Good Fire

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The American settlers in the Sierra forests at the turn of the twentieth century encountered fire. They had to learn to live with the reality of fire, that it would be as much a part of their environment as the snow, the rain, the thunderstorms and the Mono winds. They built their towns and businesses, their permanent structures, and protected all from fire through total suppression. In essence, they removed fire from the forest.

The native people, on the other hand, who had thousands of years of forest living behind them and had acquired an understanding of fire’s ecological give and take nature, had adapted to the fire-hungry environment of the Sierra forests. Over the millennia they learned to embrace fire and to use controlled burns to create and improve the rich habitats that provided their food, their medicines, and their basketry resources.

In terms of supplying themselves with food, the Indians were agriculturists, not simply gatherers. They studied weather patterns and fuels, cultivated their plants, tended their vast garden with burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and tilling the soil. They harvested at the right time and in the right amount. In return, the land provided them with leaves such as mint for teas and medicines; grains and seeds for cakes, breads and soups; bulbs, and fruits such as Manzanita, elderberry, choke cherry, sourberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, wild grape and gooseberry.

The oak tree, which produces acorns, the main staple of the Indian diet, received special fire protection from the native people. By directing the smoke from fires built under the trees, they were able to keep the mistletoe at bay. If you’ve ever seen a mistletoe-covered oak tree, you have an idea of the damage it can do if left unchecked.

Even to this day efforts are made to enhance the output of oak trees with the smoke from prescribed fire. Lois Connor Bohna, a Mono tribal member who gathers and processes acorns is always on the lookout for stands of healthy oak trees, free from bugs and mistletoe. “From a good group of oaks,” said Lois, “I can harvest up to three thousand pounds of acorns every year.”

Tending basketry plants was also an important part of Indian use of fire. The Mono woman, who was the primary basket weaver in the Tribe, knew how to gather. She knew when to gather. She understood the elements, such things as that the redbud stick is most pliable and the red color the deepest if cut during the coldest days of wintertime, or that sourberry is good when cut in spring as well as winter.

The weaver looks for materials that will produce baskets that can withstand day-to-day usage, whether for cooking over hot coals, holding water, or carrying a baby. For example, when selecting bluebrush branches for the rims of cradle boards, winnowers, and sifting baskets the weaver will look for brownness, roundness, length and no lateral or side branches, those characteristics of young, healthy plants that grow after fire has been put on the land and the old, dry, inflexible, white sticks have been eliminated.

One might ask how ancient indigenous use of fire in the forest could inform twenty-first century forest restoration planning. It’s been suggested that, by discovering the approaches used by the Indians in a particular ecosystem, forest managers will be able to tailor their restoration practices to each environment and avoid a one-size-fits-all policy. “A major thrust of restoration ecology,” wrote anthropologist M. Kat Anderson in her introduction to Omer C. Stewart’s Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness,

is to restore ecosystems to a semblance of the historic structures, composition, and functions prior to major Euro-American settlement and development. Ecological restoration can be defined as the practice of reestablishing the historic plant and animal communities of a given area or region and the renewal of the ecosystem and cultural functions necessary to maintain these communities now and into the future.


Anderson, M. Kat. Taming the Wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California’s natural resources. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005.

Blackburn, Thomas C. & Anderson, Kat, eds. Before the wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers. 1993.

Cermak, Robert W. Fire in the Forest: A history of forest fire control on the National Forests in California, 1898-1956. USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region. 2005.

Goode, Ron. Cultural Burn. Tribal Chair North Fork Mono Tribe: Personal Paper Presented to the Dinkey Collaborative. 2014.

Stewart, Omer C. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Henry T. Lewis & M. Kat Anderson, eds. Norman, Oklahoma; University of Oklahoma Press. 2009.


Fire: Friend and Foe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

That fire requires oxygen is something children learn early in life. In a second grade science lesson a jar is placed over a flaming candle. The flame dies out. The wick smolders and cools.

Oxygen, heat and fuel, the fire triangle of the child’s lesson, has been fire’s story since its appearance on Earth, which, according to fire historian Stephen J. Pyne, was 400 million year ago, when all the ingredients were in place and the triangle was completed.

For 400 million years, fire has followed a consistent principle: after ignition – which occurs naturally in the form of lightning – sufficient heat, fuel and oxygen must be present if fire is to take hold and thrive. The removal or reduction of any one of these elements during a fire diminishes or extinguishes the fire’s energy.

How was it that human beings were able to grasp this principle and make fire their own? Perhaps they observed the slowing down of a forest fire when the nights turned cool, the halted progress as a fire crept up against a granite wall, or the flare up of flames in the presence of a sudden breeze.

Whatever it was that allowed them to connect the fire triangle dots, somewhere in the course of their evolution people learned they could start and stop fires and keep them going. They learned about fuels, figured out which burned hotter, which cooler. They put their fire triangle knowledge to use and manipulated fires of different types—to cook their food, clear their fields, shape their tools and weapons, run their cars, and, to fight their wildfires.

Anthropologist M. Kat Anderson, proposes that control of fire was “the greatest invention in the history of humankind,” allowing ancient people to stay warm, cook food and repel predators. Fire might have encouraged them to remain awake after nightfall, contributing to a social life, or prompted them to venture out and settle in otherwise forbiddingly cold areas.

Fire’s connection to humans is only one part of its narrative, however. As a force of nature, fire tears through the living world, feeding on biomass, drawing out its energy; in essence, killing it. “Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, melting glaciers, these are purely physical,” wrote Pyne. “Not fires. Fires need life.”

Yes, fire feeds off of living matter. But in forests where fire is a natural part of the environment, like those in California, fire meets its match. It comes up against life that can resist its onslaught. It encounters plants that even depend on fire to sustain and improve their species.

In the Sierra National Forest, many examples exist of plants that have adapted to the presence of fire or make use of fire for propagation and improvement.

The ponderosa pine grows a bark thick enough to protect the tree from fire’s destructive heat. The dormant seeds of the Buckbrush burst open and germinate with fire, even when the mother plant has been killed. Flowering after fire is enhanced in the Mariposa Lily and Penstemon. In the ubiquitous Bear Clover, a.k.a. Mountain Misery, the deep and complicated root system and tenacious underground series of horizontal stems produce sprouts after the plant’s bout with fire.

Then there is the giant sequoia. In its relationship to fire, the sequoia resists fire by its rutted fibrous bark which has been known to grow to a thickness of two to three feet. The Sequoia defies fire by sending up shoots after fire has passed, the only conifer in the Sierra that sprouts.

The Sequoia also recruits fire to open its cones, which are the size of a chicken egg – two-and-a-half inches in length. A mature tree could have eleven thousand cones, but some can produce up to a hundred thousand. The cones, each containing an average of two hundred flakes of seed, can remain on the tree for decades waiting for heat from a fire to dry them and open them, releasing hundreds of thousands of seeds in the course of a year.

As they float to the ground, the seeds can travel up to six hundred feet from the base of the tree. Once the seeds settle, they need a soft rich soil in which to embed, a condition brought about by fire that cleans out the pine needles and other debris—duff—around the base of the tree. The seeds will become covered with a tiny layer of the mineral soil, and there germination begins.

What takes life, gives life.

Fire Talk

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

California. Mid-summer. It’s early evening, and several of us are out taking a walk. The sun sits above the horizon, a perfect circle, and bright red! Beautiful. Awesome. We stand and stare.

“Oh, that’s because of the smoke coming from all the fires going on,” someone remarks.

“The smoke has really been getting to me this year.”

“It’s the Mendocino fire.”

“I thought I heard thunder,” someone remarks.

“Maybe we’ll get some rain. What a relief that would be.”

“Scares me. You know, thunder means lightning, and that could mean more wildfires.”

This is California fire talk. It happens every year during fire season.

For those of us who do not live in the direct path of wildfires, fire season begins when fires begin, when we read the daily reports and are forced to breathe in the smoke.

For those who live in fire-prone environments, the season begins in early spring, with the anticipation of the wildfires that surely will come. By July, as the dryness sets in and the temperatures rise, the prospect of fire becomes ever more real.

People tend to become more vigilant. They might begin to watch for the telltale red sun or brown hazy sky. Or they might wake in the middle of the night and look out their windows, sniff the air.  Has a fire started somewhere as they slept? Fire talk enters their conversations.  In coffee shops, at the supermarket they chat facilely about fuel loading and suppression, backfiring and cutting line.

These people accept that they have chosen to live with wildfire. It’s not simply that they learn to clear brush from around their homes or to plan for potential evacuation. Or, that from time to time they will have to endure weeks of smoke-filled air because of a wildfire somewhere in the forest. It’s that they become acquainted with fire as a breathing machine that needs oxygen to thrive and maintains a unique and vital relationship to their living world.

They learn that fire can take on a life of its own and get out of hand. All it needs is the opportunity to get so hot that it starts feeding on oxygen from all sides, sucking the air in, creating an updraft from the inward gusts of wind, propelling the flames as through a chimney hundreds of feet into the air. The wind whirls around the burning column, counter-clockwise, generating a hurricane-like firestorm with winds that can travel ten times faster than the surrounding winds, and temperatures that can climb to above three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. During such a firestorm, plumes of white pyro cumulus clouds that look like thunderheads – known to billow as high as eight miles into the air – can form as the fire enters the cooler upper atmosphere. (see illustration below)

For those who live on the periphery of wildfire country, a fire thunderhead appearing above the horizon is a pronouncement that a wildfire has taken charge somewhere in the forest.

Is it any wonder, then, that firefighters relate to wildfires as if they were alive? They speak of fires as running uphill and creeping along the ground, jumping rivers, and spotting across fire lines. They say that fires can throw embers and firebrands. They can escape, even shape an entire forest. To firefighters, wildfires are mean and wily and show exceptional endurance or fierceness or moxie. They are full of surprises, an enemy that must be defeated. They are alive and moody, feed on oxygen, suck in the air. Fires are driven.

A lookout volunteer reflected on her experience sighting fires:

It really does seem like it’s a living thing you’re dealing with. It’s almost as though it’s trying to spite you. Jump on that thing. Strangle it. It kind of brings out that kind of defense in you. You want to get it.

A Forest Service fuels specialist relates to fire as if it were a dragon:

It breathes. You watch it pulse, the wind will stop dead for a minute, like the fire is almost taking a breath. Then whoosh, it really starts going.

Here is an illustration of a Firestorm.

Who is this Cat of Mine?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The story goes like this: 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, along the Fertile Crescent, people broke away from their nomadic ways, settled down and grew wheat and barley, nuts and fruits. Soon mice came to raid their stores, and wild cats followed to feast on the mice. The farmers and the cats recognized a mutually advantageous situation. Food for the cats and rodent-free homes for the farmers.

And so began the tacit relationship between humans and cats, what scientists call the cats’ self-domestication. They showed up, wild, and made the farm their home, living side by side with the farmers, but independently, probably wandering back and forth between the wild and their adopted homes.

Fast forward 4,000 years on the island of Cyprus. A cat is buried alongside a man. The archaeologists cannot say definitively that this was a domesticated cat. The skeletons of wild cats and tame cats are too similar to be able to make that distinction. But they presume that it was domesticated because wild cats are not part of the ecology of Cyprus, and being an island, the first cats had to have been brought there by boat. The scientists reject the possibility that wild cats made the journeys to the island.

Another 4,000 years later, in Egypt, cats became an object of worship.

Only much later did the cat establish itself as a pet, a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

And here we are. It’s 2018. And cats have become one of the most popular domestic pets in the world. Still independent. Still living side by side with us. Our pet cats are aloof, solitary beings. Unlike our pet dogs, we cannot train them to do our bidding. They do not want to be our companions, nor do they care about pleasing us. And, given the chance, they wander, only to return to their home base and grateful human house mates at day’s end.

When you think about it, these traits are probably not unlike those of their ancient ancestors of 12,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown that our house cats share 96% of their DNA with wild cats such as tigers, which began its evolutionary journey over three million years ago.

Smithsonian Institute archaeologist Melinda Zeder’s comment in a New Yorker magazine article really pinpoints our odd relationship we have with our pet cats:

I think what confuses people about cats is that they still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors. Sometimes they don’t give a damn about you, but they are very much part of your niche. Cats have us do everything for them. We clean their litter, stroke them, admire them, but unlike dogs they do not have to constantly please and satisfy our needs. They are probably the ultimate domesticate.

As David Zax remarked, “Makes you wonder – who’s domesticating whom?”









Science. Denial. Graphic Novel.

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is not a blog about climate change.  This is about domestic cats.

How is it that this common every-day pet has become the focus of a bitter, ostensibly unsolvable controversy that has pitted animal advocates and conservationists, bird lovers and cat lovers, animal scientists and animal activists against each other? It’s simple. We allow our pet cats to roam freely outdoors, effectively turning our neighborhoods into wildlife battlegrounds.

Why do we do that? We would never let our dogs run free. And we would not tolerate our neighbors’ dogs free-wheeling around. Are we mystified by cats? Do we enjoy what we perceive as their wildness, admire their resistance to training? Perhaps cats bring out a bit of our own rebellious tendencies. It’s difficult to tell. But it appears that we appreciate their independent nature so much that we are willing to relinquish one of the basic rules of responsible pet ownership, ensuring our pets will not impinge on the health and well-being of our neighborhood.

There is almost uncontested evidence amongst scientists and conservationists that an estimated 60 million free-roaming domestic cats in the United States participate with feral cats and strays in the killing of between 500 million and one billion birds and billions of small mammals each year.

Such numbers cannot be ignored for their potential negative impact on habitat and bird and animal populations. Not surprising, there is fierce resistance among animal advocacy groups like Best Friends Animal Societies and Alleycat Allies to accepting these statistics, claiming misinformation and scaremongering targeted against outdoor cats.

Interestingly, a research project conducted by National Geographic and the University of Georgia that followed 55 urban, free-roaming cats via camera (Kitty-Cam) revealed that several of the cats had found second homes where they received food and affection, and that only 25 of the 55 subjects spent their time hunting, primarily small lizards and mammals. Many of the subjects spent a great deal of time resting – very cat-like behavior!

In an attempt to bring cat- and bird-lovers together, an organization called Nature Canada has developed a program to celebrate the contributions cats and birds make to our lives, our environment, and our communities… Their aim is to help Canadians learn how to take care of birds and cats. In 2016, Nature Canada collaborated with author Margaret Atwood in the production of Angel Catbird, a series of graphic novels aimed at bringing attention to the specialness of both birds and cats, and to encourage behaviors that would keep both cats and birds safe.

By and large, to protect both birds and cats, the advice is to keep cats indoors.

I have three indoor cats. But I keep them indoors for self-serving reasons. I am able to regulate their diet (with a supplement of ‘cat grass’ I purchase from the local pet store when the cats have vandalized my house plants in search of green nutrition.) I have avoided an infestation of fleas, given up the ‘joy’ of receiving gifts of mouse and bird carcasses, and any other presents my cats decide to bring home. Plus, I have, so far, avoided huge vet bills resulting from cat encounters with predators, as happened to my pet Zeke when he was an outdoor cat. Zeke had a confrontation with a raccoon, which cost him an eye and which cost me $500 in rehabilitation expenses.
Do I think this approach is best for my cats? I don’t know. Frankly, everything in me says they should be outside doing what comes natural to cats; stalking, hunting, exploring.

Thinking About Water

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The topic of water has been coming at me in many forms these last weeks.

A list:

  • a stirred interest in water sources for the area’s rivers and streams (since my relocation to Davis)
  • California’s new water conservation laws
  • phantom sprinklers on my property, watering plants in a shut-down system
  • an article about border patrol agents in Arizona destroying emergency water supplies in the desert
  • a request by a neighbor for donations of water for the homeless
  • an article about the water cycle and the origins of water on earth
  • astounding statistics about our use of water (i.e. 5.7 billion gallons a year flushed down toilets in America)
  • accidentally leaving a hose running for half an hour

When I think about the ubiquitousness of water I am reminded of something Charles Fishman wrote in his book The Big Thirst (p. 2): Water is the most familiar substance in our lives.  It is also unquestionably the most important substance in our lives.

Over the next weeks I shall begin to look at water from this standpoint.


Back to the Basics: Ocean Ethics

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I received an email from Edward last week in response to the 4Ocean plastic cleanup blog of June 7. In it he talked about the multi-layered issues associated with ocean pollution and cleanup.

Ecologic impact, for one. “The establishment of the 4Ocean business plan, while admirable,” he wrote, “doesn’t in itself solve the ecological impact of the ever-increasing amounts of trash in the ocean or along it’s shores.”

These effects are enormous. Large numbers of marine wildlife are being harmed, many killed, through ingestion of small bits of plastic and other trash mistaken for food. Starvation. Poisoning. Internal bleeding and digestive illnesses.  These are a few of the direct attacks on those creatures of the sea who eat trash.

Another direct impact on sea life comes from fishing boats that discard their gear and their damaged nets into the ocean, bringing about a situation called ‘ghost fishing.’ In a bizarre way, this flotsam floating around continues to ‘fish’ as it traps marine life within its grip and, consequently, reels in larger predators that come to feed on the trapped fish.

Indirectly, pollution that brings about an imbalance in the ocean’s ecosystem – marine habitat destruction, for example – can put us all at risk. As described by the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN), Oceans are the lifeblood of planet Earth and humankind. They flow over nearly three-quarters of our planet, and hold 97% of the planet’s water. They produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and absorb the most carbon from it. So it would appear that we have a personal interest in getting the ocean back into tiptop shape.

And then Edward wrote about the business community.  “Ridding the ocean of massive accumulations of trash must begin with changing the business practices of the world’s maritime industry as a major polluter,” he said.

I know we started out talking about plastic.  But with Edward’s challenge I became curious about the laws associated with maritime dumping, what is considered a pollutant, what not.  How is it monitored?  I shall not attempt to summarize this complex topic. But I thought you might be interested in reading the following list of items considered, under the law, acceptable for ocean dumping.

Help me out here.  I don’t get how some of these are not considered pollutants.

The London Protocol (of 2006) expressly prohibits incineration at sea and the export of wastes and other matter for the purpose of ocean dumping. Under the London Protocol, dumping of all wastes and other materials is prohibited except the following materials listed in Annex I of the London Protocol (“the reverse list”), which may be considered for dumping: 

  • Dredged material.
  • Sewage sludge.
  • Fish wastes or material resulting from industrial fish processing operations.
  • Vessels and platforms or other man-made structures at sea.
  • Inert, inorganic geological material.
  • Organic material of natural origin.
  • Bulky items primarily comprising iron, steel, concrete and similarly unharmful materials for which the concern is physical impact, and limited to the circumstances where such wastes are generated at locations with no land-based alternatives.
  • Carbon dioxide streams from carbon dioxide capture processes for sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations.

Given the vastness of the ocean and the immeasurable number of private and commercial ocean-going vessels, can we suspect that all are virtually free to pollute the ocean? A kind of guilty until proven innocent situation?

After all, laws can be made. Satellites can be launched. Ecology patrols can swarm the beaches and monitoring crews can board ships. But in the end it appears that this is a self-monitoring, voluntary honor system; that once again we are down to right and wrong. To ethics.




Learn Baby Learn

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In psychology, learning is commonly defined as ‘a relatively permanent change in behavior based on experience.’

Isn’t that remarkable.

Learning is not only about changes in the amount of information stored in your brain. Nor is it only determined by changes in how you feel about a subject or how you perceive it. Rather, while both of these contribute to the learning process, it’s the change in behavior that signals that learning has actually taken place.

When it comes to how people treat nature, I’ve always wondered which techniques would be most effective in changing negative behaviors. How do you get a sensation seeker to stop driving a truck into a meadow? How do you instill an ecologic ethic in someone who believes all of nature belongs to humans? Is it enough to explain the workings of a meadow, or to call on feelings such as empathy, to encourage respect and responsibility towards the environment?

Last week a friend sent me a video about two guys who, while surfing in Bali, discovered the beaches were littered with plastic debris. When they asked why the trash had not been removed, they were told that every day the beach is cleaned and every day the waves and tides deposit new litter on the shore.

After considering the situation, they came up with a business plan called 4Ocean, which is a method for helping remove plastic from the sea. In Bali they hired local fishermen to haul plastics and other debris out of the ocean with their nets and bring the trash to shore, where it is prepared for recycling and dumping.

Since their experience in Bali, they have expanded their operation to twenty-six countries around the world, using the Bali approach of hiring local people to do the work.  To date, they claim to have removed almost eight hundred thousand pounds of plastic and other debris from the ocean and its shores.

The person who sent me the video suggested there might be some incidental learning about caring for the environment among those involved in the clean-up, a kind of transference of information from the ocean to all of nature.

That’s an interesting idea.

Incidental learning is very common. It is unintentional and unplanned, and it happens when we are involved in one thing and then extrapolate to another. Incidental learning allows us to gain new perspectives on an old idea or a familiar situation. It’s natural. Unforced. And, it’s personal, often occurring during hands-on experiences.

And here is where it would appear that the 4Ocean model offers a great opportunity for those involved in the project to incidentally learn that they are part of something greater than ocean clean-up. I mean,  4Ocean is operating in twenty-six countries. Imagine how many people are being touched directly and indirectly by this awesome and potentially mind-altering process.

According to experiential learning theory, as developed by David Kolb in 1984, however, one of the essentials for learning is that a person has to reflect on his experience.  It’s through these reflections that the individual is able to develop a new perspective about the situation, can internalize  something new, realize something incidental.

It’s not clear that reflection can be taught, however. And, it’s not clear that a person could explain his reflections, even to himself. Also, 4Ocean does not have the capacity, nor the mission, to encourage incidental learning associated with their operation.

So the question remains about developing techniques for changing negative behaviors towards nature. If experiential learning can spawn reflection that has the power to incidentally transform perception and ultimately change behavior, how can that be implemented in environmental education?







You Gotta Love ‘Em. Really?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I received the following email from a friend after she read the post Danger! Danger!

The animal world can also be cruel.  I once heard some scrub jays making a racket in a bush.  I snuck up and peered into the thicket and there were 10-13 scrub jays screaming, and on the ground was a scrub jay all bloodied.  As I continued to watch, some of the scrub jays would jump down to the bloodied scrub jay and peck at it.  Not sure what I was watching. I thought maybe they were trying to get him to get up, but as I continued to watch I realized they were attacking one of their own, pecking at it and killing it.  It was a communal execution…. was all I could think.  I could not continue to watch (it was horrible) and went away.  Came back about an hour later and the bird on the ground was dead.  Soooo weird.  Ever since then I look at scrub jays as killers!

I have to admit, this story of mob murder of a jay by jays really shook me up. ‘Cruel’ certainly seems like an apt term. I tried to find out whether this occurs normally, but I found nothing about this type of behavior amongst jays.

Was it just an anomaly?

I did find out that jays are aggressive by nature and will engage in mob intimidation when they feel threatened or when they perceive a breach of their territory by other birds. Also, they have been known to kill young birds and to steal birds’ eggs, but that is all part of the hunt, not a social act. Plus, there is some evidence that this behavior does not occur with any frequency.

Ornithologist and editor of Audubon Magazine, Les Line, cited a study from the early twentieth century that found only 6 out of 530 blue jay stomachs had traces of eggs and young birds. “Mainly,” Line wrote, “the omnivorous blue jays feast on insects, nuts, berries, seeds, and now and then small animals like deer mice, bats, lizards, and tree frogs.”

A more recent look at the extent to which jays rob nests and kill young birds comes from Tom Gardali of Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) Conservation Science in West Marin County. He believes that jays do not contribute significantly to the death of young birds or the depletion of eggs. “Most nest camera studies,” he says, “show that corvids [jays are a type of corvid] are relatively minor nest predators — snakes seem to be the stars.”

Jays are extremely intelligent and in Gardali’s words, “stunningly observant.” In the course of conducting their study the research team discovered that the jays can learn to spot and follow an ornithologist on the way to study a bird nest, “in anticipation of a tasty bird egg or baby bird treat.” Researchers at PRBO have had to learn how to outsmart the jays when they head off to study sites, to make sure they are not being followed by the crafty birds.

But many folks really hate blue jays, and numbers and statistics cannot erase the antipathy they feel towards the jay’s bullying and aggression.

Line believes that the bad rap for the blue jay might have had its beginning in 1831 when ornithologist and bird illustrator John J. Audubon wrote in his Ornithological Biography, “Who could imagine that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!” In the mid-20th century, a photographic plate of Audubon’s illustration of three jays sucking eggs “pilfered from the nest of some innocent dove or harmless partridge,” was reproduced on calendars and handed out widely by insurance companies.  This, according to Line helped foment blue jay hatred.

Can a jay-hater be swayed from his aversion to the bird by learning that they are loving mates and devoted parents? That they are considered to be among the most intelligent species? That they can solve problems? Could the loathing they feel be assuaged by knowing that the jay seed caching practice, called scatter hoarding, has played an important ecological role in the proliferation of oak and pine forests?*

It’s hard to tell. These days, we are being challenged in so many areas to examine our prejudices and to become more accepting. Probably the blue jay is way down on the priority list as an object of concern. But imagine. It could be a good place to start.

*In scatter hoarding, the jay creates many small hoards of seeds and disperses them over a large area. Inevitably, many of the seeds will be left, contributing to the chance of germination.

Here is a copy of the title page of Audubon’s book:

Danger! Danger!

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A couple of days ago I was awakened around four in the morning to a chorus of crows calling in a tree outside my window. The caw, caw was loud and, to my astonishment, in unison. The racket continued for about five minutes and then, without any discernable reason, it stopped – again, as one voice.

I later found out that April-May is nesting time for crows in this region. Crows are known for their communal behaviors, and in particular, in their practice of ganging up to ward off a threatening presence. Possibly the cacophony outside my window was a call of alarm to intimidate an owl or some other predator that was threatening a nest.

In the days following this experience, I thought about language and about how communication can be so essential to a group’s survival. It occurred to me that this capacity to use sound as a symbol of something else is obviously not exclusive to humans. Other species also make use of vocalizations to inform their group members about conditions in their environment, in this case a communal sound of alarm in response to a menace.

In 1980 a group of biologists observed vervet monkeys in Africa and discovered that the monkeys not only verbalized danger, but their calls were acoustically unique, depending on the predator. Each alarm brought about different responses. A warning about a leopard would send the monkeys running into the trees. To an eagle alarm, all would look up.  A snake alarm, they would look down. The researchers concluded that vervet alarm calls function to designate different classes of external threats.

  Vervet Monkeys

Another area of interest for researchers is to determine to what extent, if at all, interspecies communication occurs. Can there be a sharing and understanding of information between two or more species?

The best opportunity to look at this is with our pets, starting with dogs.

Human to dog exchanges occur in myriad ways. A whistle brings the dog home. Verbal commands are given and the dog responds. You cry and the dog comes and lays at your feet. Dog to human verbalizations come in the form of barks and growls and yips and cries. Through these sounds you know if the dog is angry, frightened, or happy. The dog makes a sound, and you respond.

Cats, being more aloof than dogs, are harder to read, and they only respond to verbal commands when they want. I did have two experiences with my cats, however, that I view as examples of interspecies warnings.

The first was when I was evacuated during a wildfire. I had received a robo call warning that I had ten minutes to get out of my house. I almost had to leave one of my cats when she scratched her way out of my grip as I was putting her into her carrier. She ran and hid under a couch and I couldn’t coax her out. Not even her favorite treat grabbed her attention. I moved the couch, and she moved with it. I begged her to come out. In desperation, I walked out of the room thinking I would have to leave her. Then back into the room and one last try. In my most authoritarian voice I called out, you’ve got to come out, now! And she did. Like an obedient puppy dog, she walked right up to me.  I popped her into her carrier with no trouble and we were gone.

The other experience was with a very verbal male cat who warned me of a problem. I had finished washing the dishes and was sitting in the living room. This cat kept running back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, meowing in what seemed like a stress call. I followed him into the kitchen and found I had left the water running just a slight bit.  Somehow he had figured out this was not right.  So I turned the water faucet off and that was that. He went on his way unperturbed.

Life is full of surprises.