Archive for May, 2018

  • Blog
  • May 31st, 2018

LISTENING TO THE MOCKINGBIRD

By Joel M. Vance

To some it is the song of the angels; to others it is fingernails on the dark blackboard of sleep.

The mockingbird is a master improviser on the melodies of other composers, but he (and it is a he that disturbs the silence of night) can be less than enchanting to the light sleeper when the bird riffs at 2 a.m.

Most of the singing is between midnight and 4 a.m. which should catch any light sleeper with the window open right in the crosshairs of irritation. Mockers in full musical spate love to be illuminated, either by a streetlight or a full moon. Tin Pan Alley songwriters are fond of the moon in June as a romantic hook on which to pin lyrics; mockingbirds equally so.

When we lived in town a mocker used the streetlight pole across the street as its podium and sang incessantly. I would sit on the front stoop late at night and listen and, rather than being irritating, I enjoyed the concert. The neighbor nearest the light pole did not share my enthusiasm. A lineman for the power company he donned his climbers one night and disconnected the street light.

The mockingbird, deprived of a spotlight, found a different theater.

There are other birds that imitate, notably catbirds and brown thrashers. But none is as versatile and untiring as the gray bird with the white wing flashes. In addition to fellow birds, mockers create melodies of their own and also imitate barking dogs, squeaking gates and police sirens.

There may be more than two dozen different imitations in a mocker’s repertoire and ornithologists have catalogued more than 200 different imitated sounds (but brown thrashers claim the record for versatility with a documented 1,100 different song types and an estimated 3,000 songs). The mockingbird’s ardent song most commonly is the love ballad of a bachelor bird, though both sexes sing, including mated males—just not as persistently as the guy without a gal.

The male will mark a territory just as surely as does a dog…only with music instead of the dog’s more elemental tribute. Some lovelorn bachelor birds will sing all night long, which tends to drive insomniac urban dwellers up the bedroom wall. Possibly the ultimate avian nightmare would be a mockingbird and whippoorwill singing all night, then a woodpecker drumming on your metal drainpipe at dawn. Most bosses would not accept this as an excuse for lethargy on the job, no matter how valid it is.

There is method behind the mad frenzy of song—ornithologists have discovered that the more varied a male mocker’s song, the more likely it is to interest a female. Once mockingbirds establish a relationship it generally lasts a long time, often for life. And once a bachelor male finds a sweetheart he doesn’t sing nearly as fervently.

The pair nests in low bushes or trees and a mocker’s nest to it is a sacred trust, to be defended fiercely. A mocker protecting a nest is fearless and will dive bomb a human, cat or dog like an avian character from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. Mockingbirds are prolific, laying between 2-6 eggs which hatch in just under two weeks. Two weeks later the young are ready to leave the nest. Both parents feed the young.

By their nature mockingbirds are combative and often engage in aerial dogfights as frenzied as a scene from a World War One sky battle between the Lafayette Escadrille and Baron Von Richtofen’s Flying Circus. They’ll dominate a feeder (they feed on insects and fruit) and even will attack their image in a mirror, eyes wild and feathers flared in anger. They won’t come to a seed-feeder (although they might guard it against other birds just on general principles), but might snack at a suet feeder or on grapes and berries.

Mockingbirds are most musical during the time of year when people are most likely to hear them—from early spring through late summer. Generally the singing period runs from February through August. The birds often raise their wings in jerky fashion, a trait called “wing flashing.” Some ornithologists believe they do this to scare up insects from the grass, but chances are they do it because they’re so inordinately pleased with themselves.

Catbirds usually sing their different songs once, thrashers twice…but mockingbirds repeat each call three times and switch rapidly from one mimicked bird to the next, four or five in a row. It’s an in-your-face performance and a little wing flashing to cap it off is a curtain call at the end of a masterful performance.

In winter, mockingbirds migrate south from northern states and have another singing period to establish a feeding territory. So, Southern states have a much longer time to enjoy mockingbird music, which perhaps is why five of them have chosen the mocker as the state bird: Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. According to legend, the Texans chose the mockingbird because it is “a fighter for the protection of his home, falling if need be in its defense, like any true Texan.” Shades of the Alamo!

As a state bird, the mocker ranks third behind the cardinal and the Western meadowlark (seven redbirds, six meadowlarks and five mockingbirds).

But as a song subject it’s well ahead. You won’t see hit parade numbers written for crows or buzzards, although robins and bluebirds have had their day on the Top 40.

No song about birds has endured like “Listen To The Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1854, and a standard ever since. Hawthorne is as intriguing as the bird he wrote about.

Yes “he.” Alice was a pseudonym for Septimus Winner, whose mother was a Hawthorne (related to writer Nathaniel Hawthorne). He made instruments and taught several, including guitar and banjo and wrote many popular songs of the day, none as enduring as “Listen.” Winner put words to a melody by Richard Milburn, who worked in his music store, and “Mockingbird” was born. For all his business acumen, Winner blew it by selling the publishing rights to the song for $5. It subsequently sold about 20 million sheet music copies.

It really is a weeper about “Hallie” lying in her grave o’er which the mockingbird sings, not about the bird. And it’s not the lyrics that turn people on– more musicians have developed virtuoso instrumentals of the melody than have learned Winner’s sappy words.

Fats Domino found his thrill on Mockingbird Hill. Carly Simon revealed that “he,” whoever that was, intended to buy her a mockingbird, but if it didn’t sing “he’s gonna buy me a diamond ring.” Not much chance for her and that ring—mockingbirds rarely don’t sing. And there is a Rhode Island rock band called the MockingBirds.

The mockingbird also is a symbol for innocence in Harper Lee’s great novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “Shoot all the blue jays you want,” Atticus Finch tells his two kids, Scout and Jem. “But remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Blue jays and their devotees might not agree and it’s a cinch the wildlife officials wouldn’t.

As tempted as the sleepless human might be to go for his gun when beset by a night-singing mocker, shooting is not an option. “It’s enough to raise the dead!” he growls through gritted teeth.

If so maybe there’s hope for poor Hallie yet….
-30-

Read More
  • Blog
  • May 23rd, 2018

PACK UP ALL YOUR KARES AND WOES

By Joel M. Vance

Hell, as visualized by Dante, the Italian poet has a pit of ice at the lowest level, presumably where if you bore a hole and jig a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head you will not be rewarded with a trophy walleye. When you die you don’t go to your dream fishing honey hole, but to the hellhole of Stephen King’s fevered imagination. And, instead of a ice fishing augurs, you will find demons with augurs to bore through you!

The hero of Dante’s epic Inferno, Odysseus, missed one level on his harrowing tour of the underworld. The one where you spend eternity in a commercial campground on a hot summer holiday weekend.

Maybe he couldn’t get a reservation. Those who inhabit this Inferno on Earth don’t realize they’re in Hell! They enjoy it. They are there by choice.

Once I spent time in a Kampground (always spelled with a “K”– in fact they’ll rent you a Kamping Kabin) in northeast Pennsylvania on the Fourth of July weekend. I took notes on the experience because our tattered tent did not have air-conditioning nor satellite television. The summary reads somewhat like Dante’s Inferno updated.

Hot and dusty, no rain, but the humidity for it, dust haze in the air, Tunkhannock Creek low and with a reek of decomposing algae. It was just slightly more agreeable than parking next to a sewage lagoon (something I suffered through once, sleeping in a cab over camper owned by a fellow hunter who was obviously olfactorily impaired). A sleek dude with reflective sunglasses and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth turns Polish sausages on a barbecue grill. He wears no shirt; he is flabby. His mate, inside the screened patio, sets the table, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

A couple walks ahead of me, about five- five and 250 each. It’s like watching a team of elephants. He is shirtless and she wears a T-shirt big enough to host a Shriner’s barbecue. Their four legs weigh more than my family. Later I see them with their family, a mammoth group except for one cadaverous man whose shoulders hunch as if he were caving in. He is smoking a cigarette.

Some RVs have grown roots: permanent carpeted patios, often screened, one even with a wooden picket fence containing a large, noisy dog. Every patio is festooned with Chinese lanterns–more in this Kampground than there are in all of China. The trailer across from me is hung with decorations intricately constructed of plastic drinking glasses. Dusk comes and the proud owner throws a switch and they become lamps, glittering as a thousand jewels.

Nearly every “yard” (that tiny wasteland of sunblasted grass and dust) sports plywood figures–Woody Woodpecker or a little Dutch boy and girl or a frog on a mushroom saying “Hi!” The plastic daisy is endemic. Several trailers have full-sized refrigerators outside (and probably a deep freeze or walk-in cooler inside). One has two enormous planters tastefully built of discarded automobile tires. The flowers, predictably, are petunias, the wimps of the botanical world. Garfield the Cat clings to many a window in the Kampground. If ever there was a cat that deserves the ultimate fate at the animal shelter, it is Garfield, the surly, arrogant little animal-that-should-be-euthanized.

The Kampground pool is jammed. “Swimming” is a stand-up procedure because no one has enough room to go prone in a swimming position. Everyone is shouting and the din is terrific. It is not, as my friend Marty Malin says, “silent, like the ‘P’ in swimming.” There is the inevitable rec room (not recreation room) with Space Invaders and other games to provide mental stimulus for the Kamp adolescents so they won’t have to torment their unwrinkled brains with books.

This Kampground features a hayride, a rubber-tired wagon pulled by a small tractor. There are about a dozen kids and a very pregnant woman (perhaps she does not know she is pregnant) riding on it. A small boy is throwing the hay out by handsful as they move along. By the fourth circuit of the Kampground the pregnant woman begins to look as if she will deliver. While cab drivers are famous for delivering babies in the back seat of their vehicles, I doubt the driver, a slack- jawed teenager with a thriving case of acne, will be much good in a birthing crisis.

A father and son walk in front of our motorhome, sharing a warm moment together. They have matching sunglasses, so you can tell they are close. Ward Cleaver turns over in his grave. A man is walking a hairy little dog. He is a veteran of the Kampground, for he is wearing a plastic glove on his left hand and when the dog pauses to make a hard little deposit, the man scoops it up like Ozzie Smith fielding a hot one. Give that man a Brown Glove award!

This is not a campground like one where I once camped in northern Minnesota, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, where Big Falls roared just over the bank from the hookups and where a full campground was six vehicles. The roar in this Kamp is from incessant and heavy traffic on the nearby Interstate and is as irritating as the tumbling waters in Minnesota were soothing.

Many years ago when I was a wannabe soldier in ROTC, spending six lovely weeks at Fort. Sill Oklahoma, learning how to be abused and humiliated by superior artillerymen— everybody on that godforsaken military post was superior to Rotsy tourists— we spent several nights under the stars doing something or other military (I conveniently forgot what if I ever knew to begin with).

If there is anything charming about Fort Sill at night it is that the sky is uncluttered by ambient light, and there is none of that annoying civilization to disturb your tranquility. Instead of closing ourselves inside pup tents, several of us spread our shelter halves under the stars and stared into infinity. If ants ever gaze up into the night sky, I know how they must feel–pitifully insignificant. The memory would be more impressive except that all along we had the knowledge that at 5:30 AM a sergeant with the empathy of a prison guard would motivate us by screaming obscenities welcoming us into another day so we could spend many hours under a broiling sun listening to the ear shattering blast of 105 mm howitzers.

My camping life has evolved gradually over the years, as has my concept of how best to enjoy being outdoors and living a simple life. I graduated from a pup tent to a family size contraption devised by the Coleman company, to confound incompetent campers like me with yards of material and aluminum poles all cleverly designed to collapse in the middle of the night, in the middle of a windstorm. One night on a Current River gravel bar the tent buckled on top of us and we crawled into the starlit night, counted heads, and realized that Andy, our youngest son, was missing. Ultimately we discovered him under the debris of the tent, still sound asleep and irritable at being disturbed—not by the wind or the tent failure, but by us waking him up.

Another time the entire family camped in that same tent under a looming old tree and, wonder of wonders, the tent did not collapse. The next morning, with the help of family members who understand the complexities of tent construction, we folded up our portable accommodations and hit the road. Later we discovered that a violent storm had blown through the campground after we left and the huge tree broke into pieces and fell exactly where our tent had been. I interpreted this as an omen that perhaps tent camping was not the safest way to ensure family longevity.

I bought a succession of one man tents, none of which provided any more comfort than a bed of nails. All seemed to magnify rocks, roots, and any other tiny profusion beneath the tent floor, no matter how many layers of air mattress or other padding material I lay down. Among those tents was one which trapped the moisture which I apparently exuded copiously during the night and every time I woke and jostled the tent I created a mini monsoon. For a long time, I opted to rough it when I went on the road for the Conservation Department, sleeping in my tiny tents, saving money for the state and feeling grandly charitable, if also grandly uncomfortable. Gradually it dawned on me that I was on an expense account and did not have to sleep on a bed of rocks while gamely gathering material for outdoor articles, but instead could opt for a motel room where I could watch nature in the raw on the National Geographic Channel.

It did not occur to me that this also was a signal that I also was getting older, softer and wimpier.

So when the era of the recreational vehicle came along it was a simple jump from staying in motel rooms to staying in motel rooms that moved from one place to another. However, I soon discovered that Motel Eight does not gulp gasoline at an alarming and expensive rate, and, the first time I was faced with emptying a holding tank, I learned to appreciate the fact that using the facilities in a Motel Eight and pressing the flush lever was infinitely more convenient and infinitely less potentially disgusting than figuring out the complexities of a dump station.

Once, deep in the Ozarks, I stayed in a decrepit motor court, too primitive even to be called a motel. But it had a sagging bed, scarcely more comfortable than sleeping on a river gravel bar, and instead of a flat screen television set with the National Geographic Channel, it had an antique radio which played scratchy low power stations, populated by evangelists and gospel groups. It cost $2.50 for the night which seemed excessive for what I got, but still was far less than the eight dollars a night charged by the original incarnation of Motel Eight.

So, now in my geriatric wimp hood, at the end of a long day of challenging the outdoors, outwitting hungry wolf packs, dropping charging grizzly bears inches from my boot tops, fleeing from cheetahs, and swimming with crocodiles, I slump behind the wheel of my battered road vehicle and wearily look for the ultimate sign of civilization:

ROOM VACANCY! WELCOME!

Read More
  • Blog
  • May 15th, 2018

MOBY DORK

By Joel M. Vance

Think of yourself as a herring. Visualize a crowded city street, thronging with people. Or rush hour on the access ramps. Wall to wall people, all crowded together. Now think of giant alien whales from outer space circling the city, gradually herding you and your fellow human herrings into a tighter, more confused and frightened ball.

And then, Wham! Whale sushi.

I’ve seen it–humpback whales doing what they call “bubble net feeding.” Several whales start circling a school of herring, singing (the guide lowered a microphone and it sounded more like timber wolves howling than Willie Nelson), creating a curtain of bubbles through their blow holes, and gently guiding the by-now baffled herring with gigantic flippers into an ever tighter bunch.

The bubble curtain keeps the herring inside, a sonic corral. The singing confuses them–is this a lullaby or a threat. The flippers indicate which way to go (“right this way to the lunch counter, folks” although the whales don’t add that lunch is not FOR the herring; the herring ARE lunch.)

Then comes the moment when the whales surge through the bunched herring and…well, it got me to thinking, something always dangerous. I had a brilliant idea, an even more perilous situation.

What if I could train my Brittanies to swim in an ever-tightening circle, barking as they do so? Would this confuse fish, like maybe a school of bluegills, and bunch them whereupon I would cast into the middle of the circle and catch fish when no one else can?

Could I train Brittanies to do this? I once had a fishing Brittany who would spend hours swimming in circles, occasionally plunging his head and snapping at the bluegills swimming around him. Once he caught one and surfaced with an astonished look, the fish flapping in his mouth. He spit it out and his lust for fishing diminished after that.

My Brittany bubble net idea evaporated as quickly as it had come when I remembered the most embarrassing incident of my life, one that also involved fish and dogs. I was invited to hear Chuck Yeager speak at a meeting of steelhead anglers. Gen. Yeager is the quintessential American hero, World War Two fighter ace, first man to break the sound barrier and the titular godfather of the astronauts.

We had sold a puppy to a friend who was such a fan of Chuck Yeager’s that she named the puppy Yeager. My brilliant idea bloomed so quickly that I had no second thoughts. If only it were possible to get Gen. Yeager to inscribe will a book which I could give to my friend.

I was at a meeting where general Yeager was to be the featured speaker and I thought to myself what a wonderful opportunity, not only to meet a great American hero, but also to get him to autograph a book for my friend— who also happened to be a magazine editor and thus would be forever obligated to buy anything I wrote and pay me voluminous amounts of money.

I visited a local used bookstore and found a tattered copy of a book which seemed totally appropriate. What a serendipity moment! I would have him inscribe the book “from one Yeager to another” and we would share a comradely laugh.

It didn’t occur to me that Gen. Yeager was promoting his autobiography, curiously titled “Yeager.” No–I was thinking dogs (or like one, more accurately). I bought a copy of a dog training book (which looked as if perhaps the dog it was intended for had been using it as a chew toy) and took it to the meeting where I spied the good general chatting with a few fans. Presently they drifted away and there he was alone for the moment, his back to me.

I walked up and said “Excuse me, general….” and he began to turn and instantly I was aware of the incredible stupidity of my Grand Plan. I knew exactly how a field mouse feels when it becomes aware of a shadow passing overhead and looks up to see a sharp-shinned hawk three feet above, talons extended.

I was going to ask this great American hero to inscribe a book to a dog…and it wasn’t even his book?

The enormous idiocy of my idea finally sank through my thick skull into the tiny part where common sense lurks and even before this famed American military hero turned toward me, one uncomfortable memory from the past flooded my mind like the fabled life-flashing-before-your-eyes an instant before you are hit by the incoming missile.

I was back in the National Guard arriving after a 900 mile 2 ½ day ride in a Jeep at the head of our artillery battalion convoy to camp Ripley Minnesota. I was tired, hot, and in no mood for the flipparies of military courtesy. Oh sure, I would return the halfhearted salutes of my equally weary troopers as they hosed down their dusty vehicles, as eager as I was to see the duty day come to an end.

A Jeep pulled to a stop some yards away from me and I assumed it was yet another stray from the incoming summer campers (this was not Camp Bidawee for adolescents–this was a chance for us to spend a lot of government money shooting howitzer rounds, costing $100 each, at distant targets like empty barrels, isolated pine trees, and the occasional suicidal white tailed deer that had wandered into the impact area).

From the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of guys approaching, but I ignored them, concentrating on the militarily vital task of washing our travel weary vehicles. “Captain!” I turned to behold, like someone standing in the path of the lava flow from a devastating volcanic eruption, a bird colonel and, standing beside him, the diminutive form of a one star general. Even before the colonel, who apparently was the bad cop, spoke in the tone of the judge rendering a death sentence to a serial killer, I realized that I had effed up big time. “Don’t you know you are supposed to report to a commanding officer?” It was not a rhetorical question, politely asking for information. It was the prelude to damnation by hellfire which the colonel proceeded to deal to me like a stoker shoveling coal into a blast furnace.

The general, who looked remarkably like portraits of Napoleon, stood idly by slapping his thigh with a riding crop while the colonel flayed me as if preparing to tan my hide, possibly for use as a chamois for drying the general’s Jeep after I finished washing it. Finally the two high-ranking officers were done with their sadistic fun and left me lying gravely wounded on the battlefield.

So, General Yeager turned to me and I knew exactly the way the pilot of a Messerschmitt ME 109 felt when skewered by twin 40 caliber machine guns manned by a P 38 Lightning pilot, possibly manned by a fellow named Yeager. My idea had been asked him to inscribe the dog training book “from one Yeager to another” and now even years later the enormous foolishness of that idea gives me cold chills.

Instead, looking remarkably like Mortimer Snerd, the half witted Edgar Bergen dummy, I stammered something or other and thrust the book at him and he looked at it as if I were offering him dog droppings, instead of a book about dogs. Brusquely, he signed the book, and turned back toward someone with at least half a brain and instantly dismissed me to the dustbin of history.

That was the worst instance of my inconveniencing celebrities with my oafishness. At a meeting of outdoor writers which included several guest celebrities I went to breakfast with a tall, handsome gentleman and thinking to involve him in my hamfisted version of small talk, I said, “And what do you do?” thinking that he was another outdoor writer– he did look familiar, possibly someone I had hobnobbed with in outdoor writer circles, although he obviously was more successful at it than me–for one thing he wasn’t dressed in tattered blue jeans. To his eternal credit and the fact that he was an authentic gentleman, he did not look at me as one looks at an unusual insect, and merely said, “I’m an actor.”

Not only was Richard Anderson an actor, he was one of the stars of the highly successful Six Million Dollar Man television series, and a veteran of countless movies, but he reportedly also was Debbie Reynolds’ first boyfriend. All this I discovered far too late to apologize. Although I probably would’ve blurted something idiotic like “too bad you have such a forgettable face.”

Another time, at a meeting, I was crossing a room when I encountered a fellow whom I was sure I knew but whose name I could not remember. In the way that us feebleminded folks do, I faked it and said heartily, “Hey, good to see you! How’s it goin’?” He looked at me, obviously trying to place me among his many friends and embarrassed that he could not do it. “Fine!” He said. “And it’s good to see you too!”

Ten feet farther on, I realized that not only did I not know him, but he didn’t know me either. He was Mason Adams, one of the stars of the Lou Grant television show. Now, many years later, he probably still is wondering who the hell that old friend was— although probably not. Only once have I not managed to put my 9 ½ D’s firmly amid my molars. That was when I was at dinner where a fellow chatted amiably with our fellow diners and I gathered from the conversation that he was some sort of hockey player. I know every bit as much about hockey as I know about quantum physics. The only thing I know about hockey is the Rodney Dangerfield joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” So I managed for once to keep my mouth shut.

Later at home, when I mentioned his name to my son, Andy, an ardent hockey fan, I found out that Denis Potvin not only was a hockey player, but happens to be in the NHL Hall of Fame, one of the all-time greats– the most prolific scoring defense man of all time. At least I didn’t ask him, “And what is it you do?” only to have him high stick me across my big mouth.

So,on the other hand, I think I’ll just let the Brittanies be dogs and forget whatever fantasies they might have had about being humpback whales. And that goes for me, too.

Read More
  • Blog
  • May 5th, 2018

ONE MAN’S HABITAT IS ANOTHER MAN’S WEEDPATCH

By Joel M. Vance

I knew a man who loved blackberry cobbler above all else. He cleared out a huge patch of wild blackberries…and then planted nursery-raised canes. The irony never occurred to him.

He was symptomatic of landowners who have been conditioned away from the wild bounty of the land and into a manufactured version of it. Another landowner I know is a staunch supporter of wildlife conservation. But he cleared out a long brushy draw and a fallow field and planted alfalfa from which he cuts hay, usually during the nesting season. He wonders where his quail have gone.

Habitat loss has many names: wetland loss, desertification, deforestation, fragmentation are just a few. The result is whatever lived there has lost its home. Some adapt to new conditions; most don’t. Some migrate to suitable habitat; many don’t.

So-called “clean” farming has become the norm. It flowered fully during the unlamented tenure of Earl Butz as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture. Butz’s mantra was “fencerow to fencerow” farming and he meant it literally—do not ever let a weed, a bush or a tree invade your fencerow, else you be accused of sloppy farming.

Let’s face it, much wildlife habitat is the result of neglect. As much as any factor, it was responsible for the revival of wildlife during and after World War Two. A generation of young farmers went to war and the farms they left behind often were in the draft horse era, small holdings where the concept of megafarms wasn’t even a glimmer.

There were brushy gullies and fencerows, woodlots untouched, fallow fields gone to weeds, no pesticides, no herbicides—in other words a set table for wildlife. Deer, turkeys and other animals thrived under this neglect.

It has been a downhill slide for wildlife habitat since Johnny came marching home. In the 1950s Missouri’s pasture land was more than 90 percent legumes like clover, alfalfa and lespedeza, all beneficial to wildlife. By the end of the century more than 90 percent was fescue, a rank grass that cows don’t even like much but that grows anywhere and is cheap. It’s estimated that five times as much land is in agriculture now compared to when the Pilgrims landed.

Coupled with fescue conversion came the flourish of pesticides and herbicides. Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 Book Silent Spring waked America to the dangers of hard pesticides and put an end to the worst of them barely in time to arrest the skid of the bald eagle toward extinction (hard pesticide residues in eagle prey caused eggshell thinning and a subsequent decline in baby eagles).

Has 70-plus years of sluicing the land with chemicals affected wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds and small animals? It’s not a rhetorical question—there are indications that chemical poisoning causes genetic disruption, ranging from deformities to sex change in male creatures.

No one to my knowledge is investigating whether quail, an indicator species if ever there was one, have been genetically altered over the years by chemical exposure. For argument let’s say that seven decades of chemically treated quail food (seeds and green matter) have resulted in less potency among male quail or perhaps a one-egg decline in the average clutch size among females.

The result obviously would be fewer quail.

Couple that factor with habitat loss, increased predation, even global warming and possibly some other factors we don’t understand and the result is the most widespread poor quail population in the country’s history.

Hitched to changes in agriculture is the proliferation of people. Not only did Johnny come marching home; he came equipped and supercharged to breed. Since 1945 when the war ended, the U.S. population alone has grown to 320 million. The rate of increase has declined since 1990 when it was about 8 million a year added—but it still is well above zero population growth, nevermind a negative figure.

All those people demand space…not just space to live, but space to work and shop. Yesterday’s mom and pop grocery is today’s Wal-Mart parking lot. The solution is at the same time simple and impossible—quit having so many kids. That elementary conclusion rams head on into religious and other considerations which make it impossible to legislate or often even to talk about.

Yet anything else is a Band Aid on a grievous wound. All the programs for wildlife restoration, for habitat improvement, all the incentive payments to protect and enhance habitat don’t mean a thing if the world population continues to constrict what’s available for critters.

Western states with their hefty proportion of public lands (national forests, grasslands and Bureau of Land Management holdings) are better off than their eastern counterparts—fewer people, more untamed acres. But most of the country lives where wildlife habitat is at a premium. Public programs come and go. In the 1950s the Soil Bank retired many row crop acres to fallow fields and pheasant numbers flourished.

But the Soil Bank contracts ran out and farmers plowed up that habitat to take advantage of high grain prices. Same thing is happening with the Conservation Reserve Program as CRP contracts run out. It is a boom and bust cycle for wildlife that depends on old field and early succession acres.

Some landowners simply don’t like wildlife. It’s competitive with them and a nuisance. Even songbirds eat grain that otherwise would generate cash for the farmer. That group never will accept any idea that encourages critters. Another, larger, group can’t afford to idle acreage or share with wildlife. Farming is a crap shoot, subject to fickle weather and market fluctuations.

The smallest group is those who can afford to subsidize wildlife habitat or who, through a form of genius, have figured out how to make money. I know a man who was about to sink as a crop farmer, but converted his farm to a dog training preserve and righted the economic ship.

The late Eugene Poirot, a southwest Missouri farmer, took a worn out acreage and turned it into a money machine with creative ideas like filling ponds through spring rainfall, raising catfish for market in them, then draining the water for irrigation of crops when drought struck. His long out of print book Our Margin of Life details his many ideas for living with wildlife and making money at the same time, but it takes a person of rare vision, even with Poirot’s blueprint, to make it work.

There really is no way to quantify wildlife habitat loss. We know what constitutes good habitat for some animals, less about what others need. Some species have proved more resilient than we thought. When I began working for the Missouri Conservation Department in 1969, our turkey biologist John Lewis felt that Missouri would have open hunting in about half its 114 counties and he thought he was being optimistic.

Now all counties are open and most have the best overall turkey hunting in the country. White-tailed deer have been a similar success. Both animals have adapted to living cheek by beak with humans.

Not so the prairie chicken, once a common citizen of Missouri’s native tallgrass prairie which spanned a third of the state. Prairie chickens fueled wagon trains heading West in the 1800s. Along with the bison, they were meat for land hungry settlers and gold hungry prospectors.

But habitat loss had the grouse teetering on the brink of extinction long before the first chemical spray hit the land. The plow herded the birds into ever decreasing prairie enclaves (today of what once was 15 million tallgrass acres less than 100,000 remains). Hunting stopped more than100 years ago But the population has stumbled down ever since until now the estimate is less than 500 birds statewide.

You can have a prairie without prairie chickens, but you can’t have prairie chickens without a prairie. It all boils down to habitat and no animal is more dependent on the right habitat than the prairie chicken.

But what constitutes a prairie? There are more questions about Missouri’s prairie chickens and their habitat than there are the birds themselves. Despite repeated efforts to stay the trend, the population of the once-common pinnated grouse has declined to the point that they now are facing extirpation.

“Extirpation” means gone from a given territory. “Extinction” means gone from the world. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and a few other states can claim tenuous prairie chicken populations. If there is hope for the rest of the grouse’s historic range, it is that other states have brought the birds back from near-extirpation.

The loss of prairie chicken habitat has been staggering. In Illinois it went from more than 60 percent of the state’s acreage to less than one-one hundredth, hardly enough acreage for a back yard garden. The chicken population, estimated in the early 1960s at 2,000 in two southeastern Illinois counties, Jasper and Marion, fell to 50 birds by the 1990s.

Habitat loss coupled with genetic loss. The birds, confined to fragments of their former range, inbred and hatching success fell from the 90th percentile to under 40 percent. Illinois began restoring habitat and introducing birds from other states, with genetic backgrounds similar to that of the Illinois birds. Starting in 1992 Illinois sweetened its ragtag remnant with 500 prairie chickens from Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas. After new blood came into the gene pool the hatch rate jumped back to 94 percent.

That is an example of a habitat problem identified by nature writer David Quammen in his book The Song of the Dodo. He calls the concept “island biodiversity” and in essence it means that a given wildlife population in an island of good habitat, surrounded by poor habitat, is doomed to, at best, become what he calls a “museum flock” and probably to longterm extinction.

Is that what’s happening with quail? Certainly where I hunt the habitat is outstanding….but in many cases that’s the only good quail habitat farm in a community of clean farms, fall plowed and devoid of winter cover. Maybe my survivor quail are inbreeding themselves to extinction, even though their home habitat is excellent.

A neighbor is a back-to-the-land advocate—they have a garden, raise about 40 chickens for eggs and meat, have a wood stove. But they live in a house carved as part of a rural housing development from a farm where I used to hunt quail. Six of one, half a dozen of the other…..

I can’t complain about usurping rural land from wildlife. We moved to 40 acres 27 years ago, but I like to think we haven’t disturbed the ecosystem that much. I’ve killed turkeys on the ridge across our small lake, and I photographed a chuck-will’s-widow nest there. We have wood ducks nesting, as well as doves. Two barred owls often chat across the lake and there are numerous box turtles.

But the covey of quail that used to be on the place is gone. Maybe I could blame it on the neighbors but I suspect we all share equally in the guilt.

While trap-and-transplant is essential for the restoration of wildlife species, it is not the most vital element—that remains habitat. “It all comes down to that,” said a member of an eight-person prairie chicken team working for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Habitat—it is as ephemeral a word as the life of a mayfly. It’s where critters live, obviously, but there are so many intangibles that the concept is like a medieval philosophical question about how many angels there are on the head of a pin.

Can prairie chickens survive and thrive on non-native prairie? I once saw chickens booming on plowed ground, stumbling and recovering like a drunk on the street. It was a sad and illuminating sight. I’m not sure if they were thriving or not—I doubt it, but I can’t judge without insinuating myself into the private and continuing life of that bedeviled flock of chickens. Perhaps these were the rarest of rare chickens, those who had discovered the secret of adaptation, like deer or coyotes.

But I doubt it.

I suspect they were symptomatic of a species hanging on. They roosted and presumably nested in a railroad right-of-way that served as a remnant tallgrass prairie. Everything else was corn and soybeans…and plowed ground. Before Audrain County was settled, it was a sweeping tallgrass prairie and pioneers reported big bluestem taller than a horse’s back. Riders would appear to be a dozen feet tall because the horse they sat upon was invisible.

After the disaster of the Dust Bowl, Midwestern farmers planted windbreaks in profusion, usually Osage orange a lush tree whose branches stooped to the ground and offered shelter to small wildlife. But Osage orange has the unfortunate (from the landowner’s standpoint) habit of sucking moisture from its surroundings, meaning a few rows of corn or beans adjacent to a hedgerow would be puny. That proved unacceptable and, beginning in earnest in the 1960s, farmers started jerking those audacious hedgerows and substituting, if anything, a four-strand barbed wire fence.

Missouri’s Conservation Department has taken heat over the years for its sponsorship and endorsement of two plants of great value to wildlife: multiflora rose and autumn olive. Both offer thick cover and bounteous crops of berries beloved by birds. Therein lies the problem—birds eat the berries and digest the good parts….but defecate the seeds indiscriminately. So, today’s carefully planted cover strip becomes tomorrow’s invasive plant.

It’s well known, but not widely appreciated that enormous destruction of Latin American rain forest is shrinking the populations of many migratory songbirds. It’s easier to mourn the decline of bobwhite quail because we hunt them and they are North American cousins. We don’t see the ravaging of the rain forest but its impact ripples like the effect of a rock tossed in a pond.

At the other end of the world, the shrinking polar ice cap is closing in on polar bears, like the walls in a Poe horror story. On the Great Plains, the rapacious oil and gas industries are squeezing out the sage grouse and other grassland grouse with their drilling sites, all for the benefit of more oil and gas production so consumers can buy SUVs and other gas hogs and so they can ship their oil across the country through pipelines which inevitably will rupture and destroy even more habitat. Windfarms, supposedly beneficial, often are deadly to birds up to and including eagles, killed by the gigantic whirling blades of the turbines. Hydroelectric dams have caused massive fish kills, and the flooding of countless acres of what once was wildlife habitat. The drawbacks to solar energy may well cancel out the benefits of this so-called free energy. Nothing comes without its price— except to wildlife which always seems to be on the debit side of the ledger.

The destruction of pioneer forest land by loggers was horrific enough in its time, but nothing compared to the wholesale rape of the land today . Scottish poet Alexander Smith said, “A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity” I don’t know of any poets who have written odes of praise for those who cut that tree down.

Read More