Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Wright On Sparrows

The big book of little brown jobs is here at last. The enviably erudite Rick Wright has written a very readable reference guide to the LBJs, sparrow division. It’s not a field guide: the hardcover large format precludes that. (I presume a paperback will follow; there’s also an ebook version, but you know those are bad for you, right?) And, as the beginning of the introduction states, it’s not the typical birder’s book. “Most bird books treat their subject as one entirely separate from the cultural world that humans inhabit, focusing exclusively on what for the past 2.500 years we have called “natural history”: identification, behavior, and ecological and evolutionary relationships. But birds have a human history, too, […].” Yes, each of the 76 species of Passerellidae family sparrows covered here has an entry that discusses field identification in depth, range and geographic variation, and subspecies. The photographs are excellent (each is noted to place, month, and photographer). But the heart of the book is made up of the stories of the birds and the bird people. “Everything we think we know, someone had to learn,” writes Wright, who’s blog also testifies to his deep familiarity with earlier ornithological work. “A fuller awareness of the slow evolution of ornithological knowledge over the centuries can inspire modern birders both to greater ambition and to greater patience with their own development. If scientific ornithology is still debating the status, indeed the very existence of, for example, the Cassiar Junco a century after its discovery, we field observers can be more comfortable in our own uncertainties.”For instance: the Little Sparrow, Fasciated Finch, Ferruginous Finch, or the Shepherd. These are all old names for the Song Sparrow, now known biologically as Melospiza melodia. Virtually cosmopolitan in my experience, by which I mean they turn up in most habitat I visit around NYC, Song Sparrows were the first birds I noticed having accents in their song. The ones on Nantucket don’t sound the same as the ones here. (They do peculiar things with their “r” — ahh — up there….). Turns out they’re “one of the most geographically diverse birds in the world.” In the past, ornithologists have counted up to 50 subspecies; today it’s about two dozen.Very much an addition to your hardcore natural history bookshelf.

(Sparrows from my blog archives, from the top: Field, Chipping, White-throated, Fox, Song, Olive, Grasshopper — the latter two photographed in Texas)

Plane, Crows

You know I spend a lot of time in Green-Wood Cemetery, which is virtually right next door. But what you may not know is that the cemetery archives are a fascinating trove of material about those interred there. Recently, I had the privilege of looking over some of the material with archivist Helena St. James -Rotwang.

We found the old color photo above. It peaked our curiosity among the papers of the late Look photographer D. S. Phillips. This is the last image of the legendary aviatrix Bobby (Sue) Kleindorfer, who disappeared in the Hackensack Meadowlands in 1943 after taking off from Floyd Bennett Field here in Brooklyn. According to Phillips’s notes, this image was captured by his FastColour camera just minutes before all contact with Kleindorfer’s plane vanished. The conspiracy-minded have long pointed their conspiracy fingers to the Hackensack Rectangle, a supposed “energy field” or “interstellar portal” which has allegedly swallowed numerous mobsters, automobiles, and even entire industries and theme parks over the years.

But this image suggests that birds may have bought the plane down. A flock of crows to be exact. Whatever the story, St. James-Rotwang and I hope to interest more media attention in the story. Will we ever know the crows’ motivation?


Here’s some more about today’s date and its cultural significance.

More Whitman

“Nature marches in procession, in sections, like the corps of an army. All have done much for me, and still do. But for the last two days it has been the great wild bee, the humble-bee, or “bumble,” as the children call him. As I walk, or hobble*, from the farm-house down to the creek, I traverse the before-mention’d lane, fenced by old rails, with many splits, splinters, breaks, holes, &c, the choice habitat of those crooning, hairy insects. Up and down and by and between these rails, they swarm and dart and fly in countless myriads. As I wend slowly along, I am often accompanied with a moving cloud of them. They play a leading part in my morning, midday or sunset rambles, and often dominate the landscape in a way I never before thought of—fill the long lane, not by scores or hundreds only, but by thousands. Large and vivacious and swift, with wonderful momentum and a loud swelling perpetual hum, varied now and then by something almost like a shriek, they dart to and fro, in rapid flashes, chasing each other, and (little things as they are,) conveying to me a new and pronounc’d sense of strength, beauty, vitality and movement. Are they in their mating season? or what is the meaning of this plenitude, swiftness, eagerness, display? As I walk’d, I thought I was follow’d by a particular swarm, but upon observation I saw that it was a rapid succession of changing swarms, one after another.” ~ Walt Whitman, Specimen Days. More Whitman in these e-leaves.

*After a paralytic stroke in 1873.

Whitman also notes the sounds of the grasshoppers, cicadas, katydids, and crickets. It was, after all, a world without the chemical warfare of herbicides/insecticides/fungicides, a world without hydrocarbon-based industrial farming. Insect life was unimaginably rich in comparison to the deserts we’ve made since.

People were proving their modern mettle, though: the last mass Passenger Pigeon hunts were in the 1870s and 1880s. The last great Bison slaughters were in the early 1870s.

In just the last couple days in the Republican assault on America:

Administrator in charge to hurting the poor and disabled is funneling taxpayer money to her GOP cronies.

EPA panel of industry shills advocating for more air pollution.

The militarized budget.

The nominee to head the Department of Interior works for poisoners.

White House foxes in charge of ethical chickens.

Garbage President of the white nationalists mocks asylum-seekers.

The unending lies of Donald Trump.

(Vicious and moronic son Don Don seems to have been unaware that Pulitzer Prizes have been granted to fiction for a century now.)


If there’s a “they” in the distant geological future, they’re sure going to wonder about the layer of concrete surrounding the world. Maybe they’ll think we worshipped it.

They’d be right, wouldn’t they?

Check out this hypothesis on the locking-in of atmospheric carbon in equatorial mountain building/limestone production, which these authors suggest led to the last three great ice ages. Limestone is used in concrete production, so we’re reversing the process, and releasing the carbon.

When beekeeping was illegal in NYC, I was a big advocate of overturning the rule. What could be bad about honeybees, right? Well, considering that the average hive may have 60,000 bees and that the flora and fauna of North America did not evolve with them, maybe something…? It takes a lot of nectar- and pollen- harvesting for these domesticated animals to survive. What’s their effect on solitary bee species? Could it somehow be beneficial? Come on, really? What’s the effect of 60,000 cows on a grasslands?

As I’ve been exploring the bumblebee and other species of native bees, I’ve been having qualms for a while now on the agricultural, even industrial, use of honeybees. And now the science is starting to come in. Here’s a new paper: “Our results show that beekeeping reduces the diversity of wild pollinators and interaction links in the pollination networks. It disrupts their hierarchical structural organization causing the loss of interactions by generalist species, and also impairs pollination services by wild pollinators through reducing the reproductive success of those plant species highly visited by honeybees. High-density beekeeping in natural areas appears to have lasting, more serious negative impacts on biodiversity than was previously assumed.”


An excellent article on birding — or photographing wildflowers — while black.

A Cedar Plum

“DID you ever chance to hear the midnight flight of birds passing through the air and darkness overhead, in countless armies, changing their early or late summer habitat? It is something not to be forgotten. A friend called me up just after 12 last night to mark the peculiar noise of unusually immense flocks migrating north (rather late this year.) In the silence, shadow and delicious odor of the hour, (the natural perfume belonging to the night alone,) I thought it rare music. You could hear the characteristic motion—once or twice “the rush of mighty wings,” but oftener a velvety rustle, long drawn out—sometimes quite near—with continual calls and chirps, and some song-notes. It all lasted from 12 till after 2. Once in a while the species was plainly distinguishable; I could make out the bobolink, tanager, Wilson’s thrush, white-crown’d sparrow, and occasionally from high in the air came the notes of the plover.”

~ Walt Whitman, Specimen Days.

I was told recently that this book is hard to find in print, but here are two versions: the Library of America Whitman: Poetry and Prose includes it, and what patriot is without a copy of this volume? Also, Melville House has a handsome paperback edition of Specimen Days and Collect in its Neversink Library.

The name of this fascinating MH series comes from this passage in Melville’s White Jacket: “I was by no means the only reader of books on board the Neversink. Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book- stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubt-less contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.”

Both Whitman and Melville celebrate their bicentennial birthdays this year. Backyard & Beyond is on the case(s).

Solidarity with Youth Climate Strike




Greta Thunberg.

Dogs of Prospect, Again

I used to spend so much time in Prospect Park! It’s farther away now, but that’s not the reason I’m there so infrequently now.

Half a dozen Red-winged Blackbirds were burbling with Spring there the other day. A Song Sparrow was singing, tree buds were clearly on the edge of bursting, mosses waved their tiny spore capsules, and was that a Brown Thrasher???Overhead, a Red-shouldered Hawk, an uncommon sight anywhere in the borough. So far, so good, right?

Turns out this was the first time I’d been to Prospect since October. Had to make way for two trucks, two carts, and a police car on the walking paths. Our friend, who had come from Manhattan to ice skate, decided that the hideous pop music blaring from the speakers at the rink was so horrible she would skip the ice entirely. Across the lake from the rink is the Peninsula. We watched as two professional dogwalkers unleashed their packs there. The tragedy of the commons in action. Of course, that historical lesson is usually misinterpreted: elites engineered the destruction of the commons because they enclosed and dispossessed everyone/everything else; it was the first great act of privatization.

So at least ten dogs proceeded to run riot in a woodland area where dogs are always supposed be leashed. These guys probably do this every day. I doubt they’re picking up every last pile of shit their charges deposit in the woods. Remember, it’s called canine distemper. Dogs can be vaccinated against it, but they can also all spread it.

Just the day before, a bird-watcher had seen an unleashed dog kill a squirrel in the Vale. There’s virtually no enforcement of city leash law by NYPD or Parks Enforcement Patrol. Yes, that’s a link to an eight-year-old post, but all that’s changed since is that now there are more dogs and the dog-owners are more entitled.

The Parks Department and the neoliberal Prospect Park Alliance consider dog-owners to be good “stakeholders,” who will advocate for parks, or, let’s be more specific, parks as dog runs. Those who can afford to hire dog walkers are also potential funders. Private money must be catered to and the PPA prioritizes funders. Is this why the leash laws are unenforced? Anyway, this wild west of unleashed dogs sure succeeds in pushing me away from this public park.


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