier in the morning (sending out a low, unmusical cackle not unlike an upset squirrel), but I hadn’t been able to see. Dollarbirds are colorful, almost clownish-looking birds, a little bigger than a blackbird in size; they have bluish-green plumage, bright orange beaks, and clear, round spots of white on the lower half of each wing, as big as dollar coins and as bright. They belong to a family of birds known as rollers, all of which are known for the gymnastic tumbles and spins they sometimes perform in flight, especially during courtship. Unfortunately, the dollarbird we saw—which graced us with its presence as we crossed a boardwalk over the water in the middle of a lush mangrove swamp—was either already mated or content, for the moment, to remain a bachelor—for it stayed in its position on a solitary tree branch overlooking the water for as long as we cared to watch.

So why did I love the dollarbird despite its refusal to engage in the acrobatics for which its family is famous? Because it was doing something equally endearing instead: it was sunbathing. As I watched through the scope, it stretched out both wings till I could see those bright white spots, letting them hang long and relaxed below the branch on which it sat. At the same time, it rested its head on the branch, turned it to one side, and closed its eyes. It could not have been exposing more of its feathers to the warm Singapore sun unless it had been supine on the ground. And in this pose, the dollarbird looked extraordinarily relaxed. I find it difficult, actually, to describe just how relaxed. Let me just say that this bird looked like it was in it for the long haul. It seemed, friends, as if it were a bird that had learned one really awesome yoga position, and meant to milk it for all it was worth.

Since I often find it hard, myself, to really let go and unwind, what I fell in love with was this dollarbird’s sheer dedication to hanging loose.

佛法僧  Broad-billed Roller-雄亞成
(Photo by Kevin Lin, titled “Broad-billed roller” but showing what looks to me like a dollarbird, and in a pose very reminiscent of my own yoga-practicing friend.)

A moment after we saw the dollarbird, I met the bird I fell hardest for that day.

Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus):
The Brahminy Kite is a bird shrouded in history and lore, although I didn’t know any of that when I spotted it in the sky and began staring at it like a schoolgirl in love. It was keeping company with a fierce little Japanese sparrowhawk at the time—waiting, perhaps, for it to make its kill. All I knew then was that I was looking at a singularly handsome bird, and the more so with the sun shining through its wings as it banked and glided above me, making it look like it was haloed in gold.

Brahminys have white head, neck, and breast feathers; the tips of their tails and the lower shafts of most of their wing feathers are also white, while their primaries are dipped in black. But the rest of their plumage (and this is the thing that made this one look so golden when I saw the sun casting itself over its wings) is a rich, glossy chestnut color, a reddish brown that is like the warmest possible wood: like a cedar chest someone has oiled with care every day of its life. They are gorgeous creatures.

Early scientists, it appears, were troubled by the Brahminy’s regal appearance, since its habits were so vile and ignoble (it, like most kites, is primarily a scavenger). But mythology has always given this beautiful bird its due. In India the Brahminy is revered, regarded as it is as the modern earthly manifestation of the Garuda: the massive bird-like mount upon which Vishnu rides. And among certain Indonesian peoples, the keenness of the bird’s talons is believed to derive from a magical stone it hides in its nest and on which it sharpens its claws. You can steal it to sharpen your own knives, the stories go—but only if your eyes are tightly shut as you reach inside the Brahminy’s nest. If you dare to so much as peek while your blind, robbing hand stretches out, the stone will disappear, or transform itself into a nestling.

Me, I would never be so bold. Not with such a king of birds.

Brahminy Kite - Haliastur indus
(Photo by Mike (NO captive birds) in Thailand.)

I have to admit that it’s a little scary to look so deeply at a place so familiar. It’s a little disorienting to find yourself falling in love with home, and realizing just how tiny a fraction of it you ever understood. But when it’s birds that carry you along, it doesn’t feel like falling at all.

It feels like flying.

On Sultry Dreams

December 26th, 2010 | Meera

You cannot counterfeit the air.

I have lived where the air is thick, crowded, and heavy—where the space rightfully allotted to the air, immense though it seems this must be (comprising, as it does, all of the vast latitudes and infinitesimal interstices left behind once earth, tree, stone, sea, and every animate and inanimate thing has taken up its place in the world), has nevertheless run out.

Where what space there is has become saturated with the dampness of sweat and steam and the rising puffs of the air’s own slow-moving breath. I have lived where molecules of water in the air are so numerous and insistent that they jostle hard against molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and tell them where they can stick it; where moisture besieges the pathways of the atmosphere like a rabble of old ladies, each one with her elbows out and umbrella a-kicking, each one rioting wetly against the delicate knees of those rarer and more noble gases that flit nervously out of the way.

Humid, they call the air in such a place, but what I call it is mobbed. And you cannot counterfeit this with your humidifiers and your steam rooms and your dreams of being there. You cannot counterfeit the air.

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