Friday, December 16, 2005

Aliens Among Us

(from a few nights ago...)

Another day's news of humans killing and torturing each other, with the usual elaborate justifications. Another day of their big confused brains and bigger metal hands destroying their own planet heedlessly.

I'd rather write about birds.

While we expend great energy and interest in trying to discover whether there is alien life elsewhere, we not only ignore the alien life all around us that helped make us human, we are busily destroying it, and the basis for all life on the only planet where we know for sure there is any.

What little we did learn over thousands of years of contact, we are rapidly forgetting. We make up all kinds of rules that tell us what animals can and cannot do, and then we ignore evidence that violates those supposed rules. We don't have a clue why birds can do all they can do---fly and navigate over huge distances, bury food in hundreds of locations and remember where it is even when the landscape is covered with snow---with such little brains and little bodies.

The Guardian reviewed a book on why birds sing (the apparent conclusion is: because they can) which began with the following passage: "Starlings are great mimics, which is mainly why Meredith West and Andrew King spent a decade studying nine of them at the University of Indiana. They kept four birds in isolation, while the other five lived "in close proximity to their human caretakers, with extensive and friendly bird- human interaction". Not surprisingly, only these five learned to copy human sounds, which they reproduced "in odd ways". "'Basic research' one said. 'Basic research, it's true, I guess that's right.' One bird, which needed to have its claws treated for an infection, squirmed while held, screaming, 'I have a question!'."

I'm sure they have lots of questions.I grew up on a hill in western Pennsylvania, with stands of trees across the road, and in a hilly lot nearby, and woods not far away. We looked out on a town of roofs parsed with rounded trees. There were rabbits and squirrels around, and when I was quite young, lots of different kinds of butterflies in the wildflowers and "weeds" nearby. And there were birds.

There were robins, cardinals, goldfinches, sparrows and crows in the spring and summer, and occasionally bluejays and bluebirds. Pheasants and even hawks. Once I was looking out during a snowstorm and saw the top of a fir tree become a huge bird with black wings. It might have been an eagle.

Later I lived in an apartment building built into a hill in Pittsburgh. I was on the second floor, and in the front it was a long way down to the sloping street, lots of trees and birds on the wires. One bird, I believe a song sparrow, came back every year, with a distinctive song. I called him Beethoven because he sang the first four notes of the 5th and ended them with a tweet and a trill.

But the back porch was nearly even with a glade of trees where many different kinds of birds came. A visitor remarked she hadn't seen so many different kinds of birds anywhere else in the city (excluding the Aviary, I'm sure.)

When we moved to far northern California, among the many adjustments was the absense of songbirds. We lived in a apartment not far from the community forest. It was patrolled by hawks flying high above us. Crows and gulls were common, and some robins. I saw birds I couldn't identify, but I missed the songs.

Now we live in a house a bit farther away from the forest, and Margaret has gardens in front and back, and she has selected flowers and other plants that attract songbirds. There aren't as many as in PA but there are enough to be a comforting presence.There are many more species and kinds of birds hereabouts, with our mild coastal climate, open and wooded spaces, and our place on the migration routes. No cardinals or goldfinches, though.

Right now the birds that demands our attention are hummingbirds. This is one of the few places in America where hummingbirds are still coming to feeders in mid December. All summer they use ours to supplement the nectar from the flowers, but now with fewer of their favorites flowering, they are draining the feeder quickly. At a certain point, perhaps soon, the feeder will be untouched, and we'll know they're gone. The sun will bleach the red liquid to a transparent pink.

Migration is also partly why they consume so much now. Migrating species bulk up to perhaps twice their usual weight. There are so many species and subspecies, and so little is really know about their migrations, that its impossible to say where they go. Some fly routes from Alaska to Mexico. Some dip 500 miles or so south. Some don't leave at all.

The species most likely to be ours here are Anna's, Allen's and rufous, but there are apparently hybrids as well. I think we have two species coming to our feeder, though I can't be sure. The other day I watched one perching next to the feeder for an unusually long time. There wasn't much left in the feeder, and I refilled it. He (or she) came back, ate and flew away. Maybe that was the point.

It was either younger or a different, smaller species from the two that seem to be coming around in a pair, though they fly at each other furiously as they approach, and only one feeds at a time. Although I have seen two feeding simulaneously other years. I read somewhere recently that hummingbirds would probably be on the endangered species list except for backyard feeders. But the reprieve is probably temporary. Humans are destroying habitat too fast for feeders to keep up.

All reprieves are temporary, but some more temporary than others. Between the time I started writing this dumb little piece and the time that I began this sentence, the state of California by official government action ended the life of a man. He may or may not have murdered people. Since then he has contributed to his fellow man. Though such contributions are hard to quantify, it's more than possible he did more good than some of the people insisting that he had to be killed.

So they killed him. I'm not going into any ethical discussions about this. I'm opposed to capital punishment. Humans should be smarter and better than that. But apparently we aren't. If we destroy ourselves, it will be too bad. If we destroy the birds and the other life beyond some bugs and microbes, it will be well beyond too bad.

We seem determined to be the loneliest species conceivable, even if we succeed in surviving. But it would only mean that we would be only one of the last species to die out. Many large animals are well on their way to extinction--the great apes, the great cats. Some birds may make it, though. The evidence grows that they are descendants of the dinosaurs. They survived the last catastrophe, somehow they may survive the one we're making.

Mountain lions are occasionally seen in the community forest. A cougar was seen this summer on this side of the freeway, not a quarter mile away.