December 31, 2009

Not blue tonight, not at all

Will Basil catch that orbed maiden with white fire laden, whom mortals call the Moon? He's giving it his best shot. Super photo by _davidh_ on Flickr, seen first at Moira McLaughlin's most excellent Dog Art Today.

Happy New Year to all! Stealing a heartfelt line from John Carlson's Prairie Ice:
I want to take a minute to thank all of you who have commented on my posts over that last few months that never received a reply back. I want you to know that I appreciate them all and I have replied to all of the with witty replies and insightful additional comments - alas they never made it out of my brain and into the comments section.
My New Year's Resolution is to get the replies out of my brain and into the comments section, here sometimes, and certainly elsewhere in Bloglandia. I follow hundreds of blogs in the totally essential Google Reader, and every day I read posts so intelligent and honest and thought-provoking and beautiful that it's practically a crime not to get off my RSS and add a comment. So that's the resolution: each day, make at least one comment on someone else's blog. Oh, and another resolution: start some kind of "365 photos of my dogs" thing, because my dogs are beautiful and wonderful and they deserve the attention.

I guess that's it for 2009, folks. [springs to feet] OMG! My Bad Rap end o' the year donation!! Gotta run — see you in 2010!

December 28, 2009

ASPCA Position Statement on BSL

I heart this photo. Zippy Hernandez and family (clockwise from left): Vanessa, Berenice, Jesse, Francisco and Eliana. Awesome photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice for Sports Illustrated.

The ASPCA is totally against it. As a wise commenter on the Bad Rap blog mused this morning, "[W]on't it be interesting when pibble-killing legislators have only PETA on their side?" For those new to this whole issue, ASPCA is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and BSL stands for "ignorant chuckleheads who missed the news that phrenology is so terribly 1800s." PETA stands for "Ingrid Newkirk thinks I'm a thug and wants my dogs dead."

From the ASPCA position statement:
[T]he ASPCA advocates the implementation of a community dog bite prevention program encompassing media and educational outreach in conjunction with the enactment, and vigorous enforcement, of breed-neutral laws that focus on the irresponsible and dangerous behavior of individual guardians and their dogs. The ASPCA believes that this approach—promoting education in the appropriate care, training, and supervision of dogs as well as state and local laws that address licensing, reproductive status, chaining/improper confinement, cruel treatment, and at-large dogs; imposing civil and criminal liability on guardians for their negligent and reckless behavior; and targeting problematic dogs and guardians early with progressively escalating penalties—constitutes the most compassionate, fair, efficient, and ultimately effective means of resolving concerns related to dangerous dogs in the community.

Read the whole thing. It's excellent. And if you ever get a chance to hear Bill Bruce talk about Calgary Animal Services, don't miss him. Quite an education, in the best sense of the word: no BSL, no mandatory spay/neuter, no limit laws regulating the number of pets a person can keep — just the best animal control program in North America.


Heartwarming story o' the day, from the fine folks at Our Pack: Life's Peachy for Peachy. Our Pack totally rocks.


A final thought that should probably have its own post [damn you, vacation DIY projects]: as someone with a fair amount of experience with intact male dogs, I disagree with the ASPCA's implication that reproductive status is by itself a contributing factor to dog bites and "dominance aggression."

In North America, intact male dogs frequently belong to a class of people that might be categorized as "irresponsible pet owners": they tether their dogs, for example. They live in poor neighborhoods and keep dogs for protection. Their dogs are unsocialized and untrained. All these factors are far more likely to contribute to a bite or attack, IMHO, than is a dog's reproductive status. When a chained-up, untrained dog is driven nearly mad by social isolation and deprivation, and that poor, neglected dog bites someone, the fact that the dog was an intact male is one of the least important contributing factors, if you ask me.

December 26, 2009

Water wars on "60 Minutes"

Above, a Central Valley vineyard from Aquafornia on Flickr. In the background, pumps at Chrisman Wind Gap send 2.1 million gallons a minute of NoCal water to pumping plants in the Tehachapi range. On the other side of the Tehachapis the water flows to Los Angeles, Antelope Valley and Lake Perris. [Some SoCal regions use local water, and famously well-managed water at that. Ha ha! She said "well"!] Check out Aquafornia's slide show — following the water from the Delta to locations in SoCalhere.

As if Sean "plump as a manatee" Hannity [don't miss Jon Stewart's slapdown] weren't tribulation enough for California's Central Valley, along comes 60 Minutes with “Running Dry.” 130,000 dead almond trees, OMG! How much more can the Central Valley take? Let's ask someone who actually, you know, does research:
[T]he Californian almond harvest this year was 1.6 billion pounds shelled (up from 1.3 billion pounds shelled last year) accounting for 85% of the world’s almond production. C’mon, Sixty Minutes. I know tractors ripping out trees look awesome, but so does the annual Almond Almanac. A few seconds of searching would have given you some perspective on this. It would have told you how big the imminent impact is going to be. And that even with the drought, there were more almonds harvested this year than ever before.

[Here's the source of that quote. Excellent reading, rated R for language.]

Watch 60 Minutes if you must. As for me, I'll stick to my water blogs. For the straight dope on water out west, go here:

On the public record

And check out all these as well, from Emily Green's most excellent Chance of Rain.

December 24, 2009

A little something to warm the heart

Merry Christmas — and to all a wonderful Nochebuena!

And what would a blog post — even a Christmas Eve blog post — be without links and hat tips? The holidays are all about linkage, people! The beautiful M comes from typographer and illustrator Jessica Hische's Daily Drop Cap, and a big H/T for the video to El País journalist Rosa Jiménez Cano.

Best wishes to all for the happiest of holidays!

December 15, 2009

Must adopt baby beluga at once

Mom and baby are both doing well. Photo from the Shedd Aquarium, via ZooBorns.

This is quite possibly the most adorable thing I have ever seen in my entire life. From [where else] ZooBorns, where you can also see a video of the birth itself. And now I must return to work, dreaming of my baby beluga...

December 13, 2009

Cats in court

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes: Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, 1788. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Talk about a controversial story with next-to-zero coverage in the local news: a Los Angeles Superior Court judge "has banned Los Angeles animal shelters from encouraging feral cat colonies pending an environmental review."

The Urban Wildlands Group, Endangered Habitats League, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and the American Bird Conservancy were plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. Department of Animal Services. Here is the ABC's statement on the ruling. Excerpt:
A superior court judge has ruled in favor of a coalition of conservation groups, including American Bird Conservancy (ABC), to halt the controversial practice of Trap, Neuter, and Release (TNR) of feral cats in the City of Los Angeles, pending environmental review.

The court determined that the City and its Department of Animal Services had been “secretly and unofficially” promoting the practice of releasing feral cats to roam free in the city after they have been trapped and neutered or spayed, even though they were obliged by law to first conduct a review of the program under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Despite denials by the City that an official TNR program existed, the judge ruled that “implementation of the program is pervasive, albeit informal and unspoken,” and ordered them to halt their actions and complete the necessary environmental reviews.

In June 2005, the Los Angeles Board of Animal Services Commissioners adopted TNR as the “preferred method of dealing with feral cat populations.” Under the CEQA, an analysis of the impacts of the program on the environment should have been completed, but never was. Yet the Department went forward in supporting TNR operations, including discounting spay/neuter operations for TNR cats, helping establish new TNR colonies on city property, and helping promote TNR programs, while refusing to accept feral cats at city animal shelters or issue permits to trap feral cats that were not going to be subsequently released.

The City must now implement the CEQA process, which includes full scientific review, assessment of alternatives, and potential mitigation measures. The public will have the opportunity to engage in the process and ensure an open, science-based approach to the issue of free-roaming cats in Los Angeles.
And speaking of science, this article from the September-October issue of Audubon is a must-read. [Related blog discussion here.] Also check out Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return [pdf].

Birds 1, Feral Cats 0 -- Court Orders LA To Stop Controversial Feral Cat Program

Liveblogging No More Homeless Pets Conference: Opening

Liveblogging No More Homeless Pets: What’s new in feral cats?
[Honestly, when I hear someone say, "Don’t give them a chance to argue with you. There’s only one solution, and that’s to let the cats live; proceed from there," I ask myself, Did I miss that election? The one that made feral cat colonies more important than wild birds, sea mammals, the environment, public health...? Because that position is insane, and I like cats.]

Here are three posts from Ed Muzika's L.A. Animal Watch:

Urban Wildlife Wins Lawsuit Against City; TNR illegal Until CEQA Done

Longcore Refuses to Respond to My Charge That His Call for Cat Sanctuary Is a Cynical Cover For His Death Recommendations

Longcore Attacks Every Measure on Proposed Beverly Hills TNR Ordinance--A Sample

And an oldie from the NY Times: Kill the Cat that Kills the Bird?

Bird sounds

Remember Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs? One of the finest things the Onion has ever produced, if you ask me. Turns out Aves may be another group to keep an eye on.

If you watched the terrific video on parrot intelligence [H/T Heckled by Parrots, via Pet Connection], you probably caught a glimpse of a scientist in a lab. He was on screen for just a few seconds, at 5:44 in the vid. That's Erich Jarvis. Here's his Duke U. faculty page. From the NOVA site:
Erich Jarvis is a neurobiologist at Duke University Medical Center. He heads a team of researchers in the field of vocal communication. The Jarvis Lab's research of songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds sheds light on how the brain is able to learn the behavior of sound. Jarvis's work on bird brains may have applications to the treatment speech problems in humans, such as stuttering. In October 2005, Dr. Jarvis won the National Institutes of Health's Director's Pioneer Award, which provides $500,000 per year for five years to researchers pursuing innovative approaches to biomedical research.

This summer Jarvis gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union:
Vocal learners mimic sounds they hear, and then modify them to create new sounds. This may not be as much mindless parroting as we used to think—and here Jarvis singled out Irene Pepperberg in the audience, whose experiments with Alex the African Grey Parrot showed that he understood the semantics of a question like “How many total?” well enough to count and reciprocally communicate to Irene that two beads and four beads made “six.”

As for how vocal learning happens, Jarvis and colleagues reported in a staggering series of publications that while all birds use parts of the brain stem to produce songs, those with learned songs also use parts of the forebrain. Birds that learn their songs may even have more than one pathway controlling their learning. One pathway may promote variability in songs while another pathway produces more consistency, or stereotyping. The proper balance between the two pathways allows for vocal learning.
Jarvis basically threw out the window the received wisdom that humans’ large brain size and extensive brain folding are the explanation for our complex language. When he and colleagues described in 2005 how bird song and human speech actually make use of the same three forebrain regions, it made a splash. People reportedly called Webster’s and asked them to remove the term “bird brain” from the dictionary. [Source: Round Robin — The Cornell Blog of Ornithology.]

You can read more about the evolution of avian brain structure for vocal learning here, at the Jarvis Lab website.


Also on the topic of bird communication: in a thoughtful [as in, both gracious and brainy] exchange of blog posts, David Sibley and Nathan Pieplow engage in a "very interesting and, I think, important discussion about a sea change that may be occurring in how birders listen to bird sounds." [That quote is from Pieplow's blog.] Sibley writes:
I learned bird songs decades ago through countless hours of field experience, supplemented by listening to a few recordings, reading detailed descriptions, and talking to other birders. It was a subjective, holistic approach to bird songs that led to a sort of gestalt style of identification – after you hear a sound often enough the identification just becomes second-nature.

Now, it still takes countless hours, but birders have a wealth of technological aids, allowing them to study and compare bird sounds with an ease and immediacy that was never possible before. In the modern world of ipods, sonagrams, and websites like xeno-canto, birders can examine the bird sounds directly, objectively, and in great detail. This may lead (as Nathan Pieplow admits) to a slightly greater emphasis on differences in pattern rather than the more subjective and hard-to-describe differences in tone.

Given how suggestible we are, and how tiny things can influence our perception, the detail-oriented objective approach to bird sound identification is probably better and more accurate.

And Pieplow replies:
[Sibley] learned sounds in the field; I learned them on the floor of my bedroom in South Dakota when I was in high school, playing the Peterson Birding By Ear tapes over and over again. Those tapes (which remain the best resource I’ve ever seen for people who want to learn bird sounds on their own) didn’t take a holistic, all-at-once approach; instead they took an analytic approach, grouping similar sounds together and then pointing out key field marks or “handles” — here a distinctive tone quality, there a distinctive rhythm — to distinguish sounds within the groups.

I’ve used this same basic approach to sound identification ever since: recognize a pattern, then focus on a piece of it. The pattern gets you to the right group; the pieces narrow the identification to species. Tone quality is part of this analysis, but not the most important part.

In fact, in some ways I think I place a pretty low priority on tone quality. For several years now, I have been convinced that tone quality is the slipperiest attribute of sound: the hardest to analyze perceptually, the hardest to describe. And I think tone quality is responsible for most of the disconnect between most descriptions of sounds and the sounds themselves. I de-emphasize it precisely because it is so difficult to categorize. Other attributes of sound are much easier to describe and compare, so those are the ones I focus on.

For the most part, I’m just doing what works for me, but I hope it works for other people as well. I really do believe in the objective, analytic approach.


So who makes those field recordings of bird songs? Remarkable people like William Belton:
An internationally recognized ornithologist, Mr. Belton was almost single-handedly responsible for the current body of knowledge of the bird life of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost Brazilian state. His field recordings and specimens from the region are today in the collections of major research institutions. His two-volume study of the birds of the area is widely considered seminal.
Each [of Belton's recordings] was often the product of hours of standing stock-still in the wild at dawn, with swarms of biting insects for company. But the rewards were considerable: over the years, Mr. Belton captured many bird songs that had never before been documented.
The bird names alone read like found poetry. Mr. Belton recorded, among others, the variable screech-owl and the southern screamer; the freckle-breasted thornbird, the sooty-fronted spinetail and the rufous-browed peppershrike; the cattle tyrant, the masked yellowthroat and the piratic flycatcher; the squirrel cuckoo, the laughing falcon, the pectoral sandpiper and the gilded sapphire.

William Belton died in October at the age of 95. As a woman of a certain age, I love that Mr. Belton's ornithological career [of more than 30 years!] began following his retirement.


A high school student asks Erich Jarvis, "African grey parrots can learn to speak, and they can be taught to tell color, and even to express themselves. And from what I observed on NOVA scienceNOW, some birds are capable of creating simple tools. But what about the other kinds of birds that are incapable of doing things like this? For example, a crow can make tools to obtain food but a pigeon can't. Why? Why is the parrot smarter than the finch? Is it brain size, the way they use their brains, or does the parrot have something the finch doesn't?"

An excerpt from Jarvis's answer:
[A]n argument can be made that having a brain means that you have intelligent behavior, regardless of whether you are a bird, mammal, reptile, or otherwise. But this is not the way many people think. There is something inherent in our human psyche that wants to make nonhumans "lower" in intelligence, and for us to form a scale of intelligence such that some species would be considered not intelligent.
In fact, it is very difficult or almost impossible to make such a scale. Yes, a crow can make tools, and as far as I know, this has not been observed in pigeons. But pigeons have incredible visual memories and abilities, including the ability to learn how to distinguish different styles of impressionistic paintings. Chickadees, which are a type of songbird, can store over 3,000 seeds in the forest, and during the winter they remember where they put them and retrieve most of them. A parrot so far as I know has not been observed to do this, yet a number of parrot species can imitate some human speech.
Different species have different behavioral capacities that vary in sophistication, Jarvis continues. However, brain size is not the main driving factor behind these complex behaviors. Instead, neural connectivity appears to be the driving force.

And bird brains, as it turns out, are firing on all cylinders.

HeroRATS to the rescue

One man's ratatouille is another man's hero. [Photo source]

They have little rat tails and little rat feet and little rat voices that go squeak squeak squeak, and when they locate an unexploded landmine, these African Giant Pouched Rats alert their handlers by sitting still and giving themselves a nice scratch. If you live in a region with landmines, these clever rodents may save your life and your livelihood.

[Oh, and let's get one thing out of the way right off the rat... er, bat: "they are too light to detonate a mine by themselves if they step on it."]
The HeroRATS are currently deployed in Mozambique where they have enabled over one thousand families to reclaim their land. They have also helped with clearing areas so that power lines can be passed through – so bringing electricity which would not otherwise have been possible to over ten thousand local citizens.

Read the whole thing here. H/T: Nag on the Lake.

December 5, 2009

Peregrine Falcon vs Snowy Owl

"Present... talons!" Photo by John Mattera.

From the most awesome Birdchick, a link to something you don't see every day: a peregrine defending its meal from a [rare] interloper. Fight or Flight: Falcon and owl aerial battle caught on camera.

December 4, 2009

And the band played Waltzing Matilda

"Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 1984, "I never heard a singer as good as Liam ever. He was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life. Still is, probably."" Liam Clancy, 1935 - 2009.

December 3, 2009

Late night links

Too good not to share.

Dr. Lucy H. Spelman is a veterinarian and all 'round amazing and remarkable person, currently working with giant otters in Guyana. That's one of her charges on the left. Dr. Spelman's blog: Saving Otters.


Storms are lining up and rain's on the way! Also: pretty maps! See Ken Clark's Western U.S. Weather Blog for all the deets. H/T: the awesome, essential Aquafornia.


Wildfire in Yellowstone: NASA astronauts are there.


What does it take to save a species? Sometimes, high-voltage power wires
. From Green Lines, by Beth Daley of the Boston Globe:
Transmission corridors have long been considered symbols of environmental degradation, with their enormous steel skeletons and high-voltage lines slicing through forests, wetlands, and salt marshes; they divide the landscapes that thousands of species need to survive. Yet now they are gaining a new reputation: As critical homes for faltering species of birds, bees, butterflies, plants, and a host of other species.
“It’s hard to explain to conservation groups that [species] are being saved in the most unpopular and disturbed kinds of landscapes,” said Robert Askins, a biology professor at Connecticut College who has studied birds in transmission corridors. “I was shocked originally to be working in them myself.”
H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.


"How is Jo, a former fighting pit bull, different from other dogs?" A Rotta Love Plus spells it out. Good read.


"[R]esearch out of Purdue University is suggesting that female dogs and, interestingly, female humans, live longer if they keep their ovaries," posts Christie at Pet Connection. A good discussion follows, with terrific comments from the most excellent Heather Houlahan. I mean, comments #34 and #35? Perfect.

In somewhat related news: Nature's Harmony Farm no longer castrates their pigs.
The controversy surrounding castration [of piglets] is one of humane treatment. In North American swine production, castration is essentially universal, although in the UK and Ireland, for welfare reasons pigs are not castrated. Additionally, legislation passed in Norway and Switzerland that banned castration of pigs starting in 2009. The majority of male pigs in Spain and Portugal are not castrated. McDonald’s & Burger King in the Netherlands both announced that they will no longer sell products containing pork from castrated pigs. According to The Pig Site, "There is substantial evidence that castration is painful and highly aversive to pigs and so is a significant welfare concern. The most painful part of castration appears to be the severing of the cords and vessels supplying testis. An assumption is often made that the procedure is less traumatic to younger piglets although the contrary maybe true."


Finally, via The Ethicurean: "When a recent UC Santa Cruz study asked grocery shoppers on California's Central Coast to rank their concerns about the food system, respondents prioritized animal welfare above the treatment of human workers on the farms." Bay Guardian reporter Caitlin Donohue reports on the irony of it all in Out of reach: How the sustainable local food movement neglects poor workers and eaters.
The average salary of the estimated 900,000 farm workers in California — the birthplace of the organic and farm labor movements in the U.S. — is around $8,500, more than $2,000 below the federal poverty line.
[Jon] Hall’s customers [at the University of San Francisco food court], college students who may eat three meals a day here, often approach him with questions about their food. Queries range from where to how the food was grown, but in no instances that Hall has been aware of, about the workers who grew it.

Labor issues are not the popular cause these days, at least in the sustainable food movement. Unlike the “eat local” and organic food movements, equitable treatment of farm workers has yet to spawn trendy slogans for tote bags or a book on the best-seller list.

One UC Santa Cruz study found that, when asked to rank their concern about food system related topics, Central Coast grocery shoppers assigned higher concern levels to animal treatment on farms than that of humans. But Hall is confident this will change as Bon Appetit and others continue to bring attention to the economically disadvantaged on the front lines of our local and organic food systems.

“This is the next frontier,” he said. “I can see it brewing.”
Somewhere, Edward R. Murrow is shaking his head in despair.

December 2, 2009

Color block prints by Frances Gearhart

Untitled (Big Sur Bridge). Click for [even] bigger.

I'm totally in love with these prints by Frances Gearhart (1869-1959). [To the left: Cuyama Country, 1935.] Her art is Californian to its marrow, and it makes my heart ache, it's so beautiful and true. Thanks to Deborah Netburn of the L.A. Times for writing about this exhibition of Gearhart's work at the Pasadena Museum of California Art [how Californian is that?]. I'd provide an LAT link, except that the post only shows up in my RSS reader and the link goes to a blank page at the Times site. UPDATE: link at last.

Here's a link to Susan Futterman’s essay on Gearhart, and here's a print that must be of Big Bear Lake: