Focus, part 1

Despite this largely being a photography blog, the ‘focus’ of this topic is mental, regarding critical-thinking, and so for that I apologize. I started this some time back when some of the events were ‘current,’ (for whatever applies to the webbernets-influenced definition of that,) and then left it off because things were changing so rapidly. That, and the fact that I cannot write about most of this without getting seriously annoyed and despondent about humanity. But I regret letting it slide, and it still needs to be said, or at least, I need to say it, for my own sake – call it armchair activism if you like; if you have a method of reaching a bigger audience that’ll work for me, let me know.

Second, I know I avowed some time back that I would not get political on this site, and depending on your viewpoint, this may be going back on that promise. If you consider ‘political’ to mean, ‘regarding any form of government or voter stance or activities,’ then no, it will not be. If you consider it to mean, ‘social behaviors and cultural hotbuttons,’ then yes, it will, but that definition can be applied at will to just about anything, if you’re so inclined, so I don’t care about definitions like that anyway. I just wanted to throw out some thoughts, in the vague chance that it might cause someone to pause and ponder a little bit.

When I started writing this, protests across the country were turning into riots and/or looting following the death of George Floyd during his arrest, and the same protests soon became widespread vandalism of statues, a saga that itself has been going on for a few years now, including only a few kilometers away from me here at UNC Chapel Hill when ‘Silent Sam’ was torn down by activists. At this point in time, it now has become ‘Woke’ activism over anything that, so it appears, anyone might find the slightest bit offensive, regardless of whether A) someone can be considered even remotely affected by said offense, and B) the actual potential for harm of any kind. This is why the posts are being split into multiple parts.

Right now I’m going to address the death of George Floyd and some of the reactions, because this is rife with everything from unwarranted assumptions to outright stupidity.

Let’s start with, Trial By Media. We’ve been seeing this for years now, and to put it at its mildest, it’s something we shouldn’t even be slightly engaged within. When the video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck was paraded around, this was enough to set off countless thousands of people who were entirely convinced of not just the guilt of Chauvin, but the intent of the action, the racism of said officer (because Floyd was black, Chauvin white,) and the inherent racism in, and I’m not kidding here, all police forces across the country. The irony here is going to be sharply displayed very shortly.

I am coming right out and saying that the death of anyone in police custody, save for self-inflicted, is evidence of improper conduct; it doesn’t matter who. Officers are supposed to have both the resources and the training to avoid such things. At the same time, accidents happens, coincidences (such as a heart condition being aggravated) happen, and most especially, initial impressions can be wildly mistaken. This is why, after decades of such issues, we have established trial procedures to become cognizant of all of the details and circumstances; a minute of video is nowhere near adequate enough to base any decisions on whatsoever. People want to believe what they see with their own eyes, and are supremely reluctant to accept that A) what they didn’t see is also germane, and B) they’re almost guaranteed to be lending their own interpretations to what they saw in the first place. That’s why we want, need, to get all of the facts, all of the accounts, and follow the proper procedures.

And we were and are: the officer in question was both fired from the force and charged with 2nd degree murder, and these were plainly in evidence right from the start. We should not and can not abandon these practices at any point in time, no matter how angry anyone gets. Our justice system plays out slowly, and admittedly not always accurately, but abandoning it is certainly no substitute, and neither is lynching.

The second part of this equation is the error of trusting the media, or making any assumptions whatsoever about their lack of bias, accurate representations, and so on. The media exists to make money, and this is done by drawing eyes to screens, and often this is accomplished by intentionally stirring up controversy. While numerous people can point to how often a black person dies in police custody, not one of them can give the subsequent numbers of any other ethnic group, the number of arrests, the number of violent and resistant reactions,… – in short, they have no idea whether any kind of trend is present or not, much less what the causative factors of any such (undetermined) trend might be. Studies of such things have to take countless pertinent factors into account before offering even tentative conclusions, and it’s safe to say that we have none of that at hand right now – much less can glean it from any given news report. While our media can be extremely useful in bringing important things to our attention, it can be abysmally bad at it too, and should only serve as the impetus to gain more information. Full stop.

Moreover, media attention is very good at fostering an inaccurate impression of any given event or potential trend. There are a few thousand arrests that take place every day in this country – two occurrences of any behavior within a month or so isn’t exactly statistically significant.

Presumption of Intention. We’re not even sure (because, as of this writing, the trial has not begun so the evidence has not been presented) that Chauvin’s actions were the sole or primary cause of Floyd’s death, but most especially, we don’t know that it was in any way intentional, or even semi-accidental (the officer using more force than necessary from having any form of bias.) And to be blunt, intent can be a very hard thing to prove, especially since police officers must, frequently, use forceful restraint against suspects or perpetrators. While there is a subset of the (large and diverse) group of protestors that believe officers should never have to use that kind of ‘violence,’ I’m happy to call this ludicrous and inexcusably naïve – the moment someone starts exhibiting uncontrolled and violent behavior, ignoring their actions is simply putting others at risk, including the officers themselves. Regardless, we are nowhere near establishing that Chauvin had any particular intent or bias in his actions.

Nor is it likely that the trial will be able to answer such questions, or will even try. The charge of 2nd degree murder only seeks to establish that the act was intentional and not a necessary part of police actions – it has nothing to do with why or whether this is common. While evidence presented may support or deny the idea that Chauvin was biased in any way, that will only be in direct relation to his guilt or acquittal on this particular charge. Determining, for instance, that the Minneapolis Police Department is rife with such things, or even knew of Chauvin’s potential bias and ignored it, is way beyond the scope of any such trial, and requires an entirely different sort of investigation. Expecting anything else from the trial is unrealistic.

People are complicated, as any psychologist or therapist knows, and determining root causes of behavior is exceptionally difficult, in many ways impossible – this is something that way too few people understand, instead (somehow) believing that personalities can be determined by offhand comments, forum posts, or the use of expletives. But there are no shortcuts in this area, and no simple guidelines or ‘key indicators’ – that’s utter nonsense. Having any kind of confidence in any conclusion regarding anyone’s personality is, bluntly, stupid.

[This seems like a good point to throw this in here: Personally, I am not a fan of police officers in general. I’ve seen far too many that weren’t very competent, that were far too full of themselves and their authority, that made countless excuses for not doing the actions that they could and were expected of them, and so on. I’m firmly of the belief that police institutions can stand a much better evaluative process for officers to begin with, but definitely should have a hell of a lot more emphasis on critical thinking at the very least, and more frequent evaluations of performance. Yet, most of this comes from my personal experience, which is a really shitty set of guidelines, but much more pertinently, my bias in no way reflects how any particular action of any officer should be judged. The only way we could possibly know if I’m right or wrong – whatever degree of accuracy or lack thereof – is by seeking hard evidence and viewing it, all of it, with reason.]

Extrapolating events into a larger problem. Now we’re into the inexcusably ludicrous territory. There really are far too many people who believe that a black man dying at the hands of a white officer is evidence of ‘systemic racism,’ and the problem with ‘police’ (as if this is a cohesive entity,) and on and on. All of this is incredibly ignorant horseshit.

To start with, there is no cohesiveness to police, even within any given county, much less nationwide. Police forces are extremely local, even down to wide differences between precincts, and overseen only by very local authorities such as police captains and, perhaps, county commissioners (in my experience, most of those have no interest in even monitoring the police departments under their purview.) City police, county police, state police, sheriff’s departments, highway patrol – they’re all separate entities with little communication and no overriding authority. Even if we could establish that, for instance, a county sheriff’s department was run under a banner of overt racism, it’s unlikely that everyone connected with such would never reveal this, but regardless, this has no impact whatsoever on any other police force within even the same county, much less across the entire fucking nation. Some of these concepts are so horrifically stupid as to make us ponder what brain-dead fuckwit could possibly believe them.

Also note that the assumption that ‘police’ is an entity united in habits, behavior, or outlook is, essentially, racism. Though it’s not an ethnic group, the belief that everyone within a certain demographic exhibits the same traits remains exactly the same thing. If we want to eradicate prejudice and bias, we certainly have to recognize it every place it exists, and not practice it in demonstration of total fucking hypocrisy.

That leads to ‘racism’ isn’t a firmly defined concept. Countless people would try to argue this, but I contend that you couldn’t even get two of them to agree – we don’t even have a decent definition of ‘race’ to start with. Worse, far too many people believe it exists as a binary state: you’re either racist or you’re not. But again, people are complicated, and exhibit biases in every facet of their lives – all of us. I’m not denying that prejudices against black people exist, and far too much, but this is often defined at will, with little consistency and little recognition of the bare facts. There are degrees of bias, huge grey areas with difficult-to-establish boundaries, and it’s ludicrous to try to conflate someone that believes there’s more crime in black neighborhoods with someone that would lynch a black person if they thought they could get away with it. It’s easy to say that neither one is acceptable, but A) addressing them effectively would require radically different approaches, and B) one of them might at times be supported by the bare facts.

Which is where you run into the asinine concept that even pointing this out is considered racist, as if A) this is a judgment on everyone within a given race, and B) anyone in the fucking world could be considered completely innocent. There’s an interesting (read: stupid) dichotomy here, in that black people (or any given ethnic distinction that you like) can widely be considered victims of their circumstances, but white people are guilty of theirs – this is exemplified in the oft-repeated “systemic racism” and “white male privilege” accusations. It is amply demonstrated in the Floyd/Chauvin case where a white officer that was responsible for the death of a black suspect must be racist, because there’s no other possible explanation. Is it the same when a black officer is involved in the death of a black suspect, or a white one? Is it the same when any black person kills another? How are these distinctions being defined, and are the rules consistent throughout all circumstances? And if not, why not?

The hypocrisy of far too many activists starts to become apparent when we ask pertinent questions, because the entire goal of eradicating racism/prejudice/bias is that we don’t even pay attention to skin color/ethnicity/nationality/gender/et cetera. Yet in order to make the accusations that are being leveled, they not only have to see these distinctions as primary and overriding, but assume that everyone else is, too. In many cases, they have to assume that their chosen victimized class is either innocent of any wrongdoing, or ‘driven to it’ by, again, some privileged class. It is remarkably similar to the parent that automatically blames the teachers when their child isn’t doing well in school. And in case my point isn’t being made clearly enough, these automatic assumptions are racism themselves – or, since we don’t have a good definition of that, we’ll go with unwarranted prejudice. Doesn’t matter – it’s still hugely hypocritical. But let me say it again: it is just as racist to assume there is a ‘white male privilege’ as to assume that there is a ‘black criminal tendency.’

Determining the bare facts first, and recognizing that these can apply only to a given individual, might actually be a worthwhile practice before pronouncing any kind of judgment. Chauvin might be revealed to be a virulent white supremacist – or he may be found to be over-excitable, or exercise bad judgment, or innocent of all charges because Floyd died from circumstances other than his arrest (a broad clue here is that, if you can’t breathe, you can’t keep repeating that you can’t breathe, because that takes breath.) We won’t know until we at least get to see the evidence presented. That’s the requirement of being both rational and responsible. Moreover, the verdict will tell us only about Chauvin himself, and nothing at all about anyone else, any institution, any culture, any systemic whatsis.

But here’s the unfortunate aspect: if Chauvin is found guilty, countless assholes will feel completely justified in their pronouncements, secure in the fact that ‘they called it’ and never recognizing that they never bothered to even consider the other possibilities. Should anything less than a full conviction occur – and remember, this is a 2nd degree murder charge implying willful intent, not accidental death or criminal negligence – countless thousands of people will insist that ‘justice’ was never served, deny that they were dead wrong about the situation, and continue to believe that ‘the system’ is inherently racist (as if there’s any aspect whatsoever in our lives that we could put down to ‘the system.’) It’s extremely likely that there could be riots. And while it indeed remains possible that the practices of the trial, of seeking justice, were or are flawed, I’ll bet heavily that very, very few people who decide to take action would ever bother to confirm that it was, or how.

More on that aspect in part 2.

Profiles of Nature 10

juvenile Virginia opossum Didelphis virginiana held in author's hand
This week we have one of our younger models, Hesterine, here being coached by her handler. Hesterine, naturally, got into the business when pressured by PETA (PETA never asks,) which needed a new spokesmodel after the last one died from malnutrition, curiously since he was on a regular diet of naturally-deceased grass. PETA funded the eye-dewing surgery and the widow’s-peak enhancements in preparation for their rural American billboard campaign, budgeting millions to stop roughly twelve rednecks from eating possum. Hesterine hopes to parlay this into either a swimsuit career or her own show on Food Network making multi-course meals from the compost bin; she already knows six recipes for the stalky bit of lettuce heads. She’s not neglecting her regular studies though, holding a 3.9 GPA in Making The Dogs Loose Their Shit At Night while excelling in Drama Club, playing the ingénue’s stunt double in Romeo and Juliet and the lead in Evita 2. In her spare time she drools. Hesterine’s one weakness though is hair-care products, since she fails to understand what ‘topical use’ means, but her colon is shiny and full-bodied. Her favorite paint finish is PDCA Standard P12.

We’ll be back next week, because petitions and threatening phone calls only scare weenies! See you then!

On this date 57

I’ll have this topic, my weekly one from last year, still peeking in occasionally because I like the comparisons, especially right now as the first indications of spring are popping up. So let’s step back to 2012.

unidentified aquatic snails hatching from eggs
That winter, I had a small aquarium that held a handful of finds from nearby ponds and streams, and an unidentified snail had laid eggs right against the glass, which I was lucky enough to capture. I was lucky enough to capture their hatching too, seen here, but this isn’t a huge accomplishment because, if you’ve ever seen any eggs hatch, it tends not to be a quick or momentary action, taking place instead over a period of many minutes; for snails, it’s exactly as you’d imagine and takes a whole lot longer. In fact, witnessing actual motion from them was almost impossible, but over two hours of shooting, changes in position between frames indicate that it was still taking place. You can see the transparent outer walls of the enclosing sac, ruptured on the left side, as well as a few discarded iridescent eggshells, a couple of newly-emerged snails, and several still within their eggs. Using the aquarium allowed me to set the light source at will, and with a little experimentation I found the best angle for these details; each egg was perhaps a little larger in diameter that a straight pin shaft.

Two years later, things were very dramatic.

freezing rain on holly bush
This date in 2014, we got hit with a serious freezing rain storm – or at least, serious for North Carolina’s ill-preparedness for such things. While the ground temperature remained too warm for the roads to get treacherous, the weight of the ice took down countless power lines, and countless limbs and trees stretched over power lines, knocking out electricity throughout the county. I snagged a variety of photos, including of the holly tree in the yard, before we ended up having to go to The Girlfriend’s Mother’s house overnight to actually have heat. I suspect that storm was a primary factor in The Girlfriend putting ‘a fireplace’ on the list of preferences while house hunting – something which she fulfilled that same year, I might add.

That story I mentioned

So in the wildlife rehab post recently, I mentioned a story about a grey squirrel and that I may explain it in detail later. That post was first made in 2013, then reposted in 2014 and again in 2021, and I am now getting around to relating that story; I figure eight years is enough to build the suspense…

At the time, I worked for a humane society that tackled a lot of projects, among them wildlife rehabilitation, and I was living onsite as a caretaker and bookkeeper for this expanded facility. Someone, some ‘member of the public,’ had brought to us an adult eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) that they had attempted to raise as a pet and finally gave up on as it was getting too aggressive. This is an exceedingly common result from such attempts, the primary reason why it is actively discouraged (and usually illegal.) Humans domesticated dogs and cats thousands of years ago, and yet they still have habits that we often wish they didn’t, because traits are usually dictated by genes over a period of millions of years; the traits of wildlife are not going to go away with a couple months of living in different conditions. How the animal views its surroundings and interactions is entirely different from how we do, and its expectations and simple habits are usually not something that we even comprehend. Witness the grey squirrels in several urban areas that became notably aggressive during this pandemic as their primary food sources all but dried up, and there are plenty of other stories of that type to be found. In short, don’t raise wildlife as pets – it will likely turn out entirely different than you imagine, and not in a good way.

This particular squirrel was, I think, about two years old and female (which is slightly better – males tend to turn a lot more aggressive a lot faster.) We had her housed in an outdoor cage in the woods that we used to acclimatize rehab patients to outdoor conditions before they were eventually released, what we called a ‘halfway house.’ They have shelter and food types largely commensurate with what they could find in the wild, but contact was minimal and they were otherwise exposed to the elements. My job was to provide the food and water and try to monitor her to determine that she seemed to be coping with this introduction to kinda-wild conditions.

For the first few days, she seemed fine, but then started getting notably agitated at my presence; I surmise that this was from not getting either the food types or the schedule that she was used to, but may also have been some anxiety over the temperature (it was summer, so nothing drastic) or possibly the presence of predators outside the cage at night. Whatever the reason, she began darting for the door as I opened it to put the food and water within, necessitating some gymnastics on my part, distracting her at the opposite end and moving fast while she was away from the door.

It only took a day before she figured this out. I put the food in one afternoon and slipped the door closed just before she hit the gap, watching her twitch her tail rapidly at this action. She was following me around the cage on the inside, clinging to the wire sides, and I did a quick dodge around the end to lure her down that way and put a nut in the wire for her to dig out. She was no fool, and when I darted back to the door with the water dish, even though I had it open for a bare second or so, she hit it flying from across the cage, bounced off the wire of the door, and landed on my shoulders.

She’d been a ‘pet,’ so I wasn’t at all alarmed at this, and knew better than to move suddenly or freak out or anything, and I just put the water dish down and then turned back to look at her in the attempt to coax her back into the cage. It was then that I became aware of a strange tugging sensation on my shoulder, the feel of something pulling on my back from within, and abruptly realized that she was biting the hell out of my shoulder. Somehow, she had nailed the nerve almost as soon as she started to bite down (I was already expecting her claws to dig in a bit so the initial sensations weren’t unexpected,) and thus the deep bite didn’t register anywhere near as painful as it should have been – and let me tell you, squirrels can bite. They gnaw through wood and nut hulls routinely. But the sensation of her teeth within the muscle of my shoulder registered nonetheless, and in a flash, I snatched her off my shoulder and flung her into the cage in one fluid movement, never giving her a chance to redirect her attention to my hand. She landed on the wire again and chattered angrily, but the door was already closed.

When I turned the attention to my shoulder, I found a decent amount of blood but not horrendous, and a noticeable puncture wound that it was exceedingly strange to feel with my fingertips yet be almost unaware of at the shoulder where the wound actually was. She had also put two distinct holes in my almost-brand-new favorite T-shirt that I’d gotten at the Carolina Raptor Center, for which I could never forgive her; it was the perfect shade of slate blue and had kestrels on it, a species I was particularly attached to. Little shit.

Within the next day or so, rather than risk further mishap, we elected to release her, figuring that at least she had the moxie to deal with adverse conditions, but there was little we could do to ensure she had all of the habits she’d need, and those traits were likely still present anyway. Meanwhile, I still have both the scar and the nerve damage: if you poke my shoulder with a sharp object at just the right spot, I will feel the pressure through the underlying muscle, but not the object itself. I should convince doctors to vaccinate me there…

But you know, while I’m here, I have two other rehab stories from the same time period, though granted, they speak nothing of the hazards of treating wildlife as pets. Well, mostly not.

In one case, we had a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that had been orphaned and was near adult size. For a short period of time she was housed in a smaller cage within the barn, before she was moved to a flight cage as the final stage before release. Every morning I brought her mice, frozen but thawed to roughly ‘live’ temperature, and deposited them in her cage where she would seize them eagerly and turn her back to me to devour them, hunched over with wings slightly spread, a habit that I guessed was meant to protect her meal from siblings. She was completely fine with my reaching in the cage however, though I never let her get too used to this, but it was curious to see her disregard for this encroachment, and it worried me slightly. She needed to have a healthy distrust of humans, and especially not see them as food sources, but that would also be enforced in the next step, the flight cage.

One morning, with nothing out of the ordinary that I could see, I entered the barn to find her agitated, darting her gaze around and dodging on her perch animatedly. I watched this for a moment, unsure what caused it, knowing that I personally had done nothing different and could neither hear nor see anything amiss in the barn. After a moment, I went ahead and opened the door slowly, and introduced the mice.

She hopped across the perch and landed onto my wrist as it was extended with the mice, and clamped down with the talons, only momentarily. The thing was, one of these sharp and massive nails bit right into my wrist directly on top of that bump of bone on the outside (go ahead, look at it,) lancing down through the thin skin to the joint and cartilage. It was only a handful of millimeters, far less than the squirrel’s bite, but in exactly the wrong place, and this hurt like a motherfucker, easily one of the most painful things that I’ve ever felt (and I’ve had kidney stones.) It was the kind of injury that you wring your arm up and down madly, as if this would do anything at all, but you have no choice, and I treated her to a fine collection of expletives regarding her ancestry and sexual predilections. And yet, it barely even bled, but it throbbed like hell all day long.

And I still have no idea why this occurred. I can only guess that something, a fox perhaps, was sniffing around outside the barn not long before I came in, or another red-tail was sounding off very close by. Anything smaller and she would have been delighted at the prospect of a meal, so rats were out, and really, little else could have entered the barn. But I was a lot more circumspect with her feedings after that.

red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis in rehab flight cage
Old, shitty negative, and probably not one of the mentioned patients, but a representative example anyway
We also had a couple of flight cages at the facility, and these were massive, wood-slat affairs, roughly 4 meters square on the end and 13 meters long, to allow medium-sized raptors to gain wing strength before release. For one of our red-tailed hawk patients (I’m fairly certain not my assailant above,) we wanted to ensure that they knew how to hunt, which was tricky – chances are, even with live prey within the cage, they wouldn’t do anything if they knew someone was nearby observing them. What I ended up doing was setting up a surveillance camera. This was the mid-nineties, so what we’d been donated was a full-size, shoulder-mount videocamera that held complete VHS tapes – you know, the size of a hardcover book. This was set up in the far end of the flight cage on a tripod, with a protective plastic bag (red-tailed hawks defecate horrendously, managing quite some distance at times.) I started the camera, then released a handful of live mice on the floor of the cage while the hawk was high above on a perch, and slipped out.

Later in the day I came back and collected the camera when the battery had run down, producing not quite two hours of tape, and brought it in to the VCR. After several minutes of virtually nothing at all to see – some slight fidgeting on the perch, because red-tails conserve energy and often sit observing for hours at a time – I began fast-forwarding through the tape, watching the slight jiggling and jerky movements of the hawk on the perch. And then, whoops!, a sudden flash of action off of the perch! I rolled it back and played it at normal speed, seeing the hawk suddenly drop into an alert pose with eyes fixed on the floor of the cage. Raptors often do this little head-bob-and-circle movement as they spot potential prey, trying for a clear look and getting the range, so it’s often obvious when they spot something. And in another moment, the hawk dropped from the perch to the floor of the cage, stayed down there for a minute or two fidgeting, then returned to the perch. The resolution was too low to determine that it actually held a mouse, but the actions of eating it were unmistakable. Success!

For a later patient, I created a small ‘wading pool’ for the mice, because the greater area of the cage allowed too many nooks for mice to disappear into, and so they were housed in a two-meter square pen with sides too high for them to jump out of. This patient (another red-tail) had been raised from a fledgling so we wanted to know it had the instinct to hunt on its own, and it sat high above me on a perch as I prepared the buffet. After releasing the mice within the pen, I stepped back for a moment to observe them, and the hawk slammed onto the floor within the mouse pen not two meters away from me. Red-tails have a violent attack mode, counting on their strong legs to halt their descent and on their body weight to often incapacitate their prey – there’s nothing delicate or graceful about it, and they don’t fly down to their prey, they plummet with little effort at arresting their speed. So the spectacle right in front of me was a bit startling. After only a moment, the hawk hopped to the edge of the pen with a mouse in its talons, regarded me stoically and without alarm from little more than an arm’s length away, then flew up to its perch to consume its meal. Well, fine – not worried about your hunting abilities at all.

Too cool, part 47: ze frank is back

I’ve already seen at least two other websites that have featured this video, so I’m slow, but we already knew that. Still, it was too good not to feature, a fine mix of information, illustration, and humor – because it’s by ze frank of course. I’m never sure how to capitalize or separate that…

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it (or even if you have,) take a gander at True Facts:Deception in the Rainforest

Zebra mosaic Colobura dirce displaying curious patternJust so you know, while the more extreme examples in the video are often only found in the rainforest, all of these traits and defenses can be witnessed the world over, including right here in North Carolina; you’ll find more of them if you take some time to closely examine the plants and ground around you, though you’ll have a lot better luck if you wait a little longer when spring gets its ass in gear. A handful of these can be seen at the Butterfly House in the Museum of Life & Science in Durham.

Certainly, I’d like the opportunity to witness and photograph some of the more exotic species myself, and such a trip is still on the bucket list, but drawing closer. Yes, it could potentially be offensive to contribute funds towards such an endeavor, implying that I couldn’t afford a trip on my own, but I’m fairly thick-skinned and would make the supreme effort of taking such cash (or plane tickets) in a gracious spirit, because I’m that kind of guy. I would even share my experiences here, so you’d be benefiting countless others all at the same time.

And credit where credit is due:

David Weiller

Thomas Marent

Thomas Hossie

neira Dan

Yero Kuethe

Luisa Mota

Tom Sherratt

Douglas Yanega

chrysalis of possible red-spotted purple admiral Limenitis arthemis astyanax
This is a chrysalis, right on the wall of our house here at Walkabout Estates, likely of a red-spotted purple admiral (Limenitis arthemis astyanax.) So, you know, always examine bird shit closely…

Profiles of Nature 9

Dyeing poison frog Dendrobates tinctorius "Itch" doing pushups
This week, we meet Itch Diddli as he either practices placing his handprints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or pees on the ferns – we’re not exactly sure which, and it might be both. Itch hasn’t actually done any modeling yet, so all of his anecdotes are imaginary; even then, they’re kinda boring. He tried moving to a small town in rural Iowa to help speed his discovery by a top agent, because that was a way cooler backstory, but that hampered his ability to brag of hanging with Jones and Miller at a loft party, since there were no loft parties or even lofts, so he moved to New York and just counted on being able to say that he was discovered in Iowa. Unfortunately, he moved to Binghamton, believing this was near SoHo, and keeps trying to find the crosstown train. His favorite story, that actually bears a smidgen of truth, is about getting beat up when asking Sting (so he thought) for an autograph, which might have gone better if the woman hadn’t been having such a bad day. His primary hobby is giving the worst possible advice to schoolchildren, though he doesn’t know this yet. Itch lists the city he’d most like to live in as, ‘Eurasia,’ and his favorite Crusher Run is 3/4″.

We’ll be back next week – just you try and stop us! No, no, just you – not all of you, that’d hardly be fair now…

Repost Redux: Amateur naturalism, part six

As we once again enter the season of baby animals (for most species, anyway,) I decided to repost something last seen seven years (and two days) ago, because it still applies – I should probably find a way to make this automatically post at this time. Anyway, let’s look into abandoned/orphaned/injured wildlife and rehabilitation.

I used to work in this field a fair amount, both in administration of wildlife organizations and as an active raptor [birds of prey] rehabilitator, plus I served as wildlife adviser in several different situations. So I’m familiar with most of the more common reactions people have when they find ‘orphaned,’ injured, and ill wildlife. It’s hard to give enough useful information without trying to cover every situation or alternative, so treat this as an overview. One thing that I especially want to emphasize here is that there is an immediate emotional response in most cases, which tries to override the advice given by those who work in the fields, so be aware of it. There isn’t an ‘instinct’ we might have that applies to wildlife, and the rational mind is the part that needs to take control.

Additionally, the amount of folklore regarding wildlife is not just abundant, in most cases it’s ridiculously wrong. I’m not even going to say, “If in doubt…,” because you should doubt right off the bat, and consider that most of what you’ve heard is highly suspect. This means, contact someone who is supposed to know, and go with their advice.

Number one rule, and I can’t repeat this enough: Don’t try to raise wildlife on your own. Their diets are specialized, their needs varied and specific to the species, and their adult behavior dependent on how they’re raised. This isn’t the place for guesswork or experimentation. Even if they seem to be ‘doing well’ (like the viral video of the guy raising a baby hummingbird,) they may have developmental issues from an improper diet or exercise, or simply have imprinted on the wrong species, and you are in essence just prolonging the death of the animal. In the US, it’s illegal to raise any species without a specific permit, and songbirds are federally protected. It’s possible to obtain these permits, and quite frankly encouraged, because there are few places with enough rehabbers, but if you’re going to do it, do it right. More further down.

So, we’re about to enter baby bird season, and this accounts for a large percentage of wildlife encounters. I’ll dispel the first myth that touching a baby bird will cause the mother to abandon it. Utter hogwash, pure and simple – yet, I don’t always discourage parents from teaching this to their children, because it’s one way to try and get kids to leave them alone, which is a good thing. Better, perhaps, to teach them to leave them alone for the right reasons, which is to avoid interrupting their feeding schedule, or injuring them, or thinking it would be neat to have a pet robin. But returning to the myth, baby birds will occasionally fall from the nest, and it’s perfectly fine to return them to it, and in fact this is recommended.

It doesn’t always work, however. Some species will discard young that are not doing well, and some even kick their own siblings out – this is nature’s method of selecting the most viable offspring, as ruthless as we find it, and we’re not going to change it. Basically, if it’s a baby bird not ready to leave the nest (not fledged; we’ll return to this,) put it back. If it keeps coming out, there may not be much you can do.

Can’t reach the nest? Try to find a way, first. If that’s not possible, occasionally the parents will accept a substitute nest, such as a plastic berry basket with soft tissue as bedding – this should be placed as close as possible to the original nest, firmly anchored so it doesn’t come down. Observe the nest carefully, but from a safe distance, for 30-60 minutes to see if the parents have indeed found the substitute. If not, seek out a rehabilitator or wildlife official.

Abandoned nest? Maybe, maybe not. Once the eggs hatch, the parent birds go into feeding mode, gathering food constantly during daylight hours and stopping at the nest for brief periods to jam it down the gullets of their ravenous progeny. The 30-60 minute rule above is because waiting less may mean you’ve simply missed the brief feeding period between the extended gathering periods. Observation has to be done at a distance that does not alarm the parents – minimum is six meters (yards,) and more is recommended. Also, being low key is paramount, so take a seat (with binoculars, for preference) and remain still and quiet. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s for the health of the offspring, and if you didn’t care about that you wouldn’t be reading ;-)

fledglingsAs the nestlings become fledglings, they abandon the nest on their own in learning how to fly. This does mean that they’ll be found unable to fly, fluttering around at low level and even just sitting there staring at you. This is normal, and they should remain undisturbed. The parents are nearby, providing food and encouraging the flight attempts. Most bird species know enough not to give away their progeny’s locations to predators, or draw attention to themselves by moving a lot, so your ability to approach, or not being attacked by angry parents when you do so, means nothing at all. Again, observation is good here, as is knowing the calls of the species in question – the parents may be coaching their young towards them.

Now, telling the difference in ‘nestlings’ and ‘fledglings.’ A nestling is a baby bird that must remain in the nest for a while; they will have few feathers, or perhaps even odd ‘quills,’ which is what the feathers look like as they are growing out. Unable to support itself? Eyes not open? Nestling. Fledglings are the babies that are ready to learn how to fly. Their feathers will have good coverage with little to no stragglers or ‘stuffing coming out’ (the baby down.) One rule I always used over the phone was to ask if there were tail feathers – if there are, they’re about ready to fly. These are fledglings and should only be observed.

If in doubt, contact a rehabber/official. This is before doing anything else, save for getting it out of immediate danger. No food, no water, nothing at all. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say, “We’ve tried giving it water and worms” – birds can aspirate the water if it’s not given the way the parents do (you’ve noticed the beak getting jammed halfway down the throat, right?) and only one species in North America eats earthworms. Again, folklore – ignore it and be safe.

Also, bleeding in birds is serious, no matter what. Birds have very thin blood that doesn’t coagulate easily, and they can bleed out quickly. Also note that those ‘quills’ of new feathers mentioned above have a blood supply for a while, and these can be broken and start bleeding as well. Time is important in such situations.

HappyOwletBaby raptors will tear you up – they know how to use the beak and talons very early (often on their siblings) and will not hesitate to protect themselves. And adult raptors will protect their young. This is where it’s best to leave it to the experienced.

And it may seem funny to have to say this, but baby birds do not look like their parents. Adult kestrels and screech owls, both diminutive raptors, are often considered “babies” when found by those not familiar with what a real juvenile looks like. Basic rule: if it has a smooth appearance and good coverage of feathers, it’s at least fledgling age, probably older.

What about mammals? This is a little different – mammals are generally not found away from their parents unless something has gone wrong. Most especially, if the youngster’s eyes aren’t open, they’re wet from the rain or dew, or if they’re cold or dehydrated, this is the time to contact someone. Test for dehydration by gently pinching up the skin over the shoulders or side in a ‘tent’ and releasing – if the skin takes more than a second to go back into position, this is dehydration.

Always use gloves. Juvenile mammals can certainly bite, and there’s an additional risk to this: rabies is active throughout much of North America. This is an invariably fatal disease once it passes a certain point (much more so than HIV,) so this needs to be taken seriously. It is not just the bite that can transmit it, but contact of an infected animal’s saliva with mucous membranes can introduce it as well, which means that picking up a damp animal and rubbing your eyes puts you at risk. Animals do not have to be showing symptoms to be infectious, and symptoms vary anyway. BE SAFE.

It’s not just rabies. Mammals are far more likely to introduce other zoonotic issues than birds – they’re enough like us that parasites (internal and external) and some viruses can be transmitted to us. Bringing them into the house may mean you just introduced fleas, lice, giardia, and so on into your home. You’ve been warned.

possumpeepingAlso, and it pains me to have to always say this, but cute does not mean safe. Any animal can defend itself. I have never been bitten by a raccoon, despite their aggressiveness, but I have a scar and a touch of nerve damage from a grey squirrel – one, moreover, that was raised in a house. Rabbits and mice can bite the hell out of you. Shrews even have a toxic saliva. Yes, I am trying to scare you – if you’re scared, you’re cautious, which is better than incautious.

In many cases, mammals about half of the adult size can be on their own without issues – they learn how to forage for their own food reasonably quickly. Again, the stillness thing doesn’t mean they’re lost – it may simply mean they’re trying not to attract attention. This is especially so for white-tailed deer fawns – they often curl up in the grass and conserve energy while mom forages, and will not move even when someone approaches – occasionally not even when picked up. Leave them be, and come back in a few hours. If they’re still there, that’s when you should contact someone.

Rabbits are notorious for abandoning the nest if it’s been disturbed, even with a full brood of young within. This is doubly hazardous because their nests are often in clumps of grass and can be inadvertently discovered by cleaning the yard. If it happens, immediately put everything back as it was, without touching the young, and place a few distinctive blades of grass across the nest opening (preferably something you can see from at least a short distance away,) then leave it entirely alone. Come back in a few hours and check to see if the grass has been moved. If it has, things are probably okay. If not, it may be time to check the warmth and hydration of the young. Contact a rehabilitator.

Again, trying to raise them yourself puts them at a high risk. This is especially true for rabbits, which are among the hardest mammals to raise in North America. I can’t count the number of people who have assured me that they did it once before, so “they know how to do it.” While this may be true, it ignores numerous things, such as how viable the released offspring were and whether they lasted longer than a month, whether they had developmental deficiencies because of improper nutrition, and even whether they had habituated to food or behavior that left them ill-prepared for their conditions. There is a shortage of rehabilitators, so believe me, if it was easy most people would be encouraged to tackle this on their own. The fact that not only is it discouraged, it is unlawful in most areas, should be a good indication that there’s something more to consider. And the welfare of the animal should take higher precedence than anyone’s ego.

Injured animals are extra dangerous. Yes, they may seem incapacitated or helpless, but you know what they say about appearances. One of my colleagues rashly checked an injured, near-comatose squirrel bare-handed, and it bit through her finger, joining its teeth together in the fleshy part of her index finger – I actually heard them grinding together. It then passed out without letting go. Animals in pain (even pets) often respond aggressively – they have no concept of your attempts to help them, and restraint can make them even more agitated. Deer can do vast amounts of damage by thrashing with their hooves, and the big waterfowl like herons and cranes can drive that beak into your face (and yes, they aim for effectiveness.) I really want to emphasize this, because the nurturing instincts are badly misplaced here, and extreme caution is necessary instead.

“There’s a nest of animals in my attic/crawlspace/walls and they need to be removed!” No. Most especially not when they’re raising young, which is most often when anyone notices them. Once the young are there, no further damage is going to be done to your house, because the parents are concentrating on raising their brood. Trying to relocate them is hazardous, both to the animals and to people in many cases, and pointless. Let them be, and in a few weeks the young will be old enough and move out on their own – about the only exception to this is bat colonies (more below.) Once there are no young to raise, the adult animals often leave on their own – nests are primarily for young – but they can also be encouraged to leave or stay out at that point. Squirrels are pretty bad about wanting to return to successful nest areas, and will even chew through wire mesh at times, but most others take the hint and find better places to live.

“But what about rabies?” Animals raising young, even in the eaves of your house, are not an especially high risk. Contrary to belief, rabies does not cause animals to leap suddenly out and attack people; those events are remarkably rare. While anyone should be quite cautious of any mammals that openly approach, living near them does not place anyone at special risk – you’re at greater risk of being killed by the tree near the house falling on you, and we won’t even talk about road risks. Like snake bites, most contacts with rabies vector wildlife occurs by people initiating the contact.

beaverspoor“Animals are doing damage to my property and need to be removed!” No. I can’t tell you how much this attitude annoys me, but that’s what a blog is for, right? Wildlife goes where the habitat is ideal, and pays no attention to humankind’s imaginary idea of “property.” First off, anyone should enjoy the opportunity to see behavior, something that is often hard to accomplish even when making the effort. If someone has wildlife around, chances are they aren’t in a high-rise apartment, which means they wanted to live with at least some vestige of nature visible; surprise surprise, it comes with other animals. While we might decry the damages to our gardens or landscaping, that’s part of the territory, just like road noise and power lines. Learn how to cope, and the ways to exclude animals from certain areas so we can have tomatoes. I’m sorry that a $500 tree was stripped, but no one should have planted something that was that appealing to the local species in the first place, and chances are, numerous appropriate trees had been cut down first so that the fancy landscaping could be put in its place (and I used to work for a landscaper, too.)

Trapping and removal is rarely effective. If there’s a habitat, someone else will move in. And wildlife populations have been shown through numerous studies to be fairly self-regulating; the issues come because habitat destruction by humans is not. We can put in housing developments much faster than the natural cycles of population reduction and management, and those displaced animals end up somewhere. They likely feel the same way about us – dread the point where they develop opposable thumbs.

But what about bats? Ah, the poor little guys! Much of our population considers them ugly and creepy, not at all helped by folklore and horror stories, yet bats are actually way cool mammals, and good to keep the insects down. But most species nest in colonies, and this does sometimes mean in attics, which can produce lots of guano (bat poop) and increases the risks of rabies exposure, primarily when one gets lost and ends up within the human spaces of the house. However, the damage that they can do is minuscule, since they do not dig or gnaw, and excluding them only takes 1/4″ hardware cloth (small-holed wire mesh.) Again, this should be done when no young are being raised, and should always be done with gloves and a breath mask (guano turns into dust easily and can be inhaled.) Should you find a bat in your house, contact your local animal control, since states differ on how they handle potential exposures.

I said I’d get to this: So you want to learn how to rehabilitate wildlife? Once again, this is actually encouraged, but like riding a motorcycle, it should be done properly and responsibly. If there isn’t a wildlife center or organization available in your area, contact your regional Wildlife Resource Commission office (for the US at least) to find out who in your area can train you, and most especially what permissions you need. In the US you’ll need at least one permit, possibly several. What you’ll mostly need is training, because any species requires a decent body of knowledge to tackle well – which also means pick a species, at least to start. Your local rehabbers can suggest a few, which might mean picking something you didn’t initially desire, but which is either easier to learn or presents the greatest needs within an area (and again, is this about you, or the animals?) Expect to spend a lot of time at it, since most animals need lots of attention – mammals may need feedings every four hours around the clock, and birds every 15-30 minutes during daylight (yes, I knew a songbird rehabilitator that kept baby birds in the desk drawers of her office.) And it’s almost certainly all coming out of your own pocket.

I feel obligated to say this, too: wild animals are not pets, and should not be raised as such. There are lots of reasons. The domesticated animals we have as pets, like cats and dogs and horses, have been bred that way for thousands of years and quite likely were chosen because they already had traits that assisted the process. Animals do not domesticate by simply raising them around people, and in many cases have behaviors that cause them to run afoul of our own (I mention once again the squirrel scar I bear, and will post that story later on.) Many animals also do not have diets that are easy for humans to replicate, meaning that they’re unlikely to thrive and may develop serious disabilities. But most distinctly, what we might imagine them to be like is rarely ever the case – they are highly unlikely to bond with humans in the slightest, and aren’t going to make good companions, do tricks, or even exhibit any appealing personality. They belong in the wild, and that should be your only goal.

Now, if the demands of rehabilitation are too much to contemplate, you can always volunteer with a local organization, and do rehabilitation on a rotation as your schedule permits. This helps prevent burnout and lets you have vacations and family emergencies. This also allows you to get involved without necessarily requiring the permits, because you can operate under the aegis of the organization and its own permits (which is how I worked with raptors, since my apartment would not fit the 15-meter flight cages required.) Still, expect to be dedicated to the job, even when it’s unsavory – cleaning cages and wounds, and even euthanizing injured animals, is a requisite part of it all. Not to mention how many species expect live or fresh food. If you’re thinking of cuddling fluffy bunnies, you’re not ready; rehab requires lots of ugly stuff, and very little bonding – they’re not pets, but wildlife, and need to be wild.

Or, simply donate money or materials. That works too, and is just as necessary – the nice thing about the subject is how nearly everyone can find a niche (provided they accept the reasonable expectations.) Despite such things as Wildlife Resource Commissions and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, there really isn’t money being put into wildlife rehab, especially not from a state or federal level. The vast majority of organizations run solely on donations and grants, and often even have to have veterinary services donated. Experienced workers are great, but donors are just as important, if not more so. Even people who can promote greater donations are important. Just about everything is grass-roots level, all of the time – the few exceptions are great, and demonstrations of what can be done, but not what you can expect throughout the field. Your help, whatever it is, will be appreciated.

A final note: find out, now, how to contact your local wildlife people. Before you find yourself with an injured owl on your hands. In some areas, it’s not self-evident or easy to find, and if it’s not a registered organization, you can forget about searching any telephone listings. Local animal control usually knows, and the 24-hour emergency vets. Often, 911 operators do not, and even local law enforcement may be stumped. A few minutes to get prepared can save a lot of hassle later on, and as I said, we’re entering baby season.

Hope this helps!

We’re out of February already? I just went to the store!

Yes, it’s the end of the month, so the dreaded abstract is knockin’ at the door. Sooner or later we’re gonna have to either let it in, or set the dogs after it. Personally, I’m in favor of the latter, and you’re about to see why.

pair of Canada geese Branta canadensis in blurry dispute
As it was, I had enough trouble finding things to shoot without working on the fartsy, abstract angle, so what we have here is a cropped portion of a frame that will probably be discarded anyway, back when the Canada geese were being fussy, and I know that doesn’t narrow things down in the slightest, but what I’m referring to is the time I was firing off frames as they did so. It wasn’t enough on its own, so I kicked saturation off the scale to give it some unwinterlike color; it’s still not enough, but at least it’s a little trippy for those who partake in mind-altering pharmaceuticals.

But even I am embarrassed by that, so we’ll have a bonus, nearly four years old now, from one of the beach trips.

drainage trails among shells on beach at sunrise
This is a little more like it, even though it’s craven cheating. And while it’s not hard at all to tell what we’re looking at, the distinct shadows almost seem to impart greater depth to it, as if we’re looking at an entire landscape from a notable distance above. I suspect this is because we almost never see sun so low that it can produce long shadows from tiny objects, so our minds (well, mine, anyway,) tell us they must be bigger. Or am I overworking it?

A little bit

On an outing this past Wednesday, we found just a wee bit to photograph, mostly since the day had warmed considerably and this sparked a little activity. Not a lot – it’s still winter, so don’t go getting your expectations up, but at least there’s a smidgen to post that isn’t about being young and stupid, or old and cranky. Lucky you.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus enjoying the sun, maybe
We were paying no attention to the trees, and would have missed this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) entirely if it hadn’t vented a call as we were nearby. It sat still long enough for us to affix our long lenses, then took flight immediately afterwards, switching to another perch in much lousier lighting only fifty meters off. But it’s that season, and the behavior of remaining fairly close was suspicious, so I began looking around carefully. Sure enough, there was a nest not too far from where it had originally been perched, but at this distance and angle I couldn’t be sure if it was a hawk’s nest or perhaps a grey squirrel’s.

unidentified, but possibly red-shouldered hawk's nest
I took a few frames in the hopes that close examination might show someone peeking over the lip, and I tried circling it to a better vantage, but the density of trees wasn’t allowing it, and I never saw any signs of occupants, so right now this remains unidentified. Something to try and keep an eye on, but this was in a park a dozen kilometers or so away, so it won’t be frequent checks. I’ve got a couple of promising nests right nearby to concentrate on, anyway.

Even the songbirds were scarce, though being out at midday might have had a little to do with it, since they like dawn and dusk better. A Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus – seriously, stick with the common name and don’t hurt yourself) posed nicely just long enough for me to unzip the camera bag, then moved to a spot with worse light and background, but I fired off a few frames anyway, because winter.

Carolina wren Thryothorus ludovicianus not quite posing
Annnddd for living, moving subjects, that was almost it. We’re getting close to the old and cranky thing again.

The frequent rains had flooded the banks of the river in places, and created a lot of mud. In one such puddle was clear evidence of a recent visit, but of course this took place in the dead of night and not in the live of afternoon while we were there.

tracks of North American raccoon Procyon lotor in shallow mud puddle
These are the tracks of a North American raccoon (Procyon lotor,) which was likely checking out the water, as they do, for fun edible stuff – not like it was going to find anything in this minimal puddle. But elsewhere, there were some pickings, for both raccoons and nature photographers. This was largely determined by the creaking calls, heard while we were still a short ways off and halting as we got close. However, a lot of close examination eventually turned up the vocalists, taking advantage of the warmer day (which may not yet herald spring, but they tend to get an early start regardless.)

barely submerged upland chorus frog Pseudacris feriarum posing in open
I had initially identified the call as coming from an American toad, but I was wrong! Instead, it proved to be upland chorus frogs (Pseudacris feriarum,) much smaller and about a hundred times more adept at remaining camouflaged and hidden, this photo notwithstanding. This was because I had spooked one from its cover at the edge of the water and it went a little further out into the puddle in a spot lacking stuff that it could get under, so it held still instead and counted on camouflage, not realizing that the common orange clay of North Carolina wasn’t matching the frog’s own coloration. They’re stupid, is what I’m saying.

pair of upland chorus frogs Pseudacris feriarum almost hidden in shallows
This image is a little more accurate representation of their habits, but still makes it seems like they wouldn’t be that hard to spot. However, the one on the left (you didn’t miss that one, did you?) would simply duck under that leaf as soon as anyone drew near, doing so again as we were getting the shots, and most times they sit right up against clumps of grass or leaves and appear as nothing more that a mud lump. Given that their maximum body length is about 30mm, it’s usually more than effective.

Their calls, by the way, are way out of proportion to their size; you really expect to see something a lot bigger than this, and standing at the edge of a pond or basin (or a mere ditch, as this was) when they start calling again, it’s almost confusing how distinct they sound, perhaps right there, and yet you can see nothing.

upland chorus frog Pseudacris feriarum peeking from water for portrait
This one was way too cooperative, but were we complaining? Having been spooked into the water, it peeked back out again after a few minutes, and our slower movements weren’t enough to chase it down again. The clump of grass and the bubbles help give an idea of scale: smaller that the treefrogs that I find so often, and way smaller than American toads. For some reason they’re not that common in my immediate surroundings (like within walking distance,) so I don’t have easy access to them to capture their life cycle, but perhaps I can find a key spot not too far away, because they’re common enough in the general area. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Well, okay, you’ll have to see – I’m gonna have to be actively searching. Typically this is anything from puddles to decent ponds, within or very close to wooded areas, so I at least know what to be looking for. You’ll know of my success, or lack thereof, soon enough.

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