Interview with Eklund Gray, narrator for Hunters of the Feather

Interview with Eklund Gray, narrator for Hunters of the Feather

Hunters of the Feather is available on Audible, and wherever you usually get your stories. But I (Victoria Grossack) did not do the narration. Instead I teamed up with Eklund Gray, a man with a wonderful voice. Here are his answers to the questions I posed on the narration.

Eklund Gray, in tones of gray…

Tell us about yourself and your experience outside of narrating stories. Eklund Gray: I’ve been an avid reader all my life, and really began getting into audiobooks about 10 years ago. I was a “theater geek” in my younger days, performing in plays, skits, children’s shows, and even pursuing some professional acting gigs after high school, but Life took me in another direction. My other interests (in Art and Computers) led me to become a designer, and eventually, a web designer starting in the early 2000s. I’ve been happily working in that field for almost 20 years now.

How long have you been narrating stories? Eklund Gray: Not long! I would be fascinated to know how many folks began investigating audiobook narration as a result of the COVID quarantine, which is how I decided to give it a try myself.  (Note from the editor: given the backlog at Audible for getting this approved, we know that a lot of folks tried it out.)

What made you apply to narrate Hunters of the Feather? Eklund Gray: Interesting question; anyone who is familiar with the ACX website knows that there is a vast repository of content waiting for narration — so what is the mysterious chemistry that brings together a specific work and a narrator? I think the cover art caught my design eye first off but the story concept itself just seemed really fascinating. The idea of a story told from a non-human point-of-view sounded like an exciting challenge.

This fabulous cover was designed by Alice Underwood, with whom I have collaborated on Greek mythology based novels. Thank the gods she has artistic talent, because I do not

Is there a section of Hunters of the Feather that you especially enjoyed? Eklund Gray: I certainly don’t want to divulge any spoilers, but I have to say the climax of the book was a powerful one-two punch, for me. Two aspects come to a head in different but powerful ways: Sol achieves a significant thinker-linker achievement, but then has to face the consequences of his actions and idealism in his “everyday” life (as do we all). As with the best stories of any kind, I found myself getting emotionally swept up as it all unfolded!

Are you a bird lover? Do you have any special stories about you and birds? Eklund Gray: I take early morning walks and have seen a variety of birds, including an owl — which was especially thrilling, as it swooped noiselessly over my head! — and I enjoy animals of all kinds, but I’m not sure if that qualifies me as a “lover”… ha! I think this book will get me to begin putting out bird feeders on my property again, a habit I stopped a few years ago when I moved from a different part of the country. The book has definitely made me more curious about corvids, and I will no doubt do more reading about them.

Had to post a picture of a crow! This photo was taken by David Kaplan.

Is there anything special you do to help the environment? Eklund Gray: My current employer is a certified B Corporation, and provides support and incentives for environmental initiatives and sustainability of all kinds. Each month we have a “sustainability challenge” with tasks, both big and small, that can help minimize our human impact on the natural world. It has been both fun and rewarding, and I consider myself lucky to be able to participate in these activities in a meaningful way.

Thanks so much, Eklund, for contributing to the Crow Nickels!

“To answer that question, we need to start at the beginning, with the Urvogel – the world’s very first bird. The Urvogel was not a crow, mind you, but the bird from which all other birds are descended. She lived on a beautiful island – the biggest island the world has ever known – the only land the world had at the time. … the Urvogel was the origin of flight, of feathers,and of wisdom; she was the Great Mother Bird of all of us.” Hunters of the Feather

Crows May Be Smarter than You Think!

Crows May Be Smarter than You Think!

Corvids consist of crows, ravens, jays, magpies and treepies. They are considered among the most intelligent of birds (the parrot family is also pretty bright). New Caledonian crows are said to be among the most intelligent, with several being studied (by a real live princess! Auguste Marie Philippa, Prinzessin von Bayern!) in Austria. Yeah, that’s Austria, which is about half the world away from New Caledonia, a collectivity of France in the southwest Pacific ocean. They test crows for intelligence there, too, but I’m more familiar with the studies in Haidl, Austria. 

People are especially impressed with the New Caledonian crows’ tool-building. from Nature

The construction of novel compound tools through assemblage of otherwise non-functional elements involves anticipation of the affordances of the tools to be built. Except for few observations in captive great apes, compound tool construction is unknown outside humans, and tool innovation appears late in human ontogeny. We report that habitually tool-using New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) can combine objects to construct novel compound tools. We presented 8 naïve crows with combinable elements too short to retrieve food targets. Four crows spontaneously combined elements to make functional tools, and did so conditionally on the position of food. One of them made 3- and 4-piece tools when required.

Here’s more research, showing that crows are not just good at tool use, but that successful tool use improves their mood! Yeah, how do you tell if a bird is in a good mood? The scientists have a way for determining that, using a glass half-full (optimism, good mood) versus glass half-empty (pessimism, bad mood) approach, where the half-full glass is replaced by an ambiguously situated box.

Crows like it when they know they’re smart!

Do crows also make art? Some people think so:

Stuart Dahlquist is in Seattle, so I assume the crows are as well, despite the German writing on the ashtray.

Seattle is a center for crow research. There’s the corvidresarch.blog run by Kaeli Swift (what a fantastic bird name), PhD. Her postings are wonderful; here are a few paragraphs from a recent post:

What are they thinking about?

Watching a crow eagerly eye me for a peanut, I can’t help but wonder what it’s thinking about. Is it thinking the same thing as its flock mate, or is it having its own experience? Is it aware of me? Of itself? The conscious experience is such a fundamental part of humanity, it’s nearly impossible for most of us to envision life without it. And by extension, its hard for us to imagine that animals don’t experience consciousness too. But the fact remains that scientifically investigating consciousness, especially in non-human animals, has been slow and contentious. Among birds, this research has been all the more elusive. Which is why a study looking at subjective consciousness in carrion crows by Nieder et al. (2020)1 made an enormous splash this past fall, and resulted in a lot of misleading headlines. So why has consciousness been so difficult to study and how did this team attempt to do it?

What they found is that like primates, crows exhibit a two-stage process, where neuronal activity during Stage I mostly reflects the intensity of the physical stimulus, followed by a second spike in activity that reflected their perception. The patterns of activity in Stage II were so consistent, that the researchers could predict whether the crows would say they saw the light or not by looking at this activity alone. Most importantly, while the responses of the two birds were the same if the light intensity was bright and unambiguous, when shown faint lights, the two birds responded differently. Meaning that despite being shown the exact same stimulus, the two birds had different subjective experiences of whether they had seen it or not. There were also instances of false positives, where the birds indicated that they had seen a light that wasn’t really there. In these cases their brains behaved during Stage II just as they did when they had actually seen a bright light. This is important because it further demonstrates that the brain activity the researchers were measuring correlated with the crows’ subjective experience, rather than as a result of the intensity of the stimulus itself.

Corvid research blog

And crows like to have fun!

And there’s a great example of training crows to pick up trash at a theme park in France. Of course they have less work these days because of the pandemic.

I’ll trade you a cigarette butt for a peanut!

This is just a small sample of the examples of crow and corvid intelligence, and the reason I was inspired to start the Crow Nickels. More examples later!

“Which is first, bird or egg?” Sol asked. … But the creature, after crunching up and swallowing down its snack, answered Sol’s question. There is no first; there is no last; life is a circle; it has always been a circle. Egg to bird to egg to bird. And around again. Hunters of the Feather

The Birds from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

The Birds from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

This blog has been posted for the 12 Days of Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas, according to Western traditions, run from Christmas Day through January 5, which is the day before Epiphany. Epiphany, if you need a reminder, or if you never knew, is when Western Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi who presented valuable gifts to the infant, Jesus.

However, I’m not here to explain Christian traditions, but to talk about the birds in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The song has many birds: one partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, six geese a-laying, and seven swimming swans. The rest of the gifts are either five golden rings – perhaps the recipient only had one hand? – or a bunch of people. What would true love do with leaping lords? Are the birds more practical gifts? Perhaps the birds were meant to be eaten?

The gift on day one is a partridge in a pear tree. Partridges have certainly been eaten a lot, but you don’t actually find them in pear trees, as they stay on the ground. Nor would a pear tree have any leaves in winter. One suggestion is that the inexplicable pear tree comes from the French word, perdrix, which means partridge. Perdrix sounds very much like “pear tree.”

The two turtledoves make a gift that needs little explanation. A pair of turtledoves used to be a common symbol of a new couple, as they made such a strong pair bond. However, in northern Europe, they wouldn’t normally be around during the Christmas season, as they migrate south for the winter. On the other hand, perhaps the true love kept turtle doves as a hobby – or for food. Certainly humans consumed plenty of squabs in the past.

Three French hens are given on the third day of Christmas. Certainly these would have been consumed, unless they produced eggs – a possibility as hens and not roosters are specified.

Four calling birds comprise the gift for the fourth day. Most people these days assume these are songbirds, which would certainly make a nice gift. Who wouldn’t like singing birds? However, there’s another interpretation, in which the “four calling birds” is a corruption of “four colly birds.” Colly used to mean coal colored. Perhaps these were my dear crows?

We skip over the fifth day, golden rings, to the six geese a-laying. Everyone knows geese were eaten, and there’s no reason their eggs wouldn’t be eaten either. In fact, goose eggs are larger, fattier and more nutrient-rich than chicken eggs. The eggs have a more intense flavor, however, so may not appeal to everyone.

The last species of bird mentioned in the song is on day seven, the seven swans a-swimming. Swans have always been perceived as elegant, and for a long time they were rare, so eating them was only permitted for royals and a privileged few. Seven swans a-swimming would have been a very precious gift. Nowadays, they are rarely consumed, although given how they are proliferating – they are not endangered at all – perhaps that will change.

May you enjoy the rest of the Christmas season!

Saffira reported on other local species that were suffering, species the azure jay knew had experienced great losses to their flocks. “The ochre-marked parakeets, the golden parakeets, the seven-colored tanagers, the three-toed jacamars – all lost many members to starvation since just the last solstice, and parents have trouble feeding their chicks. No one has seen a Spix’s macaw for years, although I’ve heard a few are held captive by the humans,” finished Saffira. Hunters of the Feather

The Air and Some of the Most Amazing Bird Aviators

The Air and Some of the Most Amazing Bird Aviators

There are many warnings about pollution, the climate crisis, and all that we humans are doing to harm the environment. These warnings are well-deserved, because the dangers are real.

Common swift, Wikipedia Commons, N. Camillieri. These birds can stay in the air for as long as 10 months at a time.

However, so many dire warnings can be discouraging. Isn’t anything getting better? Yes, some things are. Take a look at the following from Science Daily: “U.S. pollution regulations meant to protect humans from dirty air are also saving birds. So concludes a new continent wide study published today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Study authors found that improved air quality under a federal program to reduce ozone pollution may have averted the loss of 1.5 billion birds during the past 40 years. That’s nearly 20 percent of birdlife in the United States today. The study was conducted by scientists at Cornell University and the University of Oregon.

Mallard, Wikipedia commons
Mallards can fly as high as 21,000 feet

“Our research shows that the benefits of environmental regulation have likely been underestimated,” says Ivan Rudik, a lead author and Ruth and William Morgan Assistant Professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “Reducing pollution has positive impacts in unexpected places and provides an additional policy lever for conservation efforts.”

It’s not just the regulations, of course. By reducing our consumption of fossil fuels, by wearing clothes that keep us warm or cool, depending on the season so that we don’t need to use heating or air-conditioning, we are keeping the air cleaner.

Wind farm in Germany

What about wind turbines? Are they good or bad for birds? Well, it’s true some birds die from wind turbines, they are killed much more often by pollution, building, and, alas, cats.

There are some birds safe from cats, such as the albatross, too large and too far away. From Wikipedia on the albatross: “Albatrosses are the most efficient travelers of all vertebrates on the planet. They expend zero energy soaring hundreds of miles over the ocean each day using dynamic soaring and slope soaring. They have a tendon in each shoulder locking their wings fully-extended, so once aloft and soaring across a fair breeze they never need to flap their wings. Like some vultures they hunt by smell, sensitive to the odor of carrion and other biological processes.”

Short-tailed albatross, Wikipedia Commons. On the ground in order to breed.

Rüppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppelli), also called Rüppell’s griffon vulture, named after Eduard Rüppell, is a large bird of prey, mainly native to the Sahel region and East Africa. The current population of 22,000 is decreasing due to loss of habitat, incidental poisoning, and other factors.[2] Known also as Rüppell’s griffon, Rueppell’s griffon, Rüppell’s griffin vulture, Rueppell’s vulture and other variants, it is not to be confused with a different species, the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus).[3] Rüppell’s vulture is considered to be the highest-flying bird, with confirmed evidence of a flight at an altitude of 11,300 m (37,000 ft) above sea level.

Rüppell’s vulture, Wikipedia commons

These birds are brightening up the skies that we have made a little cleaner for them. Of course, I must include a photo of an Alpine chough, the highest flying corvid, a cousin to my crows.

Alpine chough, Wikipedia commons, taken by Jim Higham in Switzerland

On sunny days, through the dark green needles, Sol could see clouds in the blue, blue sky. “How high can you fly, Father? As high as those clouds?” Father laughed, and said he could not, although some species of birds could fly that high. Like the alpine chough, a type of corvid that lived in faraway mountains.Hunters of the Feather

Rewilding Earth’s Waters

Rewilding Earth’s Waters

Biodiversity is important everywhere, to humans as well as to birds. Healthy waters – fresh, salt, and in-between – enables a healthy planet. Here are excerpts from three articles showcasing different activities.

 International partnership helps establish large marine sanctuary Good News Network

underwater photo, school of fish with fish and coral in the foreground
Random ocean photo

Centered around the small archipelago of Tristan da Cunha in the Southern Atlantic, governments and ecological organizations have created the fourth-largest marine protected area on Earth, and the largest in the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanning 265,347 square miles, Tristan da Cunha is almost three times as big as the island of Great Britain, and will protect tens of millions of native and migratory birds, rare migratory sharks, whales, seals, golden undersea forests of kelp, and penguins—collectively valued as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—from illegal mining, fishing, and other extractive activities.

Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, Michelle Risi. Endemic to Tristan da Cunha

The government of the small UK territorial island announced on Thursday that, in partnership with the UK government, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Initiative, it would conserve its surrounding oceans to help achieve the goal to “secure protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.”

🐟 Dam removal partnership signed EcoWatch

In a historic move to resurrect the largest dam removal project in the U.S., Oregon, California, the Yurok Tribe and the Karuk Tribe signed an agreement on Tuesday to push forward on dam removal.

The dam removal project is essential to the tribes in the region — the Klamath River on the Oregon-California border — and will reopen hundreds of miles of river access to salmon that have been blocked for more than a century, in what is seen as one of the largest salmon restoration attempts in U.S. history. The removal would drain large reservoirs and reshape California’s second-largest river.

🐟 Blue whale sightings off give hope of recovery The Guardian

151876.jpg
Not, as far as I know, at South Georgia. Also, the South Georgia in the story is an island near Antarctica, not the region just north of Florida

When the Antarctic blue whale – the largest and loudest animal on the planet – was all but wiped out by whaling 50 years ago, the waters around South Georgia fell silent.

Twenty years of dedicated whale surveys from ships off the sub-Antarctic island between 1998 and 2018 resulted in only a single blue whale sighting. But a whale expedition this year and analysis by an international research team resulted in 58 blue whale sightings and numerous acoustic detections, raising hopes that the critically endangered mammal is finally recovering five decades after whaling was banned.

“We don’t quite know why it has taken the blue whales so long to come back,” said Susannah Calderan, of the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the lead author of a study in the journal Endangered Species Research. “It may be that so many of them were killed at South Georgia that there was a loss of cultural memory in the population that the area was a foraging ground, and that it is only now being rediscovered.”

These efforts make such a difference. If you know of more, please let me know.

As he saw through his host’s eyes, he was again bewildered. He supposed his host was in a tree, but it was a tree unlike any he had ever seen, with long droopy branches, and something hanging from them. Were those leaves? He had never seen any leaves like those. And the tree, bizarrely, was not standing on land but in water — could trees do that? Hunters of the Feather

Reforestation: For the Birds and for Us

Reforestation: For the Birds and for Us

I haven’t blogged for a while, mostly because I – like everyone else – was caught up by the US election. The re-election of tRump would have been, in my opinion, disastrous for the health of the entire planet. Although the election took place on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, the votes weren’t sufficiently counted until Saturday, November 7, to project the results with confidence. We now have President-Elect Biden, and although tRump may have removed the US from the Paris Climate Accord, President-Elect Biden has promised to reverse that decision shortly after he’s inaugurated. The US (and hopefully the rest of the world) will be able to start going in the right direction.

Wikipedia commons

After the results were called I watched David Attenborough’s 2020 documentary, A Life on Our Planet, in which he recounts his own experience with nature in his 93 years. Basically, in his youth he was marveling at Earth’s wondrous diversity; but later, he becomes aware of the horrors our species has been inflicting on our world. We have done terrible damage, but repair is possible, and one of the techniques to improve the planet’s health is through rewilding – and, in this blog, we’ll look at several examples of reforestation.

Collared aracari by Dennis Archer, Wikipedia

Costa Rica is a great example, mentioned in the documentary above. When Attenborough first went there, many decades ago, 75% of the country was covered by trees. Through about 1990, that shrank to 25%. However, in the past 30 years, Costa Rica has reversed that – by paying landowners to reforest – and now the country is back up to 50% forest! Here’s a link to an article. “After decades of deforestation, Costa Rica has reforested to the point that half of the country’s land surface is covered with trees again. That forest cover is able to absorb a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combating climate change for us all.”

Violet turacao, Wikipedia commons

The Great Green Wall is another reforestation project, this time in Africa. This is an attempt to plant trees across Africa to fight against creeping desertification. The bird above, the violet turacao, can be found in Senegal (although the picture above is from a Florida zoo). From Time: “The seedlings in Senegal’s reforesting projects are usually locally sourced and selected for their drought resistance and hardiness. Thorny desert acacias carry their own protection from grazing animals, and in the dry season they shed their leaves to conserve moisture. Once baobabs take root, they are long-lived even under drought conditions. Their bark can be used to make rope, their leaves are edible, and their foot-long fruit can either be juiced or ground up and roasted to make a coffee-like drink.”

Bengal Florican The Wire, lives near the river below

Not all reforestation goes through governments. In India, one man has spent 40 years planting trees, and has transformed a barren island in the Brahmaputra River into an oasis for elephants, tigers, and many different birds. From NPR: “First with bamboo trees, then with cotton trees. I kept planting — all different kinds of trees,” Payeng says.

“It’s not as if I did it alone,” says the self-styled naturalist. “You plant one or two trees, and they have to seed. And once they seed,” he adds reverentially, “the wind knows how to plant them, the birds here know how to sow them, cows know, elephants know, even the Brahmaputra river knows. The entire ecosystem knows.”

Jadav sought no permission to plant a forest. He just grew it, carrying on what he says is his Mishing tribe’s tradition of honoring nature.

Azure jay, Wikipedia Commons

The efforts above – and others taking place in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan and Singapore – are not enough, of course. Trees are still being felled, such as in Brazil, which is where azure jays live. But the approaches above show us that there are ways to reforest many parts of the planet. When we do that nature shows her gratitude and rebounds. Trees are good for life on Earth, including for us humans.

Good roosting branches needed to be treasured, and now this branch was gone forever. Sol and Ava needed to have more respect for trees. Hunters of the Feather

Bird Migration Myth: Barnacle Geese

Bird Migration Myth: Barnacle Geese

Migrating geese

Where do the geese go?

When the seasons change, where do birds go? That question puzzled people for millennia, but it took a long time for us humans to figure out sensible answers. Before you scorn our ancestors, remember how little access they had to accurate information. People could see that the birds had left or the birds had arrived, but they could not know where they had gone. A migrating bird may fly halfway around the world; only in the past few hundred years have we been able to journey that with regularity. Even when sea travel reached the point where humans were circumnavigating the globe, not many seafarers were making rigorously scientific observations – Charles Darwin was the most notable exception – and when they did, how could they tell where individual birds had come from?

Still, we have to give credit to our ancestors, who were at least curious enough to wonder where the birds went in the off-season and who came up with creative explanations. Aristotle decided that birds hibernated during winter. As other species, e.g. bears, do hibernate, his pronouncement was not so unreasonable (Aristotle came up with good theories but didn’t always bother with finding confirmatory examples). Other people thought birds buried themselves in mud for the winter, which might have been an explanation for why they could not be seen hibernating.

My favorite story is the one about barnacle geese turning into barnacles for the winter. Even though the story has long been debunked, the name has stuck, rather like barnacles, to the geese.

Barnacles. From Wikipedia, photo by Michael N. Magg

We humans (or at least this human) tend to think of barnacles as growing on the hulls of boats. This is because this is how we most easily see the barnacles, as boats and ships bob in the water off some wharf and the barnacles are exposed for our human eyes to see. But barnacles have been living on the planet far longer than people have been building sea-craft, so barnacles have been attaching themselves to other hard surfaces for a very long time. Note that whale bellies also count as hard surfaces. Barnacles, after their larval stages, can’t move about on their own and they must appreciate ships and whale bellies for bringing them through nutrient-rich waters.

Barnacle goose

Humans believed that barnacle geese turned into barnacles long enough and with sufficient conviction for barnacle geese to be classed as “fish” by parts of the Catholic Church for the devout who were abstaining from meat for Lent, and was apparently acceptable for their old “fish on Friday” requirement. I think it’s strange that people didn’t seem to notice that the barnacles didn’t disappear during the summer. Maybe they believed that they stayed inside the barnacle “eggshells” during the winter and emerged for the summer. How a goose could make itself small enough to squeeze into a barnacle is beyond my comprehension, but there are so many other flaws with the argument I shouldn’t get stuck on that point.

Of course, with the inability to travel great distances, and no ability to identify and track individual birds (crows can tell us humans apart, but most of us have trouble distinguishing individual birds), knowing where a bird had been was almost always impossible, no matter how (un)reasonable the theory.

However, in 1822, in Germany, a stork died – a stork that had been pierced by an arrow that had been shot in Africa. This one case was enough to prove that at least some birds migrate great distances. The unlucky stork’s body (with the African weapon still piercing it) can be found in a museum in Rorstock, Germany.

The Rorstocker white stork, as displayed in the local museum

We humans learned a lot more about bird migration over the years. Rings around bird legs allowed us to be certain of the location of some individual birds, although this method also depended on there being a human finder and the finder being willing to send back the information. Of course, over the years, technology has evolved. Some people, using ultralight aircraft, have been able to accompany geese during their migrations. And now electronic devices are so light and tiny we can do much more. For example, we can accurately observe the paths of the Arctic tern, which avoids winter entirely, going from one polar circle to the other, spending its life in the summer and light.

Arctic tern on one of the Farne Islands

There’s much more to discuss about bird migration, such as how and why and which species do it; I’ll address some of these issues in other posts. In the meantime, remember that barnacles and barnacle geese have nothing to do with each other in reality.

From Hunters of the Feather:

“Food isn’t always so plentiful,” Mother warned them, as she grabbed a caterpillar off a leaf. “You hatched at the end of spring, when supplies are at their greatest – the insects, the fruit, even the water in the swimming pool. But in winter it’s cold, much colder than any night you have experienced, and often food is scarce. Many of the trees lose their leaves; there is less fruit and the swimming pool is empty. The sun, which is so hot now, offers little warmth, and the days are shorter, the nights longer. Just when you need more food to keep warm, less food is available.”

Lila tried to catch a butterfly, but it flitted away. “What do we crows do then?” she asked.

“Some fly south, where it’s warmer,” said Mother. “That’s why leaders of the local flock are meeting today, to discuss who should go and who should stay. The south is beautiful and warmer in the winter, but migration is hard and not for everyone.”

“It’s a Crime to Kill a Mockingbird” (Migratory Bird Treaty Act)

“It’s a Crime to Kill a Mockingbird” (Migratory Bird Treaty Act)

Northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, Captain Tucker

Birders in the US are celebrating thanks to a court decision (thanks, U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni!) on August 11, 2020 protecting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), an act that has been around since 1918 and involves not just the US but Canada, Mexico, and Japan. The MBTA was threatened, (surprise, surprise) by the current administration. We’re all pleased, of course, by Judge Caproni’s decision, but what does this mean exactly?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service website explains what the treaty does: ‘The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.’ The website also has an Excel spreadsheet with a list of more than one thousand species that are protected. That’s a start, of course, but what does that mean?

Let’s take a look at the History (Audubon society).

  • 1800s: With essentially zero regulations in place, market hunters decimate U.S. bird populations, in part so that well-to-do women can wear hats adorned with ornamental feathers. By the end of the century, Labrador Ducks and Great Auks are extinct, soon to be joined by Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Heath Hens. Numerous other species stand on the brink. Outrage over these alarming trends leads to the formation of the first Audubon societies, as well as other conservation groups.
Carolina parakeet, James St. John. Alas, this one is stuffed.
  • Much more history, not here because I won’t violate Fair practices. Several laws passed, expanding and refining the laws.
  • 1970s: For the first time, U.S. prosecutors begin charging not just hunters who violate the MBTA, but also oil and gas, timber, mining, chemical, and electricity companies. Though not directly targeting wildlife, these industries incidentally cause millions of bird deaths each year that could have been avoided with simple infrastructure modifications, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In publicly available documents, the DOJ states that it will first notify companies of a violation and work with them to correct it. But if they “ignore, deny, or refuse to comply” with best management practices, then the “matter may be referred for prosecution.” 
  • 1972: An amendment to the MBTA protects an additional 32 families of birds, including eagles, hawks, owls, and corvids (crows, jays, and magpies). Even more species have been added since, bringing the total number to 1,026—almost every native species in the United States. With such additions, the word “‘migratory” in the act’s title becomes largely symbolic—many birds that do not embark on actual migrations are still protected. 

EcoWatch also has a good write-up‘The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) has for over 100 years offered protections to 1,000 different types of birds, instigating penalties for companies whose projects or infrastructure harm them. Yet, in 2017, the Interior Department’s Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch Industries employee, advised punishing the oil and gas industry, construction companies, and others only if their work intentionally kills birds, effectively ending the spirit of the law that asks for the migratory patterns of birds to be considered when developing a project.

Two American crows in flight, by David Kaplan

The opinion freezes the MBTA in time as a hunting-regulation statute, preventing it from addressing modern threats to migrating bird populations,” Caproni wrote in a decision vacating the opinion, calling it “an unpersuasive interpretation of the MBTA’s unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds,” according to The Hill.

From the Washington Post: ‘The changes made by the Trump administration largely benefited oil companies, which have paid most of the fines for violating the act, according to an analysis by the National Audubon Society.

In the administration’s view, even BP, the company responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that led to the deaths of an estimated 1 million birds, would not be liable for punishment under the law. A landowner who destroys endangered owl nests without checking before building a barn or an oil company that fails to cover a tar pit that birds could dive into and be killed could not be held responsible as they have for decades.

Caproni determined that allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service police to enforce the act only if officials could prove intent was a violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act and vacated the changes. In striking down the rule change, she admonished the Interior Department with a passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “It’s not just a sin to kill a mockingbird; it’s a crime.”’

Tropical Kingbird, Charles J. Sharp

This was an important decision. I don’t know how the current administration is doing with respect to finding and penalizing those guilty of harming our feathered friends, but at least this court was still on the side of birdkind.

Mother said they could theorize about humans later. “For now, all you nestlings need to know is how dangerous they are.” – Hunters of the Feather

True Tales of the Great Flock

True Tales of the Great Flock

In my series, the Crow Nickels, the Great Flock refers to all birds, not just the crows or even the extended family of corvids. Lady Obsidian, the leader of the Sky Council, runs the Feathered Forum twice a year (on the solstices) to listen to reports from various species. Hunters of the Feather is fiction, but birds are doing more than many people realize. Here are a few true tales about various members of the Great Flock.

Whistling Kite by JJ Harrison (Wikipedia commons), Haliastur sphenurus 2 – Pitt Town Lagoon, New South Wales, Australia. One of the species considered a “firehawk”

In a report in National Geographic, we learn that birds are starting fires! “In interviews, observations, and ceremonies dating back more than a century, the indigenous peoples of Australia’s Northern Territory maintain that a collective group of birds they call “firehawks” can control fire by carrying burning sticks to new locations in their beaks or talons. …The idea is that these birds of prey use fires to help find food—making easy meals out of insects and other small animals trying to flee the blaze.”

Most people know about the terrible fires that have been happening with regularity in Australia and California, which are much worse because of the climate crisis. Having recently experienced the Bighorn Fire in Tucson – I could see fires outside my window; we had to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice; the smoke was terrible for weeks – I have a lot of respect for fire. But at least in Australia, we’re not the only species responsible for some of the raging flames.

Bighorn Fire just north of Tucson, view from my terrace. Victoria Grossack

Most people assume only humans use fire, but apparently it isn’t so (and the birds may be just as irresponsible, or even more so, than our species). What else are they doing?

According to some they may be making art. And I don’t just mean the art of bower birds, used to attract mates, which you could argue has evolved and is purely instinctual:

Bower bird construction, decorated with what appears to be blue straws and blue bottle caps

The way that bower birds adapt their decoration to available supplies seems like a sign of intelligence to me!

Stuart Dahlquist: Crow art?

Stuart Dahlquist wrote on Twitter how his family had been feeding a family of crows – and in thanks, the crows left them some can tabs threaded on pine twigs. Now, crows and ravens have long been known to leave little gifts of gratitude for human feeders, and even to find trinkets for humans who lost things – but this looks like art to me.

Sometimes birds perform better than people. And not just at things like flying, where they have an obvious advantage. From a Harvard study:

What happens when an African grey parrot goes head-to-head with 21 Harvard students in a test measuring a type of visual memory? Put simply: The parrot moves to the head of the class.

Harvard researchers compared how 21 human adults and 21 6- to 8-year-old children stacked up against an African grey parrot named Griffin in a complex version of the classic shell game.

So how did the parrot fare? Griffin outperformed the 6- to 8-year-olds across all levels on average, and he performed either as well as or slightly better than the 21 Harvard undergraduates on 12 of the 14 of trial types.

African grey parrot, Wikipedia Commons, L. Miguel Bugalio Sánchez (not Griffin)

And sometimes birds help other species. This crow in Latvia is getting a hedgehog off of a busy street.

We have seen the use of fire, creative art, putting Harvard students to the test, and a good dose of compassion. Maybe bird brains are more developed than many acknowledge.

Sol wondered from what kind of eggs humans hatched. They had no beaks; how did they break through their shells? With their little noses? How long did it take for their eyes to open?Hunters of the Feather