In the beginning this blog was centered on San Francisco parks and open space issues with special emphasis on natural areas and natural history. Over time it began to range into other areas and topics. As you can see, it is eclectic, as I interlace it with topics of interest to me.

I welcome feedback: just click this link to reach me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


1.   Hearing TONIGHT on Navy's plan to cap toxic dump at Hunters Point
2.   College scholarship prizes to raise awareness of population growth
3.   SF mayoral candidates Food & Water Forum Sept 26
4.   Reimagining the California Lawn, Sept 28 in Orinda
5.   South San Francisco weed warriors tomorrow, Sept 21 on San Bruno Mtn
6.   EPA could ban atrazine, America's 2nd most common herbicide
7.   Feedback - everything but the kitchen sink
8.   The Great World Wide Star Count - anyone can participate
9.   When birds go to town - new opportunities for enterprising critters
10. Notes & Queries - fleas have a function?/what's under the rainbow?



2.  CAPS announces statewide college competition in California with a top prize of $5,000.

Californians for Population Stabilization announces the launch today of a college scholarship program with a top prize of $5,000.

The California Population Awareness (CAPA) Awards program has been created to increase awareness among college students of the state’s rapid population growth and to encourage college students to explore the sources and implications of continuing growth.

“The students in our colleges and universities are very important to how California evolves,” said Marilyn Brant Chandler DeYoung, CAPS Chairman of the Board. “They can and will influence the future of the state, the country and the world. With the CAPA Awards competition, CAPS hopes to engage students in the overpopulation discussion and challenge them to look at the benefits that a sustainable population would bring to California.”

To enter the CAPA Awards competition, California college students are asked to submit an original short video or radio spot, write an Op-Ed, or design a Facebook initiative or Twitter campaign that focuses on the causes of overpopulation in California and its effects on the environment, wildlife, quality of human life, and the benefits that a sustainable population would bring.

Available awards total $12,500. Additionally, the first 100 qualified entries will be entered in a random drawing for an iPad 2 (three will be given away).

Please help make the program a rousing success!

If you’re an educator in a California university or college (state or private), a community college, or a trade or career-based school, please share the information with your students. And if you have friends with kids in college in California, or if you have students in college, please let them know about the CAPA Awards competition.

More information about the awards program, including complete rules, is at


3.  San Francisco Mayoral Candidates  Food and Water Forum 

Do you know what the San Francisco Mayoral Candidates think about our food and water?  Or more importantly, do they know what you think?

The Tuolumne River Trust and Restore Hetch Hetchy is co-sponsoring a San Francisco Mayoral Candidates Forum that will look at the intersections of water, healthy food, and green space in our city.  Please join us in asking the next Mayor of San Francisco to lay out a vision for a healthy and sustainable future!

Our Food, Our Schoolyards, Our Water
Monday, September 26, 6:30pm-8:00pm
At the LGBT Community Center
1800 Market Street @ Octavia
Free event (RSVP here)

Regardless of who is elected, the next mayor will make big decisions regarding our food and water resources. At the forum, candidates will discuss their positions on hot topics including community gardens and urban farms, rainwater harvesting, stormwater management, recycled water, and a potential desalination plant in San Francisco Bay. The forum will serve as a great way to find out where the candidates stand on these important issues - and how they will affect the future health of the Tuolumne River!


4.  East Bay Chapter, California Native Plant Society--Public Program

Reimagining the California Lawn
Speaker: Bart O’Brien
Wednesday, September 28, 7:30 pm
Location: Auditorium, Orinda Public Library, 24 Orinda Way, Orinda

Lawns, those unimaginative green carpets of yesteryear, consume so many resources (time, money, water, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides) that many people are looking for smarter alternatives. Bart O’Brien, co-author of the recently published Reimagining the California Lawn (Cachuma Press, 2011), will present several exciting design strategies that homeowners and gardeners may consider instead of lawns, along with some of the best California native plants to enliven those designs. Turn your flat, green, ecological desert into a three-dimensional paradise that will engage your senses! Copies of the book will be available for purchase after the presentation.

Bart C. O'Brien is Director of Special Projects at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, CA. He is a noted authority on the flora of California and northern Baja California, Mexico, and is an accomplished collector, grower, photographer, lecturer, and author. He is co-author of two additional recent books on gardening with native plants: the award-winning California Native Plants for the Garden (2005), and the bilingual Care and Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens (2006).

East Bay CNPS membership meetings are free of charge and open to everyone.

Join the SSF Weed Warriors on San Bruno Mountain
Wednesday September 21 - 9:15am to 12pm

This week the focus is on the very invasive sweet fennel - we will be removing seed heads.  So if you have garden clippers, please bring them.
    ◦    gloves provided
    ◦    wear long pants and layers
    ◦    wear sturdy shoes
    ◦    bring water
The next SSF Weed Warriors outing will be October 5th

Contact:  San Bruno Mountain Watch (415) 467-6631  volunteer sign-up
Or email leaders Chuck and Loretta

We focus on the removal of non-native & invasive plant species
Meeting location:  behind the Mills Montessori School at 1400 Hillside Blvd in South San Francisco
View Google Map


Environmental Groups Concerned About Endocrine Disrupting Chemical

Washington, DC, September 14, 2011 – The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced it is seeking public comments regarding a potential ban on Atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States. The chemical, produced by Swiss agrochemical company Syngenta, has been banned in the European Union since 2004, but 80 million pounds of it are applied in the USA each year. Atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in American groundwater. It is used primarily on corn, sugarcane, rice, sorghum and on golf courses and lawns. The EPA’s call for comments appeared in today’s Federal
Register, and were prompted by over 60,000 petition signatures and emails received from supporters of the nonprofit groups Save The Frogs, Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Atrazine is a potent endocrine disruptor that has been shown to cause immunosuppression, hermaphroditism and even complete sex reversal in male frogs at concentrations as low as 2.5 parts per billion. The chemical has been linked to reproductive defects in fish and prostate and breast cancer in laboratory rodents, and epidemiological studies suggest it is carcinogenic to humans. Atrazine is extremely persistent in the environment: it is still detectable in France 15 years after its last usage there. Over half a million pounds of Atrazine return to the Earth each year in rain and snow after it is caught in the airstream following spraying.

Atrazine has been under serious scrutiny over the past several years as an abundance of scientific literature on its harmful effects have been published by scientists at the USGS, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of South Florida. More recently, activists gathered at the steps of the EPA’s headquarters in
Washington, DC to raise awareness of the disappearance of amphibians and call for a federal ban on Atrazine on the occasion of the international Save The Frogs Day (April 29th, 2011). Amphibian populations worldwide have been declining at unprecedented rates, and nearly one-third of the world's amphibian species are threatened with extinction. “Atrazine is the 21st century’s DDT” says Dr. Kerry Kriger, Founder & Executive Director of SAVE THE FROGS!, America’s first and only public charity dedicated to protecting amphibians. Dr. Kriger led the Save The Frogs Day Rally and hand-delivered 10,012 petition signatures to the EPA’s Pesticide Division the following week.

“Now that we have the EPA’s attention, we are a large step closer towards protecting our food supply, our drinking water and our wildlife from this known endocrine-disruptor”, says Dr. Kriger.  “However, only a few percent of Americans have ever heard of Atrazine, so raising awareness of the issue is critical if we are to overcome
the lobbying power of the billion-dollar agro-chemical giants”.  Atrazine is produced by Syngenta, the world’s largest pesticide company, who reported over $11 billion in revenues in 2010.

Info and scientific publications on Atrazine:
Info on the April 29th, 2011 Save The Frogs Day Rally:
Info on the Petition Delivery:
View the Federal Register entry from the EPA:


7.  Feedback

Ann Halton:
Hello Jake,
Re: cars and bikes/ Alice Polesky's comment: I'm glad to see that you all realize that there is just as much bad behavior from auto drivers as bicyclists. I have been riding every day for most of my life. I'm over 40. Most of the other bicyclists seem to be under 25 and male. Many of them zoom past me, only inches away and without advance warning. Very rude! Plus I have a rather good view of something ;) I don't want to see because their pants are much too low on the waist.
  Every single day I see at least one auto driver looking down at their (pick your electronic device of choice) while the vehicle is moving! And 'newsflash' to all you who hold a cell phone while driving: You can't do it and drive safely! I've owned cars. I don't even like to talk to the person next to me while driving, let alone use a cell phone.
I've seen many people with children in the car playing with electronics!
Every evening on the way home I have at least one of the following things happen: car passes me within inches (terrifying! The law is that a vehicle must leave at least 3'), or car then gets in front of me and brakes, or angry drivers (always male) yell "Fat ass -----!" , and/or they honk at me, which is very dangerous because it is startling and may cause me to lose my balance. I'm usually carrying a heavy load, which makes balancing  even trickier.
And as for cycling in Britain, British people were not raised with this arrogant, entitled, macho 'I'm King of the Road" attitude. They share the road because they are kinder, better behaved, more considerate, more civilized, more educated, more respectful and not so arrogant as Americans. Why? Because they were taught good behavior as  children. I know this from personal experience.
When you look at a young cyclist who has peeved you off, please consider that if they are under 30, they were probably spoiled and poorly disciplined, if at all.
I have also noticed that in contrast, cyclists older than myself are very polite and friendly, but regrettably few and far between. Who can blame them? It takes nerves of steel to commute by bike.

Keith McAllister:
Jake, You repeat again the claim that “...grasses are superior in this respect [carbon sequestration] to that produced and sequestered by trees and forests.”  I would still like to see some scientific support for that counter-intuitive claim.
The long quote from “The Miracle of Pasture” is not from a scientist, and doesn’t cite any science.  It comes from Animal Welfare Approved, which is an organization of livestock producers.
Googleing “pasture Cornell university carbon sequestration,” as your correspondent suggests, produces some interesting hits.  At the top of the list is a scientific paper, “Carbon and Nutrient Accumulation in Secondary Forests” by Feldpausch, et al, which documents how much MORE carbon is sequestered when pastures are allowed to succeed to forest.  Other hits are to papers from the Cornell Sustainable Campus initiative.  They refer to planting trees in place of pasture as a means of sequestering more carbon.
If you are interested, I can supply a long list of scientific papers which directly compare the carbon content of grasslands and forests, both in the soil and the above ground biomass.  (Recall that in both grasslands and forest most carbon is sequestered in the soil.)  For example, Pouyat, R.V.,, “Carbon Storage by Urban Soils in the United States,” Journal of Environmental Quality, 35:1566-1575 (2006) shows in its Table 5 that forest soils store more carbon than either grasslands or shrublands in all regions of the United States.  I have seen no study that finds more carbon in grasslands than forests.  “Grasslands sequester more carbon than forests,” is an extraordinary claim and requires some evidence.  I hope you (or your readers) can supply some.
Keith:  For starters, let's distinguish between pasture and grassland.  I, too, don't think that pastures are able to generate and support the root systems my correspondent claimed, for the reason I gave.

As for grasslands, yes, the statement that they can store more carbon is counter-intuitive.  I searched my computer in vain for the article I had in mind, so I am unable to cite the support you ask.  I go on occasional orgies of file-clearing.  Those orgies are necessary but risky, as I can't open and read every item before tossing, and I have made mistakes that I regret.  Still, I accumulate far too much stuff.  So the particular research article I have in mind is evidently one that was thrown out.  (With a little luck, one of my readers may be able to come to my aid on this point.)  If I had time to comb the internet I could come up with this article and others.  That isn't going to happen; I never have spent much time on the internet, and I am desperately trying to decrease the time I spend at the computer--a hard task, I find. 

Perennial grass roots can go very deep, and they differ from tree roots in their highly ramified, mesh-like root systems--which make them soil binders par excellence. Even a glance shows the greater complexity of grass roots.  The roots of most trees are in the top 2-3', and in that regard trees can't match them, and the bulk of a tree's biomass is aboveground, as opposed to that of old perennial grasses, some of which can be several hundred years old.  I often refer people to the root system of California oatgrass, Danthonia californica, which was (I hope still is) in the California natural history section of the Oakland Museum.  They had to cut off the root system at around five feet to fit in the exhibit case, and there are many investigations of grass root systems that document their great depth and complexity.  The lost article stated that the carbon stored by tree roots was not stored permanently, whereas that of the deeper grass root system was, something that surprised me.  My reading of the article was fairly thorough and I don't hesitate to repeat it, even without citation.

Another item needing consideration is that there is far more than just roots below ground.  The number of microorganisms there beggars belief:  billions, in a small volume, such as three cubic centimeters.  I have a file on soil organisms, and I checked with a soil scientist friend, telling her that I wanted to post in my newsletter but that I feared the figures can't be credible.  She assured me they were.  Further, the amount of biomass below ground exceeds that above!!  Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  This does not bear directly on the question at hand, but it is relevant to a very complex phenomenon.

I appreciate your attempts to keep me honest.  Sorry I couldn't pull up the study this time.  I read it carefully at the time (several years ago), so feel comfortable in making the statements I did.

P.S.  Here is an interesting story about a closely-related phenomenon:,,1972729,00.html

Edward Guthmann:
Hi Jake,
Nice to see a James Broughton poem on Nature News. He was a friend of mine. There's a documentary about him that's in the works. It's called "Big Joy" and it's being co-directed and produced by my friend Stephen Silha. The footage I've seen is terrific. It should be fascinating.

Ian Wilson
Dear Jake, I've never been to the pub opposite Kew Gardens you mentioned, but since it's not far from where my Mum lives I shall make the pilgrimage the next time I visit the UK and see if it's still the same. (Unless Alice or one of your other readers gets there first!) Don't worry, there are still plenty of quiet, old-fashioned pubs in the UK, as well as rowdy sports bars, and all shades in between.

Jim Sharp:
Hi, Gray. A nearly two-year-old New Scientist piece (URL posted below) should help answer the query you posed in Jake's Nature News of 10se11.

Gray Brechin:
Thanks for your measured response about cats. I love them and let mine go outside because she has never expressed the slightest interest in birds; she has far too many other things to occupy her fine cat mind and/or is far too lazy to bestir herself for a deadly lunge.

I marvel at the extraordinary beauty of cats, few of which have been bred into the grotesque deformities of some dogs. But a study was done some years ago by a British bird watching and protective society that came up with astonishing figures for the number of bird kills for which cats are responsible. It credited cats for a sharp drop in the number of birds in the British isles and should not be difficult to find on line. I am too lazy to bestir myself.

That said, I wonder if anyone has done a study of the environmental costs of our carnivore pets; i.e., how much protein do they consume, and from whence does it come? I've heard that much of the anchovy catch from off the Peruvian coast, e.g., goes into U.S. cat and dog food rather than into Peruvians or larger fish. And then there are the cows we feed our darlings.

Oh, and btw, some birds have returned to my garden, but far fewer than I had before. Thank you for posting my query; I particularly appreciated one in the last post about their inherent mobility and fickleness. Sad to say, they are not here simply to delight us, the bipeds without wings. Still, we must with feeders and bird baths, give back a little for all that we have taken from them.

How green is your pet?
23 October 2009 by Kate Ravilious
Magazine issue 2731.
Editorial: Cute, fluffy and horribly greedy

James Osborne:
Jake:  Regarding bird-preying cats, I recommend the CAT BIB. Our newly-purchased kitten from Pets Lifeline in Sonoma proved to be a scourge to 3 hummingbirds in our backyard, so we bought the neoprene Cat Bib online mail order ($13, as I recall). Now, she still occasionally gets lizards and once got a mouse. but it hampers her pounce and make her visible enough that she hasn't got a bird for almost a year. Plus, it's cute!

On Sep 19, 2011, at 3:32 PM, Steve Lawrence wrote:
"I first heard of 'forest bathing' -- walking in the woods -- about five years ago from a writer and conservationist friend who is protecting a significant wooded area in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. While we were drinking good green tea in his forest-warden's shelter, he assured me that time spent in the the woods significantly lowers stress and blood pressure; it reduces hyperactivity in children, and increases the ability of kids with ADHD to concentrate. Local authorities regularly bring disturbed kids to spend time wandering in his forest, and he told me that the changes in their behavior begin almost immediately.

"Formal Japanese research into the benefits of forest bathing has subsequently revealed that the human natural killer (NK) cells in our body, which fight cancer and strengthen the immune system, are increased by up to fifty percent after only three days spent in the forest, and the benefits can last for up to a month. Research in Europe and North America is confirming these findings. Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods explores the evidence that our separation from nature has serious implications for our health and well-being. There's abundant evidence that we, and especially our children, are suffering from what might be called 'nature deficit disorder.'"

Forest bathe at least once a month!
Steve:  What's new about this?  The feeling that immediately fills one on entering a deep forest is universal and obviously deeply relaxing.  It doesn't need someone to write a book about it nor to invent a term.  The only mystery is why we have allowed ourselves to give it up and enslave ourselves to the consumer society.  We don't like to admit that we have been participants in the enslavement process.  If we doubt it, a look at the choices we've made in our lives--our values, what we own, what we do--should convince us.

No need for me to continue this rant.  You can see where I'm going.

P.S.  Uh, I realize that I'm talking primarily from the perspective of one of the privileged ones who have had this experience, and who has the choice of walking in the woods tomorrow if I choose.  Ever think of how many people there are who have never had even a taste of this kind of experience?  (I take back 'universal' in the first sentence.)  Speaking of bathing, I received a bath of cold water in the 1970s while a gardener in Strybing Arboretum (now SF Botanical Garden) when a docent told me her experience leading a high school class of Latinos from the Mission District.  For most of them it was their first time in Golden Gate Park!  Further, they were nervous around dense bushes, and she had difficulty getting and holding their attention as a consequence.  Evidently they had fears of someone jumping out of the bushes at them.  That was a shocker to me, but life since then has been a continuous series of shocks as I see what we have done to ourselves.  The 1970s now in some respects seem like the good old days.


8.  The Great World Wide Star Count

(Although this event will be October 29 - November 12, I post this now so that you can get used to locating the Summer Triangle and Cygnus the Swan and follow it as it slowly moves westward.  Weather and other factors can create problems, so your eye needs to become practiced at picking out the constellations.  This should be fun.)

Repeated from the Aug 2 newsletter:
11.  The Summer Triangle--comprising the 1st-magnitude stars Vega, Altair, and Deneb--is overhead at dark.  The brightest, and westernmost, is Vega--near the zenith.  Of the three, Deneb (the tail of the celestial Swan, Cygnus) is noticeably the faintest.  With a visual magnitude of 1.3, it barely qualifies as a 1st-magnitude star.  Deneb may appear rather ordinary in comparison to Altair and Vega, but looks can be deceiving.

While Altair and Vega are 17 and 25 light-years away, respectively, a gap of more than 1,400 light-years separates us from Deneb.  This star is, in fact, one of the most luminous in the galaxy--a blue-white supergiant with the light output of more than 50,000 Suns!  Were this stellar colossus as near as Altair, it would be a dazzling magnitude -8.4 star easily visible during daylight hours and able to cast distinct shadows at night. 

The vast rift separating us from Deneb denies us such a visual spectacle, but it also protects us from the effects of this star's ultimate demise.  Like all supergiants, Deneb is destined for a sudden and violent end as a type II supernova--the rapid collapse and violent explosion of a massive star.  The event could possibly occur within the next few million years--a cosmic blink of the eye.  At Altair's distance, a Deneb supernova would be nearly 1,000 times brighter than the Full Moon and prove catastrophic to life on Earth.  The gamma radiation released would seriously deplete our atmosphere's protective ozone layer, allowing life-threatening levels of solar and cosmic radiation to reach the ground.  We're fortunate to be able to admire this magnificent star from a safe distance.

Excerpted and augmented from Glenn Chaple's column in Astronomy, September 2011

JS:  The Summer Triangle is directly overhead at dark now, and the prospects of having clear skies off and on for awhile are fair.  You can perform a service by participating in this global star count, at the same time educating yourself, having fun, and highlighting the environmental, psychological, and energy waste of present city lighting.  If you are unfamiliar with either the Summer Triangle or the constellation Cygnus the Swan you will need to consult a sky map, which shouldn't be difficult to find on the internet.  The Summer Triangle is easy to find even in our polluted skies and once you have found it, Cygnus is right there, its tail is Deneb (means tail), and it is flying into the Triangle--in fact its head is in the very center of the Triangle.  The outstretched wings are just forward from the tail, like an airplane whose wings are set well back, the fuselage projecting very far forward from the wings like a cigar.  If you have trouble finding the rest of the swan's body, that's not your fault, it's our lighting.  Report what you see.

Remember, the point of this is to see how many of the stars you see, and in the Bay Area there will not be many.  But that's the point, to document the appalling waste of energy, the cutting off of people from one of life's grandest experiences, and the interference with birds' navigation system.

Deneb and Albireo--indeed, the entire constellation of Cygnus--will draw the universal attention of sky-gazers in October.  The Great World Wide Star Count, a project conducted by the National Earth Science Teachers Assn (NESTA), will use Cygnus as a barometer to map the global extent of light pollution.  Volunteers (that means us!) will observe Cygnus any evening between October 14 and 28 (ugh, the below website says its October 29 - November 12; better go with the website. JS) to determine the magnitude of the faintest stars visible.  The process will entail matching what we see in the sky with one of seven charts showing the appearance of Cygnus when the limiting magnitude is 1 through 7.  Urban dwellers will struggle to see 1st-magnitude stars like Deneb, while those fortunate enough to live in regions where dark skies prevail will detect stars of 6th or even 7th magnitude.

The beauty of this activity is that virtually anyone can do it, as long as you can locate Cygnus in the night sky.  No equipment other than eyes, a red flashlight, and a set of magnitude charts (obtainable off the Great World Wide Star Count website) is necessary.  The process isn't time-consuming either.  It takes 10 to 15 minutes to make an observation, and another 10 to forward the data.  The activity is so simple, you may want to make multiple observations by extending your Cygnus star counts to other communities near your home.

The Great World Wide Star Count is a meaningful activity...because light pollution is a menace all amateur astronomers must deal with.  Teachers, as well as individuals involved with secondary-school outreach programs, will appreciate the opportunity to engage their students in scientific data collection and analysis.

...Last year, the Great World Wide Star Count collected nearly 4,500 observations.  NESTA graphically portrays the results on a world map set up on the Great World Wide Star Count website.  Refer to the map to see what regions of the world were covered.  If you live in an area where no one filed a report, make a star count to help fill in the gaps.  Let's all do our part to document the spread of light pollution.  For more information, log on to

Questions, comments, or suggestions?  E-mail me at

Glenn Chaple in Astronomy, September 2011


9.  When Birds Go to Town
Urban settings offer enterprising critters new opportunities — if they can cope with the challenges

Paris crows feast on some human leftovers. They’re not the only birds that have learned to like garbage.

Anne Clark and Kevin McGowan are discussing, perfectly seriously, how a crow might be able to recognize a car. Not tell a car from, say, a cat, but pick out the red Subaru from other cars in the parking lot.

Clark, an animal behaviorist at Binghamton University in New York, is sitting in her own red Subaru with McGowan, of Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca. Neither bothers to mention — it’s apparently so routine — that when Clark pulled into the lot, two crows flapped over to nearby trees. Country crows often back away from human doings, but these birds lingered as if people-watching.

Clark and McGowan are running a long-term study of what urban life is like for a group of Ithaca’s crows, tagging and following them as they grow up, take over or lose territories, and succeed or not in raising the next generation of research subjects. Even in a university town, the birds probably aren’t lured to the Subaru by the thrill of scientific discovery, but rather by the scientists’ occasional ploy of flinging peanuts and dog food out the window to engineer some bird activity.

“They know us,” McGowan says. There isn’t another Subaru in the lot to test the birds’ discriminatory abilities, but McGowan has inadvertently conducted his own experiment. He sold his car and bought a new one. McGowan was temporarily invisible automotively, but the birds caught on eventually. And the old car’s new owner reported that a crow appeared to be following him to work. It was OK; the driver just provisioned the car with peanuts for an occasional fling.

…Human food, even when it’s not aflame, may not be so good for birds, though. In a 2009 study comparing the effects of available food on chick rearing in suburban and rural places, Clark, McGowan and Rebecca Heiss, a graduate student at Binghamton at the time, reported evidence that nutrient deficits in suburbia may be limiting the growth of young crows there. Suburban crows lag behind country cousins in size, and offering suburbanites high-protein, high-calcium supplements boosted nestling growth. What startled the researchers, though, was what happened when they set out supplemental nestling food in the countryside. Crows that took home the best nutritional formula used by specialists in nursing orphan chicks ended up with noticeably punier youngsters than neighbors relying entirely on wild food. Even the best food that humans could concoct fell short of a natural diet.

...“There is absolutely no doubt that this amount of human provisioning is having massive and widespread influences on bird populations,” Jones says, “and we really need to know what is happening.”

…While birdsong may be music to human ears, to the birds themselves it’s, “Get your foul feathered rump out of my territory right now,” “Choose me, baby” or some other vital communication. Disrupting such important messages or sabotaging some other aspect of sound could be exacting costs even for birds that readily live in the din. It’s a tricky matter to test, but Slabbekoorn’s group has some evidence. Great tits nesting at various distances from a Dutch motorway fledged fewer offspring in noisier territories, his team reported in the February Journal of Applied Ecology. Though tits persist, they’re paying a price for their urban homes.

The living city

The inevitable species in all of these mixes is Homo sapiens. Humans, for all their generosity with garbage, have a dark side as far as a bird is concerned. They’re not just predators, they’re opinionated predators with technology.

Crow shooting, for example, used to be much more common around Ithaca. McGowan hypothesizes that crows living in the city now descend from those that were willing to take a chance and move closer to people as shooting waned. Several decades ago, old-timers told him that crows hardly ever appeared in town. These days, he and Clark have banded more than 2,000.

Crows may have gotten cozier with people, but the birds don’t forget insults. Crows even appear to recognize and remember the faces of upsetting humans...Marzluff and other experimenters trapped wild Seattle crows just once while wearing rubber masks sold on the Internet as caveman faces. More than two years after the incident, people of various genders and ages and with different body sizes and walking gaits attracted shrieking, dive-bombing crows when wearing the masks. Yet the same people could walk unmasked with hardly any attention from crows.

Crows can even learn grudges from other crows, the Marzluff team reported in June online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Five years after the original trapping episode, crows that weren’t among the offended birds — and crows that weren’t even hatched at the time of trapping — now scold people wearing the masks. The tendency to mob someone wearing the dangerous face has become twice as common at some Seattle sites and spread at least a kilometer from the original study area, apparently via crow information networks.

Crows are celebrated as clever birds, but some capacity for distinguishing among individual people has even turned up among birds of more humble reputation: free-ranging pigeons. When two similar-looking people wearing coats of different colors routinely set out food in a park in Paris, the pigeons could still tell the friendly one from the one that chased them even when the people switched coats...When Clark is viewing an especially edgy bird, she sometimes puts it at ease by facing off at an angle and pulling out her cell phone for a mimed conversation. Crows seem to assume that people on cell phones ignore their surroundings.

Such studies of urban birds are telling a nuanced tale of animal reactions to previously unencountered environs. A casual observer might assume that animals thriving in the city are just the oblivious, bold species that don’t happen to notice or care if people tramp among them. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Instead, Clark says, “living in a city is probably very cognitively complicated.” A bird in the country seems to flourish with just a few simple rules about humans. “People — bad! Fly away!” as she puts it. To survive among the urban wonders and terrors, though, metropolitan animals are using their native cognitive abilities to distinguish the opportunities from the perils. In the city, it’s caveman — bad, Subaru driver — good.

Science News 27 August 2011 (excerpts)



10.  Notes & Queries, Guardian Weekly

Somewhere under the rainbow

We know what's over the rainbow. What is under it?

• A crock of gold – but it's always at the other end.

Joan Dawson, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

• Troubles, wars, climate change, famine, poverty, financial meltdown – reality.

Elizabeth Keating, Orcemont, France

• In my dictionary (and very sensibly) a raincoat.

Arthur Hay, Carseldine, Queensland, Australia

• A wet Dorothy and a rusty Tin Man.

Roger Morrell, Perth, Western Australia

• Ultra-violets.

John Morris, Oxford, UK

• I don't know, but I'll bet a lemon drop to a chimney top that's not where you'll find Judy Garland.

Jim Dewar, Gosford, NSW, Australia

Are cats ever allergic to humans? 

• Yes, when boys tie tins to their tails. Dick Hedges, Nairobi, Kenya

Do fleas perform a function in nature or are they just here to irritate me and my pets?

• Fleas, together with mosquitoes and all other parasites, perform a function in my world, if not in nature, by providing all the evidence one needs to disprove the idea that the universe was created by a loving intelligent being.

Alan Williams-Key, Madrid, Spain

• While a bane for humans, fleas are welcomed by tapeworms, which allow them to complete their life cycle.

David Tucker, Halle, Germany

• To encourage grooming behaviour in animals?

Nigel Grinter, Chicago, Illinois, US

• Yes: mutual grooming while hunting for them reinforces social cohesion among monkeys and baboons.

Philip Stigger, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

• If we ask of ourselves the same question, we may get a good idea of the flea's answer.

Alex Anderson, Papinbarra, NSW, Australia

• The flea is useful to humans because it reminds them that this world was not created for their benefit alone.

Ted Jenner, Auckland, New Zealand

• They perform fleabotomy.

Bernard Galton, St-Nazaire-sur-Charente, France

Any answers?

Why is the human species so self-destructive?

Bryan Furnass, Canberra, Australia

Communism sucks, capitalism sucks, economics sucks: what are we left with?

David Bye, Göd, Hungary

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