The Last Flight

Bag pipes did not scream out to mark the day. 

No lonely bugle tapped a tribute call.

His murder stood with him but did not pray.

The stiff grey crow stretched his wings and cawed.


A younger crow brought back some fresh road kill,

A tasty snack he found out in the street.

To show his prize, he pranced about the hill,

Then gently laid it at the old crow’s feet.


It seems that crows know how to be a friend.

Nobody laughed, but then nobody cried.

And when the day long vigil reached its end,

He laid down on the grass and calmly died.


For one more time these birds rose up as one

To fly with him towards the setting sun.




Juvenile Bluebird, Exton, PA



      We made the trip back from Michigan in one shot to make it easier on Beans.  That way she only missed one meal, instead of three, and didn’t have the stress of getting through a night in a motel.  When we got home, it was full summer in southeast PA with Fourth of July fireworks, 95 degree heat, and fledgling birds flocking to the readily available food sources.

      In June, the local non-migratory Canadian Geese were all spread out across the county, exclusively in pairs.  Now in early July, the pairs were joined by six to eight fuzzy, grey goslings.  By the end of July, they looked just like their parents and were still with them.  So the geese in July were grouped in families of less than a dozen.  I noticed after that, in many cases, a second brood was hatched out, so that by summer’s end the family groups can be as big as a dozen and a half.  That single group will look like a flock.  If the food and space are available, it is easy to see how a few successful birds can rapidly expand their numbers to fill a biological niche.

      In July in southeast PA, most migrating species have passed through, while some winter species have gone north to be temporarily supplanted by a similar species from the south.  Most dramatically absent are the Chipping Sparrows and taking their place are the Song Sparrows.  The birds that are here are here in greater numbers.  There are abundant Red-winged Blackbirds, Cardinals, and sparrows.  All are busy in nesting or have already done that and have been joined by many slightly smaller copies of themselves.  The migrators will get fat and strong on the massive number of summer insects and seeds, and then they fly off to southern regions that are experiencing their period of abundance.  We all know that now, but less sophisticated people than us (e. g. Plato and Socrates) thought birds went into the dirt in the fall and emerged in the spring like plants.  Even fairly recently, we knew that our northern birds went south – but exactly where, we didn’t always know.  Weidensaul’s chapter on the hawk migration in “Living on the Wind” and the discovery that the hawks pass through eastern Mexico on their way to Argentina is eye-opening.  In our global human culture, how is it that no one officially noticed that several large and impressive species were present in North America at one season, in Argentina during another, and then puzzled out the route that huge numbers of these of large birds followed to get back and forth?  The key word is “eye-opening”, or maybe it is two words, “eye opening”.  All our eyes were shut, at least with respect to the “natural world”, even as it pertains to the incredible phenomena of bird migration.   We wouldn’t ignore a herd of Caribou migrating through our region.   The migrating birds constitute a much greater mass of biological material migrating in impressive numbers, but I pretty much ignored that until this year. 

      Considering the great difficulty and danger of migration, why do it?  We already answered that – food.  Is it really that simple?  Yes, it is.  It doesn’t require a degree in biology to see why the migration strategy is so powerful.  The one dominant survival strategy throughout nature is inordinate and excessive proliferation.  I don’t remember which species Thoreau used as an example for commenting on this strategy in his journal, but I think it was the jellyfish.  He pointed out that if the thousands of eggs from a single animal could all survive to propagate, and those offspring could all survive again, in a remarkably short period of time, the planet would contain nothing but jellyfish in an unimaginable biomass.  Since that can’t happen, why does an organism expend so much biological capital to reproduce profusely?  There are two advantages:  first, make sure that whatever biological niche is available gets completely filled; second, produce enough individuals that the predators can’t eat them all.

      This last point is tricky for non-migrators.  Organisms that use a different organism for food (which is pretty much all organisms) will tend to proliferate until they eat up their entire food supply.  Some non-migrators get around this by periodically, but not always, producing huge quantities of reproductive material.  For example, oaks “mast” every four years producing so many acorns that the squirrel population adjusted for the off-years can’t eat up all the acorns in the “mast” year.  The Seventeen Year Locust uses the same strategy on a much longer time scale.  Can you imagine being a creature that considers this locust to be a delicacy and being out of town the week they hatch out?   That would suck.

      Migrators can beat both the seasonal boom and bust food supplies and also the predators.  When the food starts to run out, they leave and go somewhere else where food is temporarily in abundance.  Since their numbers are adjusted to the peaks of the food supply, instead of to the lows of the food supply, the migrators are always present in numbers too great for the local predators to eat them all.  If there are enough predators in a region to eat too many migrators, those predators will starve in their off season.

      I’ve always loved Cardinals for the same reason that lots of people love Cardinals, because they are pretty.  They’ve been living in my yard for decades and sometimes I can recognize one of the individual birds.  Over the last six months, I’ve started to respect their toughness.  I’ve seen them as one of the dominant birds in the frozen upstate New York winters and on a hot, steamy Georgia coastal island in the spring.  They are really versatile, yet their survival strategy will never allow them to expand to the numbers that are possible for migrating passerines.  Why belabor this right now, in early summer in southeast PA?  Because looking at the success of the non-migrating local geese, I’m confronted with a different biological strategy related to movement.  That’s invasion.

      “Invasion” is the current “really bad word” in biology.   The first “really bad word” that my kids learned was “Shut up”.  As soon as we called attention to it by banning it, they started to use it everywhere, including church.  Even when they got older and found out that there were a lot of worse words and phrases, “Shut up” remained their go to curse words, especially when they got really mad at each other.  I think biologists sometimes are using “invasive”, the way my kids used “shut up”, as a nasty sounding phrase to attach to things they don’t like.   Frequently the term refers to an introduced species that humans don’t like either because it causes the humans economic harm, or offends them aesthetically, or disadvantages wildlife popular with humans.  Just to make sure that we are clear about the normally biased usage of the term, consider a few examples.  Brook Trout is indigenous, while Rainbow Trout and Brown Trout are introduced.   We love all three.  Flip a coin and consider the Brown-headed Cowbird, probably the most hated bird by birders.  It is a parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests.  That seems like invasive behavior, but the bird is indigenous to North America and from that perspective no more invasive that the beloved Carolina Chickadee who is also advancing her range.  Largemouth Bass is native to North America, but I found it on a list of the 100 worst globally invasive species.  That’s a reminder that North America is not the center of the universe and our popular and well-loved native species can be a huge problem as an invader somewhere else.  Rabbits, cats, and goats are on that same “100 worst” list.  I imagine many people in Asia and Africa would be surprised that their locally popular and valuable food fish, the Snakehead, is considered a dangerous and unwanted pest in the United States.  Fish, mammals, and birds are easy, but there are plenty of examples of insects, mollusks, trees, grasses, and microbes that dramatically make the point.  The introduced species is only termed “invasive” if humans perceive that its presence effects harm to human interests.  Otherwise, go at it.  That’s just the way things are – survival of the fittest, and all that.

      In a broader and less frequently used view of “invasion”, native organisms become invasive when they “disrupt by a dominant colonization of a particular habitat or wild lands area from loss of natural controls” (Wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasive Species).  Deer in suburbia are invasive in this sense.  Non-migratory Canadian Geese were invasive in this sense a few years ago when they were fouling the sidewalks of our office parks and clogging the fairways of our golf courses.  Right now, they seem to have adapted to human activity so well that they are no longer much of a nuisance.  They keep off lawns and frequent the edges of parks and unused fields and roadside embankments.  These intelligent animals seem to have figured out where humans will tolerate them and where humans will persecute them.  So they are well on their way to getting off the public’s perception as a nuisance and thus NOT invasive.  But they are still on my list!

      That’s really not such a bad list to be on.  Probably everything alive was invasive at one time or another.  Every blade of grass is growing in dirt that if you go back far enough was growing something different.  You’d have to go back very far to find an environment completely devoid of life and therefore open to non-invasive colonization.  I’m projecting that you are objecting that I am overreaching in my application of the term “invasive” to human-free environments or without regard to humans.  So let’s go back to the Internet bible, Wikipedia, which lists the following traits that are common to invasive species:

·         “Fast growth

·         Rapid reproduction

·         High dispersal ability

·         Phenotypic plasticity ( the ability to alter growth form to suit current conditions)

·         Tolerance to a wide environmental conditions

·         Ability to live off a wide range of food types

·         Association with humans

·         Prior successful invasions”

      Take away “association with humans” and invasion or colonization or growth are just different faces on a three-sided coin (if you figure out what that means, more power to you).   Taking this one baby step forward, I read an article written in 2005, “Are invasive species the drivers of ecological change”.  (F20.)   These researchers questioned whether introduced species were altering an otherwise intact environment or just taking advantage of new conditions in an already damaged ecosystem.  Their experiments were to mow (biomass reduction) or weed (complete removal) exotic grasses from plots of land.  After three years, they counted the native and exotics in the treated plots.  The hypothesis was that if the dominant strategy of invaders was an assault on native species, the eradication of the invaders would help the native plants.  Conversely, if the invaders were predominately opportunists taking advantage of an available niche, eradication would have little impact.  They called that the “passenger model”.  The experimental result showed that the “passenger model” was the dominant invasive strategy, at least for these species in this environment.  Now this is me talking again.  I think this means that “invasion” is a natural phenomenon.  And, of course, the most prolific and destructive invader to exist is – drumroll, please – YOU and ME and the 6 billion other Homo sapiens.   From this perspective, the decrying of the planting of Crape Myrtles in Chester County seems a little silly.

      Hold on!  That doesn’t mean that I think that the Chestnut Blight is okay.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t mourn the loss of my favorite elms in central New York to the Dutch Elm Disease.  It does not mean that I was not sickened last week by seeing the many Ash trees poking their empty branches out of the forests in Northeast PA, killed by the recent invasion of Ash Borers.  Also, it doesn’t mean that I consider humans to be a blight on our planet that should be eradicated like weeds.  It is more complex than that.

      Go back and look at the list of common traits of “invasives” that I got from Wikipedia.  Clearly they all apply to humans.  Potentially, we could argue about

‘phenotypic plasticity” and then I would contend that our language skills, our ability to learn and invent new skills, our tool usage, our ability to alter our environment to meet our desires, and our changes in body structure and mental capacity over thousands, not millions, of years are components of extreme phenotypic plasticity.  Looking at our archeological and historical records, we find a clear pattern of invasion.  We think that we spread out of Africa, into Asia and Europe, across the Bering Strait into North America, and then down into South America.  Current thinking on the origin of human population in Polynesia is that they came from South America.  Thor Heyerdahl showed in 1947 that rafts could have been sailed out of South America to reach this region.  He documented his experimental trip in the book “Kon Tiki”.  After that, human colonization and warfare could be termed “re-invasion”.  Europeans replaced “native Americans” in North America and other populations elsewhere.  Genghis Khan was one of our really good invaders.  Did you know that in the 1200s the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous empire?  That reminds me to give special mention to the Persians, Romans, Egyptians, Muslims, and Americans.   Current American invasion is significantly different from the typical invasion strategy of arrive, conquer or convert, then replace and proliferate.  Now it doesn’t seem to be about physically replacing the current populations with the descendants of the invader’s population.   There are still the threats and uses of physical force, appeals to nationalism, occasional territorial expansion (Is the American flag up on the moon a claim that the moon is an American colony?), and cultural hegemony.  We are hell bent on spreading democracy, freedom, rock ‘n roll, and short skirts, especially to regions that don’t want them.

      So let’s level the moral playing field.  If Americans are bad because they are “Crusaders”, then so is every other group of people on the planet, because every group got where they are through invasion.  Morality is a man-made concept anyway, with cultural mores being determined by the dominant culture in each region and era.  So it is irrelevant in biological terms.  What I find interesting is that many humans are exhibiting behaviors that are inconsistent with previously universal patterns present in all species and different than any human behavior that I’ve heard of in the past.

       The environmental movement is unnatural.  No other species has ever subjugated its own interests to advance the interests of a different species.  Altruists like King Arthur and Mother Theresa were helping downtrodden humans, not downtrodden sparrows.  The argument that by cleaning up our pollution and attempting to reverse our environmental depredations is in the best interest of humanity is valid.  But it is just as unnatural for a species to act in its short term disinterest, in order to accrue a long term advantage sometime in the future, probably long after the current living organisms are dead.  What about nesting behavior, giving up huge amounts of energy to propagate the young?  That sacrificial behavior is hard-wired into the individuals for the preservation of that species.   Without it the species or group will go extinct.   A human settlement that was superior in many ways, but lacked the fundamental imperative to procreate, was the Shakers.   Who?   That’s right.  They didn’t survive beyond a single generation.  There are other strange behaviors, like art, that make no biological sense.  Relatively new behavior unique to humans is the conscious decision to delay or limit procreation in order to benefit existing offspring or in cooperation with a society-wide program designed to benefit the society as a whole, for example China’s one child per family policy.  Additionally, no other species cleans up its messes.  They live in the mess, build a new layer on top of the mess, or move to a different location.  Frequently the wind and rain do a sufficient cleanup, but cleanup by animals is weird.  Making a mess is natural.  Chopping down forests for firewood or lumber makes biological sense from the perspective of the individuals doing the chopping.  Paul Bunyan was not a villain.   He was a folk hero.  Killing birds and other animals for food makes biological sense and at the time when most of the slaughter was being done, the killing was socially acceptable.  Consider current commercial fishermen.  They are not criminals and in most circles, they are not looked down on as eco-terrorists.  Yet they continue to kill fish to the point that they are bringing many species to the edge of extinction.  As the high end game fish disappear, they switch to the bait fish.  Eventually humans will agree to outlaw killing fish, like they did with birds.  Hopefully that will be soon, so that in 2114, people will think it strange that commercial slaughter of wild fish was tolerated.  Even though many of us perceive that this is a desirable outcome, that doesn’t make the outcome natural.  It is directly contradictory to the self-interest of the current humans who are alive today.  Setting aside Seney NWR and spending huge sums to establish a place for birds and letting normal people into the park for a nominal fee to view them, that is not how humans traditionally behave.  Setting aside Versailles for King Louie and killing off the Passenger Pigeon, that is the way humans roll. 

      Even more unnatural is that the universally successful strategy of prolific procreation is suddenly being reversed.  Those societies who continue to breed to their biological limit do not procure more power and more resources to share among their burgeoning population.  They become poorer, frequently destitute, and their societies have less to share with more individuals needing a portion.  Even in societies like America where everyone can get enough food to live and can get shelter, the prolific principle is turned on its head.  In modern advanced nations, offspring of smaller families are more likely to wind up acquiring significant resources as adults than offspring from large families where initial resources may have been limited.  I didn’t see a study on that and I know of many examples that contradict my guess.  However, the stats do support the following statement:  growth rates in rich societies are decreasing and in some rich countries, the growth rate is negative.  By contrast, most or all of the poor countries still have high growth rates.  This is biologically backwards.

      Let’s go back in time.  How about fifty thousand years ago?  Let’s say you were a member of the dominant human subspecies that was alive at the time.  You would be a Neanderthal.  You would be one of the most successful creatures ever to have emerged and one of the most stable.  If you knew how to trace back your line to its origin from 550,000 to 300,000 years previous, you could probably do that in a way not available to current humans, through your giant brain stored with enormous amounts of inherited memories.  Your culture was rich and you were the master of your universe.

      Let’s do the same exercise, but only go back 30,000 or 35,000 years.  Now as a Neanderthal, you would be coexisting with humans who were turning your world upside down.  They were smaller and weaker, with smaller brains, and lacking the inherited memories that made Neanderthals the most advanced creature on the planet.  Yet these new humans turned every seeming biological disadvantage to an advantage.  They were deadly with their weapons, skilled with new tools, and surprising in their use of new strategies that they kept inventing.  Although the two subspecies shared the planet for at least ten thousand years, the quarter million year era of the Neanderthal was doomed.

      Don’t freak out!  I’m not about to suggest that Hitler-like Brown Shirts are going to go on a rampage and start killing people again.  That is not how it works and has nothing to do with evolution.  A new subspecies of human will eventually emerge.  That makes sense.  The event will probably occur in less elapsed time than it took for the Cro-Magnon subspecies (which is an old-fashioned term that only old guys and archaeologists still use) to emerge distinct from Neanderthal or for current Homo sapiens sapiens (us) to morph into our modern look and behaviors.  So, has the time scale shortened from 100,000 year increments to 10,000 year increments, to 1,000 year increments?  Is it time for a new subspecies of us to emerge, behaving very differently, seeming to be lacking in normal survival skills, yet phenomenally successful? 

      Our neighbors, the non-migrating Canadian Geese probably are on the way to becoming a new subspecies.  They are isolated genetically more effectively than if they were separated from the migrators by the Rocky Mountains.  Their wildly different summer environments provide different survival challenges.  Living in suburbia means they will need to dodge cars and dogs and feral cats and intolerant golf course managers.  On the other hand, they don’t need to fly thousands of miles to the Artic where they’ll compete for Artic nest sites and dodge Artic foxes.  Chowing down in the nutrient rich suburban fields and lawns is a very different diet.  This is an easy call – in twenty years I predict that ornithologists will do DNA studies of non-migratory Canadian Geese and find enough differences to declare them a subspecies and/or birders will be able to pick out the non-migrators by subtle physical differences.  Yep.  Twenty years.  Not a thousand years.

      Again anecdotally, with no research, have you noticed how humans with advanced degrees seem to pair up.  No value judgment here, but the adage “opposites attract” is just not true when choosing mates.  There are potentially isolated human gene pools developed not by geographic barriers, but by behaviors such as putting the higher achieving high school students in isolated towns and encouraging them to meet each other at tailgaters.  More powerful than that is the distinct cultural divides that may be breaking off as technologies morph us into beings that can live out different kinds of lives, free from former problems and challenges, and also devoid of previous kinds of interactions.  The social mixing that occurred in grocery stores and malls will be gone relatively soon.  Internet connections work well for every kind of communications, including exchanging bird photos in mid-morning on a week day.

      Let’s do the time jumping exercise again.  This time go forward 10,000 years.  Do you think that as a member of the dominant human subspecies that you will be a Homo sapiens sapiens?  (Our species is “Homo sapiens” and our subspecies is “sapiens”.  So we belong to “Homo sapiens sapiens”.)  Looking back to 2014, will your documentation record that at that time a mixing of two human subspecies was evident?  A new subspecies will eventually outperform us and Homo sapiens sapiens will go extinct.  It is only a matter of when the new subspecies will emerge and what the new subspecies or species will be like.  Possibly the environmental movement is an indicator event.  Maybe we aren’t the past; some of us might be the future.  Does that give you goose bumps thinking that you might be evolving into something not human as we know it?

      Unless a real scientist has already identified and named the new subspecies, I’d like to suggest that we name it Homo sapiens billiens.   Just kidding, it is probably safer to suck up to them and give them a respectful name like Homo sapiens ultra.  A sense of humor might not be one of the traits that they retain.  That reminds me – in case a Homo sapiens ultra happens to spend two or three minutes of its valuable time reading this text, don’t go thinking, “he knows about us, we need to get rid of him”.  I don’t know.  It was just a lucky guess.  You have nothing to gain by offing me.  Also, don’t send in a request for a digiscope photo.  Those are only for Homo sapiens sapiens readers.  However, if you want to invite me to one of your parties, that would be very nice. 


Least Bittern – Saturday, July 20

 Assuming that I have not already chased off all the advanced birders, who are probably raising their eye brows at his title, “Yes that’s correct.  Least Bittern.  With expert confirmation!”  Chris and I took Beans for a walk around the big pool at the John Heinz NWR at Tinicum.  The owls were long gone and the baby Bald Eagles had already fledged, but I was curious.  Even though I hadn’t gotten to this National Audubon Society Important Bird Area during its peak time of year, what would it have in the hot days of summer?

      We were not expecting much in terms of bird life, and we were mostly looking for the opportunity to train the dog on how to behave during a nature walk, no barking, no lunging on her leash, waiting patiently when we stopped to study a bird or a plant or a bug.  With the caveat that she was only three months old and it was 95 degrees and very humid, Beans did pretty well.

      We met an expert birder who was stationed on the boardwalk that crosses over the impoundment.  His name is Eliot and he has a precise British accent to go with his engaging personality.  After declaring that my luck at having seen the Northern Saw-whet Owl was “Brilliant!” and discussing the progress of the eagles, he shared with me his observations for the day.  There were lots of Barn Swallows out still, and also a few Bank Swallows.  There were many great Egrets, some Great Blue Herons, and quite a few Green Herons.  As he commented on the Green Herons, one flew over us, so he was able to point out how to make the id on the flying bird.  This particular week, the major excitement was on several families of nesting Least Bitterns.  Eliot was clearly settled into his spot for the rest of the morning, but he was very helpful in pointing out where to walk to get a look at more Green Herons and where I might see the Least Bitterns.

      Walking on the sunny side of the impoundment, we caught up to the 9:00 AM bird walk that had left the Visitor Center ahead of us.  We nonchalantly joined the group of ten birders, who were very welcoming, despite the dog.  It wasn’t long before we saw several very green Green Herons in the reeds off shore.  Depending on how the sun hits them, they can appear to be purple or black.  We also stopped for Cedar Waxwings and Baltimore Orioles, at which point, the heat clearly got to Beans.  So Beans stayed behind in a shady spot with Chris and got drinks of water, while I went on with the birding group.  Just before we got to the big Bald Eagle information panel, I saw a brown and orange bird fly across the path directly in front of me.  Eliot had prepped me on what a Least Bittern looks like, so I knew that this was the target bird.  One of the group who was about fifty feet ahead of me, called back that he had seen the bird fly into a patch of reeds off shore.  So the entire group formed up around him, and we waited.  It took about twenty minutes, but it is easy to be patient when you saw a bird fly into a tiny batch of plants and you know that he hasn’t flown out yet.  Also, he can’t crawl or swim out.  It is just a matter of who can wait the longest.  This time, the humans won.  The little guy finally stuck his head out of the plants and then started to feed.

      As herons go, these are really small birds, about the size of a Robin.  They are the smallest heron in North America and one of the smallest herons in the world.  Because of their size, they can hunt in deeper water where the bigger herons can’t hunt.  They do that by hanging onto the reeds and grass that is poking through the surface.  They get small fish and bugs and frogs and crayfish.  Their plumage makes them almost invisible in the reeds when they hold still.  They are beautifully colored in patches of brown, orange, and white.  Their backs and the tops of their heads are very dark brown; their chests are white and orange stripes; their legs and bill are yellow.  When he holds still, pointing his bill straight up into the air, he blends perfectly into the reeds.  Even if you know exactly where he is, you might not be able to pick him out.

      It helped that he relaxed and found some things to eat and that his mate flew in to join him.  She looked pretty much the same with a lighter brown in her crown and back.  The walk leader and another birder had their spotting scopes, so they got them trained on the birds and we took turns watching them in high resolution.  I was able to focus my binoculars on them, but when I tried to get my camera focused on them, I could not find them.  One birder with a high magnification lens on his camera was able to get some outstanding pictures.

      The walk leader called Eliot on her cell phone and they discussed the birds.  She thanked him for sending her to the spot.   She told us that Eliot was saying that he had spotted Lesser Scaups, but in her opinion that those birds were Ring-necked Ducks.  I knew that argument and had experienced it all by myself in Michigan.  Neat.  When the bitterns went back into hiding, I said my good-byes to the group and headed back to see how Chris and Beans were doing.  Only then did I realize that this may have been a once in my lifetime experience.  The walk leader said, “Now you’ve got your Least Bittern”, in a tone that clearly meant “… and that’s a big deal!”  Even though these little guys are not particularly rare, their secretive behavior, natural shyness, and outstanding camouflage make them a difficult bird to find.


      On the way back out, we saw an Osprey and one of the Bald Eagles.  There were lots of Great Egrets, some Great Blue Herons, along with sparrows, swallows, flycatchers, blackbirds, Catbirds, and Robins.  It was a good walk.  It’s fun being a treasure hunter!