Monthly Archives: October 2015

Just Passing Through

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A flock of homing pigeons has taken up residence on our roof. How do we know they’re homing pigeons? They’re all banded, they’re very sleek and well-fed, and they seem a bit lost.

They stand on our skylights and look down at us with beaky expectation, as if we know what to do better than they. I think what they’d like to do is move on, but they’re not quite sure to where.

It’s migration season all over the world, creatures on the move. And whether out of habit, necessity or instinct, migration is always a dicey venture.

Billions of birds migrate every year, and every year it gets a little harder for them. Ornithologists at the Max-Planck Institute estimate that up to 10 billion migratory song birds don’t make it from their point of departure to their destination, and statistics are pointing to a 50 percent overall loss of the world’s songbird population in just the past 40 years.

Five of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps. Photos: PK Read

Four of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps.
Photos: PK Read

What’s happening?

There are the old culprits of hunting, with some cultures clinging to archaic trapping methods of capturing tiny birds that make barely a mouthful.
I think of these habits, which are worldwide and involve different birds in each region, and when they must have begun.
Was it out of a sense of longing, that the eating something so delicate and that sang so sweetly would somehow impart some of that fleeting beauty to clumsy, earthbound humans? Was it out of basic hunger and the seasonal availability? Was it out of a sense of plenty, just so many of damn things that putting a few dozen in a pie would make no difference?
These days, it seems like people do it just because they can. And old habits die hard.

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Source: Movebank

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Click here for a beautiful film of routes across Eurasia.
Source: Movebank

But beyond hunting, there are the bugaboos of climate change and, probably most relevant, habitat loss. Not just the habitats where the birds overwinter or breed, but the flyover areas. The navigational abilities of the migrating flocks are considerable, but can’t necessarily account for all the new human settlements in areas that used to be resting zones, or dark areas now illuminated by city lights, or absent wetlands, or all those windows that look like sky.

The good news is that there are a number of technological innovations and legislative solutions underway to try and stop some of the songbirds from ending up against a window instead of their summer home, or being confused by light smog.

What will our visiting pigeons do to find their way home? I wish I knew where they needed to go – they certainly keep looking in at me as if I do.

Hopefully, they’ll just be circling, as they do right now, and the right flight path will suddenly occur to them.IMG_1857

 

Furrows of Unseen New

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The cold weather is settling in these days, and no matter how long or hot the summer was, it looks like we will still get a real winter as its counterbalance.

The lush leaves of summer are falling on empty fields and it’s that season of bleak acceptance that it will be a while before it gets truly warm again.

It’ll get darker before it gets lighter again.

There was the news this week that follows on something I’ve written about before, the epic sea chase of one of the sea’s most notorious illegal fishing boats, the Nigerian-registered Thunder, by the environmental activist vessel, the Sea Shepherd.

Fallen leaves on bare furrows. All photos: PKR

Fallen leaves on bare furrows.
All photos: PKR

The world’s longest recorded pursuit on the high seas ended in July, after 110 days and 10,000 nautical miles, with the captain of the Thunder deliberately sinking his own ship and the entire cargo to prevent any evidence that could incriminate them.

Who rescued the crew? Why, the Sea Shepherd, of course – but not before boarding the sinking ship and retrieving some of the frozen, and pirated, Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) at the heart of the whole chase.

The story of the Thunder makes for grim reading – besides the industrial-scale poaching, the flouting of international laws and including a side story of alleged human trafficking victims that made up the Indonesian deck crew – there is a silver lining.

Because this week, a court in São Tomé and Príncipe, the island nation off the west coast of Africa where the Thunder crew was taken after rescue, convicted the captain and two senior crew of multiple charges linked to illegal fishing, including forgery, pollution, and damage to the environment. photo 2-3

Lacking jurisdiction to prosecute illegal fishing in the Antarctic, the courts nonetheless found charges they could make stick – the Nigerian flag under which the Thunder had been operating had been rescinded by the Nigerian government because the company that allegedly owned the Thunder didn’t exist; the Chilean government had stripped the Chilean-born captain, Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo, of his fishing license in 2014.

The three convicted Thunder crew have each been sentenced to almost three years in prison and collectively fined $17 million – which I’m assuming their yet-to-be identified employers (some Spanish fishing companies are under investigation) won’t pay, so unless these guys actually kept bank accounts somewhere for all those fishing profits, it’s a symbolic fine to indicate the magnitude of the crime.photo 1-3Pulling back to focus on the larger picture, this latest and very rare conviction is a step forward, perhaps one that provides more of a template than more direct approach of Palau to fighting illegal fishing – the Pacific island nation has started seizing boats suspected of illegal fishing and burning them to the water line.

Here in France, there’s seed out in the garden birdfeeders for migrating birds on their way south, and for the hardy little souls that remain here over the winter, so that they can find spring again and reproduce.

The bulbs are going into the chilling earth to get the shiver they require to germinate next year. The winter wheat is being seeded out under circles of falling hedgerow leaves.

In seasons and in the fight against illegal fishing, some endings beget other beginnings, even if we can’t quite see them yet.

Speaking the Language

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I went to bed late last night, it was easily midnight or beyond, and as I lay there on the edge of sleep, I heard an unaccustomed sound. It sounded like…birdsong. I listened closely. It was, indeed, birdsong. And not just little chirps or the otherworldly radar sounds of an owl.

There were two birds, calling to one another, long, complicated tunes that sounded like they were being played on a glass harmonica.

My first thought was: Nightingale.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale. From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale.
From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book

I thought of those lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

JULIET
Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east…

Imagine knowing, eyes closed and in a darkened room, what time of day it is just by the type of birdsong on the air.

I thought to myself that I had no real idea what a lark sounded like, nor for that matter, a nightingale.

Rather, it was night time, the birdsong didn’t sound owl-like. It wasn’t the sharp chirps of the ever-present flock of sparrows that live in the vines on our house, and I know nightingales sing at night. Deductive reasoning, not actual familiarity.

The above video shows 3-D digital sound sculptures of nightingale and canary song, created by Australian artist Andy Thomas, who begins his work “by listening to the sound carefully, going for a walk, and concentrating on the sound.”

But do they sing in autumn?

Yes, apparently, because they are on a migratory route to the south for the winter.

Research has shown that songbirds share similar ‘gene products’ for vocalizations that humans use for speech. So what we hear as song might be, for the birds, a rich conversation, good as a book, engaging as a movie. Better, probably, because it’s theirs.

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation. Artist: Andy Thomas

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation.
Artist: Andy Thomas

After all, other research has shown that dolphins call each other by name, using a ‘signature whistle’ to identify themselves, and using others’ signatures to call individuals. And let’s not forget the mice who ‘sing’ to each other in ultrasonic melodies, and have vocalization brain patterns that resemble humans – and songbirds.

Think of all the conversations we are missing because we either can’t hear them, or don’t speak the language, or have forgotten how to listen.