Thursday, March 16, 2006

64. Nature teaches us lessons

The discourse of nature is boundless in all its splendor, conjecture, and obscurity. This endless exploration accommodates all theories and areas of study, so much so that scientists can spend their entire careers embarked on a journey to uncover just one of its secrets. This exploration often offers social and even political insights into our own civilizations, history and evolution. In this respect, people can see nature in a variety of ways, such as beautiful, symmetrical, harsh or even metaphoric. In addition, some take great aim in distancing themselves from it, while others embrace its significance.

Any study of nature and its ecosystems finds millions of stories to be told. From plant lifecycles to habit adaptations each species has a tale of history, survival and incredulity to be shared. The challenges that many of these species have faced, experienced or overcome in order to pass on their genes reveal the complexity, cruelty and competition of nature. As human beings, we are so far removed from nature that I think it is easy to lose perspective of life itself.

I have a subtle African print entitled "Essence of Survival" that reads, "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed...every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle...when the sun comes up, you'd better be running." In nature, there is no such thing as a day off.

Fortunately, not all methods of survival are so straightforward, even if the competition is no less intense. To illustrate one of any number of examples, the Brown-headed Cowbird has adopted interesting survival skills, both promiscuous and parasitic- although by no means eccentrically unique by nature's standards.

A regular to the area in general and our backyard in particular, it seems quite normal in its disposition. The name comes from, as one might guess, its affinity to cows and other livestock (actually it was known as the "buffalo bird," but after human beings killed all the buffalo, the birds adapted to cows). The birds would follow the herding animals, eating the insects disturbed in its path. The travel made nesting difficult and required some adaptation on the bird's part.

Brown-headed Cowbirds do not build nests; rather the females lay their eggs in the nests of other (usually smaller) birds. She enters the nest and in less than one minute, she disposes of a one or two of the hosts' birds' eggs and lays hers in their place. The cowbird eggs hatch slightly before the rest of the nest and develop faster. The host bird often takes in the misplaced chick, even though it may kill or have killed her offspring. Over 150 documented species of birds have raised Brown-headed Cowbird young, as the female may lay as many as 40 eggs per season. The Brown-headed Cowbirds do not commit to another as a mate (although some dispute this), build a nest, or raise their own offspring. (Hmm, maybe they do live the "good life"- no spouse, no house, no kids!)

The Brown-headed Cowbird has been successful not only in its clever adaptations, but also thanks to humans, which have opened new habitats through deforestation (cowbirds prefer the fields). The potential impact of cowbirds is to the many songbirds whose nests they damage and whose offspring they kill. Several species are becoming threatened by its parasitic nature, such as Kirtland's Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, and Least Bell's Vireo. Some songbirds, however, have caught on and have begun displacing the cowbird eggs. (Imagine the conversation between songbird mates... "Honey, where did this egg come from?")

Unfortunately, as the tale too often goes, humans decide which birds we do and do not like, and in preference of the songbirds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds are now trapped and killed in some areas- even if many of the scientific facts surrounding its nature are disputable. The Audubon, as late as 1997, disputed some of the negative claims made against cowbirds, while noting that nearly $800,000 is spent annually protecting other species from cowbirds. Perhaps this observation by Stephan I Rothstein of the University of California, sums it up best, "People hate cowbirds, yet people love hawks. Hawks catch adult birds and rip them to pieces. Maybe people hate cowbirds because they're tricky."

Brown-headed Cowbirds are just one of thousands of fascinating species that engage scientists and the public alike. Its beauty or its nuisance, I suppose, is a matter of perspective and preference. Personally, it appears that they are making practical use of their competitive and adaptive advantages. I think every species and each individual deserves a fair chance- for that is the best deal nature can afford to offer.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

63. Our treatment must evolve

My best friend, Easton, whose age now wears a distinguished graying about his face, engages in a ritualistic howling at the siren sound of ambulances and police cars. Nose postured to the heavens, he belts out an uninhibited, long-winded yell- whose distinct tone is capable of being heard several houses down the road. Despite the fact that in a nice sweater and glasses he looks like a well-aged college professor, his animalistic digression reminds me that his genetic history still leans to his seemingly ancient evolution from the wolf. For, as the experts explain it, howling is a type of communication in response to what the dog believes is a call from another dog that is far away. Wolves apparently use it when they become separated from their pack as a way of reuniting.

My wife and I find the endeavor amusing, to say the least- first attempting to contain our laughter and then, embarrassingly and mockingly, joining in. Unfazed by our playful shenanigans, Easton fully commits to this practice until the siren reaches an inaudible distance. As we emerge from this evolutionary parade, Easton seems to awake from the sleepwalking state with a matter-of-fact type pose that says, "An evolved-wolf's gotta do what an evolved wolf's gotta do!"

Sometimes it is easy to forget that even our most civilized canines are still animals- encoded with over 40 million years of genetic traits and tendencies. In fact, the DNA of wolves and dogs are still nearly identical. Their selection and success as a species, in respect to humans, is offered by several theories. The most popular suppose that wolf pups from thousands of years ago were adopted, with the least aggressive serving as the best companions, or, alternatively, that they evolved as a niche species living from human refuse. Either way, we are stuck with each other now, for dogs left to the wild today would have a pretty tough go at it- especially many of the specialty breeds that no longer have the talents necessary for survival. It seems man's best friend needs us now, as biologist James Serpell notes, "The domestic dog exists precariously in the no-man's-land between the human and nonhuman . . . neither person nor beast."

Unfortunately, this relationship can turn out to be confusing for both humans and the dog. Where exactly does the dog fit in the family unit? When is the dog supposed to act like a human and when is it permitted to act like an evolved wolf? One moment the dog is out hunting and fishing through mountains and streams with his "best friend," the next some little four-year old is smacking the dog upside its head for barking at the casual passerby. Likewise, some dogs make the family vacation to Florida, while others sit in the corner as an item of property utilized and cared for only when called upon.

The relationship, of course, is dependent upon one's attitude and understanding toward dogs specifically, and animals in general. As annoying as it can be when Easton and company are chasing other animals, knocking things over playing with each other, or barking at other dogs, I see them as engaged. As much as I do not want them to beg at the dinner table, I know they are acting on their most imprinted instincts. And, in a unique manner, I actually feel bad that they have to beg- for it seems demeaning for them to have such dependence on us, especially since I know that if left to them, they would be happy to go out and catch their own food. At the same time, in my hypocrisy, I am embarrassed and attempt to control them when their excitement for guests resembles a Barbarian attack on Rome.

In the treatment of our dogs, and other animals if we must keep them, I prefer the golden rule. Ask yourself, if you were a dog, how would you want to be treated. It is amazing that these animals, which provide unconditional love, companionship and loyalty, are so often neglected or mistreated. Our flawed perspective is that on one hand we both acknowledge and view them as "animals," then on the other, punish them when they act like one. Their unconditional love should be reciprocated; flaws and all, as both humans and canines work through this anomalous evolutionary relationship.

When the clouds darken and the rains threaten, the slightest thunder sends Easton, that favorite wolf descendant of mine, scampering to the smallest and darkest place in the house. Occasionally faced with exit impediments, such as a closed bathroom or basement door, his next option is at my feet, tightly curled and intensely shivering in fear. If he did not seem so embarrassed at the behavior, I might ask him about that wolf lineage. For how is it that far-off thunderstorms make evolved wolves such an emotional wreck.