Saturday, May 20, 2006

Nearly Extinct American Chestnut Trees Found

American Chestnut Tree
Castanea dentata

(Many thanks to Kentaurian, long time hawkwatcher
and nature observer, for sending in
the article. D.B.)

Nearly Extinct American Chestnut Trees Found

By The Associated Press
posted: 18 May 2006 06:24 pm ET

ALBANY, Ga. (AP)—A stand of American chestnut trees that somehow escaped a blight that killed off nearly all their kind in the early 1900s has been discovered along a hiking trail not far from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Little White House at Warm Springs.

The find has stirred excitement among those working to restore the American chestnut, and raised hopes that scientists might be able to use the pollen to breed hardier chestnut trees.

"There's something about this place that has allowed them to endure the blight,'' said Nathan Klaus, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who spotted the trees. "It's either that these trees are able to resist the blight, which is unlikely, or Pine Mountain has something unique that is giving these trees resistance.''

Experts say it could be that the chestnuts have less competition from other trees along the dry, rocky ridge. The fungus that causes the blight thrives in a moist environment.

The largest of the half-dozen or so trees is about 40 feet tall and 20 to 30 years old, and is believed to be the southernmost American chestnut discovered so far that is capable of flowering and producing nuts.

"This is a terrific find,'' said David Keehn, president of the Georgia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. "A tree of this size is one in a million.''

The rugged area known as Pine Mountain is at the southern end of the Appalachians near Warm Springs, where Roosevelt built a home and sought treatment after he was stricken with polio in 1921.

"FDR may have roasted some chestnuts on his fire for Christmas or enjoyed their blooms in the spring,'' Klaus said.

The chestnut foundation may use pollen from the tree in a breeding program aimed at restoring the population with blight-resistant trees.

"When the flowers are right, we're going to rush down and pollinate the flowers, collect the seeds a few weeks later and collect the nuts,'' Klaus said. "If we ever find a genetic solution to the chestnut blight, genes from that tree will find their way into those trees.''

The chestnut foundation has been working for about 15 years to develop a blight-resistant variety. The goal is to infuse the American chestnut with the blight-resistant genes of the Chinese chestnut.

American chestnuts once made up about 25 percent of the forests in the eastern United States, with an estimated 4 billion trees from Maine to Mississippi and Florida.

The trees helped satisfy demand for roasted chestnuts, and their rot-resistant wood was used to make fence posts, utility poles, barns, homes, furniture and musical instruments.

Then these magnificent hardwoods, which could grow to a height of 100 feet and a diameter of 8 feet or more, were almost entirely wiped out by a fast-spreading fungus discovered in 1904.

"There are no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and if they are, they're Chinese,'' Keehn said.

Friday, May 19, 2006

And Mom makes at least three...


Photo by Eleanor Tauber

And Mom makes at least three-

Stella Hamilton, hawk watcher and friend of all creatures who fly, walk, crawl, hop,or slither, just gave me a call. There is big excitement at The Hawk Bench this afternoon. Remember the raccoon who lives in the tree cavity just north of the Model Boat Pond, a stone throw from Pale Male's nest?

Today when the raccoon went out to forage, two new little raccoon faces peeked out of her doorway. And as a raccoon litter is anywhere from two to seven kits, the question becomes, are there any more in there?

Photo by Samantha Browne-Walters

Stella, sitting on the edge of The Model Boat Pond with 927 Fifth Avenue in the background. It's teeny but up there on the top floor, middle window above the cornice, or above 'the eyebrow' as Noreen, original hawkwatcher, likes to say, is Pale Male and Lola's nest.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


18 MAY 2006

It was a gorgeous day. So I grabbed the scope earlier than usual and took off for the southern end of Central Park. I had high hopes of spotting Charlotte, Pale Male Jr., and the Peregrine pair. After all, might they not be out enjoying the weather themselves?

Well the day was still gorgeous, but the high hopes of spotting the raptors anytime soon were thoroughly dashed. I decided instead of continually trotting around looking while the birds ducked behind chimneys and giggled, I'd choose a place where I could get the long view of at least part of both their territories at the same time. Therefore spying them as they went in and out, and in the best of all worlds, tracking them.

The park is wall to wall humans. Don't all these people have to make a living?

Finding a reasonably good spot, I unpack the gear, set up the scope, and with notebook and pen in hand, scan the skies, scrutinize the buildings and you guessed it...wait.

Now, this might seem silly to some birders, as the Park is surely full of all sorts of fascinating migrants just waiting to be identified, counted, and listed. And those activities are surely important and I've been known to do them myself. But what piques my curiosity the most, what brings me the most pleasure, the sparking of questions whose answers I'm urged to pursue these days, is to watch the behavior of animals. And while doing that in Central Park, where the populations of species tend to be small, and raptor species numbers the smallest, I can't help but begin to know the individual birds, their particular behaviors and for want of a better word, their personalities.

While Lola has been known to refuse prey brought to her by Pale Male, that isn't prepared to her specifications, Charlotte finds no problem, and even perhaps a preference in plucking her own pigeons, thank you. Right there on the nest, the feathers will fly.

Now as I was involved in these musings, I began to notice a pair of House Sparrows, Passer domesticus, making dozens of short trips back and forth to a tree cavity. Tiny bits of something in their beaks when they went in and nothing when they came out. Definitely bringing in "prey" for their nestlings. Just much smaller prey than the Red-tails.

The cock stops in his doorway and gives me a look.

And there is a partial answer to the question. Why all the different beiges, browns, and blacks and why in those positions? Do you see?

Then my eye is caught by the Great Egret, Ardea alba, hunting in The Pond. He sees something, traverses the little island in a grand stalk...No, too long for tonight...a photo sequence tomorrow, perhaps?

He then stands as if he's a model for a pre-Raphaelite painting.

What about the raptors you say? Yes indeed, what about them? I scan the sky. It has begun to be distinctly gray and cloudy. Visibility is way down. The wind has picked up. I turn and run the scope over the GM building. Guess who? There she is, Mrs P., sitting on GM 3 west, preening.

I wonder how long she's been there?

Drat! I grab for my notebook, uncover my watch, try to tighten the scope, and focus it, all at the same time. Plop. A fat raindrop hits my paper, running the ink. PLOP, PLOP! The heavens then open in a deluge of little warning. Or at least any warning to which I was paying the least bit of attention.

Then comes the mad grab for plastic, the stuffing of belongings into a suddenly too small bag, and finally when already drenched, the walk to the subway. Leaving Mrs. P. To go about her preening, and whatever other business she might wish to pursue in privacy. No Homo sapiens in the park now. It has been returned to all the creatures who make their livings there.

Pale Male's tail at the Fifth Avenue Nest

Palemale, Lola, The Mrs. Peregrine Mystery, Jupiter, Saturn, and five moons.

17 May 2006

Sunset: 8:09PM (NYT)
Temperature: 70F.
Humidity: 41%
Partly sunny
Wind gusts to 20MPH

Pale Male and Lola continue to dutifully tend the nest. When I arrived Pale Male was sitting deep and Lola was off taking a break. At 6:19PM Pale Male stood, put his head into the concave of the bowl, repositioned himself, then disappeared from sight.

7:20PM Lola discovered on the Oreo Antenna being harassed by a Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos.

Mrs. Peregrine sitting very late on the railing of General Motors, 5 in from the west. The mystery question-Why isn't she going in to sit the nest for the night?

When I arrived at Gapstow Bridge, dedicated Peregrine observer Ben Cacace was already in residence, but neither of the Peregrines were, at least where we could see them. And yet again I'd missed seeing the on-the-wing prey transfer from the tiercel to the hen.

The Canada goose family was in sight, gathered on the green verge north of the bridge. The goose and six goslings were busy eating grass and the gander was standing guard, erect, chest puffed out, and vigilant. He repeatedly made it his business to chase any other members of his species away from the grazing area. And probably every other species as well but I just didn't see it.

Well after sunset, at 8:25, Mrs. P. arrived at the railing of GM5W. We waited for the nest exchange. She sat there. She preened. We waited. Civil twilight arrives, 8:39, and still she sits and still we wait. It is now so dark that if she weren't to the left of the rail, her shape against the lighter masonry, we'd have no way of knowing if she were still there. At 8:57, I'm no longer sure I can really see her through the scope. Ben gives it a try and at 8:58PM we agree, it is too dark to be reliable. But we hadn't seen her leave and her movements would have been apparent, wouldn't they? Why didn't she go in to the nest? Do tiercils actually tend the nest at night now and again? Not something we'd ever heard or read. Peregrines do hunt migrating birds at night around the Empire State Building so perhaps they will switch later in the privacy of darkness?

It does feel very unfinished not to see her drop over the rail for the night.

That unfinished feeling brings to mind the question as to exactly what Charlotte and Junior are doing these days? Neither I nor anyone I've talked to has seen them on the nest in the last day or two. The closest was a sighting of Charlotte on the Essex sign earlier today.

But then Ben sees the planet Jupiter, very bright and clear to the north of The Pierre. The scope is readjusted and focused. Jupiter swims into view, complete with salmon streaks, and a beautifully straight row of four moons, named courtesy of Galileo...Callista, Ganymede, Io, and Europa.

That was so terrific, what else can we look at? Saturn! There it is above the Essex Sign. The scope swings over and crystal clear are the marvelous rings, and isn't that something, that small thing. Yes! It is Titan, Saturn's large moon. Five moons in one night, not bad at all.

Monday, May 15, 2006

the Floridian version, just in from Eleanor Tauber, an actress at Hedgerow Theatre for many years, one of Central Park's newest photographers, and a frequent contributor of her lovely photographs to Palemaleirregulars.

From Eleanor-
Here they are, hanging around their burrow “fishing”......

Owls Use Dung to "Fish" for Beetles
John Roach for National Geographic News

Burrowing owls have an affinity for the dung of other animals. Their underground nests and surrounding areas are carpeted with the stinky stuff. Now a team of researchers has found at least one reason why all this fecal matter matters to the owls: It's bait for dung beetles, the owls' favorite grub.
The research, reported in the science journal Nature, demonstrates that burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) deliberately use mammal dung as a tool to reel in a meal—and in the process substantially increase the number of dung beetles they eat.

"Burrowing owls are diurnal [active in daytime], they will sit at the burrow entrance all day long and it looks like they're doing nothing," said Douglas Levey, a zoologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "But you know what? It's pretty clear they are fishing. They've got their line in the water and are waiting for dung beetles to come by."
Levey, who is the lead author of the study, added that the finding is particularly noteworthy because it demonstrates that tool use can substantially benefit a wild animal. Such convincing evidence is scant in the biological record.
For example, herons are widely known to place a floating object, such as a bread crumb or feather, on top of water as a lure for minnows. But no studies have compared how well herons would do if they did not fish in this manner.
"As far as I know, [our study] is the first example of that, not just in birds but in wild animals in general," Levey said.
Gavin Hunt, an ecologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who studies tool use by crows, agrees.
"The owl paper is the first to really quantify the benefit of tool use to a free-living animal in terms of food gained," he said. "As such, it is an interesting finding that seems to confirm what most of us have only assumed to date."
The researchers came up with the study idea several years ago while on a field trip to observe burrowing owls. It was part of an ornithology course Levey was teaching at the University of the Florida.
Levey and his students—including study co-authors Scot Duncan, now at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, and Carrie Levins, who lives in Panama City, Florida—noticed dung scattered around the burrow and wondered why it was there.
Duncan, whose wife happens to be a beetle expert, recognized beetle parts in the regurgitated pellets that were mixed in with the dung. He realized that the owls were eating a bunch of beetles.
"Everybody who studies burrowing owls knows they bring dung back to their burrows, and they know that burrowing owls eat a lot of dung beetles. But nobody had put two and two together," Levey said.
To test the hypothesis that the burrowing owls were indeed luring the dung beetles to their nests with dung, the researchers removed dung and pellets from several burrows. They then placed fresh dung at the entrance to some and left others bare.
Four days later the researchers examined the owls' regurgitated pellets and found that the owls with dung bait ate ten times more dung beetles and six times more dung beetle species than the owls without dung bait.
Wise Owls?
But before you go out and buy your favorite burrowing owl a kitschy "gone fishin'" sign to hang on the burrow wall, Levey said there is no evidence to suggest the owls are actually aware of what they are doing.
"Even though people think owls are wise, there's no reason to assume they make a conscious choice to go get the dung they bring back because [they know] beetles will then appear out of nowhere," he said.
Rather, according to Levey, this dung beetle baiting behavior is likely a trait that evolved via natural selection: Owls that bring back more dung are more likely to get more dung beetles and thus are more likely to be successful in reproduction, passing on the trait.
"The owls are using a rather simple method to catch beetles with readily available material, so the raw material—owls, dung, and dung beetles—if you like, was just waiting for evolution to come up with tool use," Hunt, the New Zealand ecologist, said.
In fact, Levey doubts that the behavior of bringing dung back to the burrow evolved for the reason of dung beetle baiting. Owls bring other stuff back to the burrows, including bits of plastic, carpet tailings, foil, and gum wrappers, all of which may serve as insulation. Or, the dung may serve to camouflage from predators the scent of eggs or chicks.
The researchers tested the egg hypothesis using quail eggs and found that nests with and without dung were equally attacked by predators. However, the test did not rule out the possibility that chicks give off a smell that the dung masks.
"We didn't test that. We didn't want to sacrifice chicks, so the olfactory hypothesis may yet hold," Levey said.
Regardless, the researchers' finding that the dung beetle baiting behavior benefits the owls' diet is generally held to be valid.
"I'm convinced that owls with dung outside their burrows catch more dung beetles than when the dung is not there," Hunt said. "That doesn't rule out another advantage of having the dung around the burrows, though."
Levey said, "It's often the case that one behavior can do more than one thing, and there's nothing wrong with that."

(When told about this behavior, my daughter Samantha asked the big question, "But how do they carry it home?" D.B.)

Just how smart animals are, how capable of interspecies communication, and what's wired in and what's not, are constant topics amongst the open minded observers in Central Park.
Below find lessons in never underestimating of what they may be capable.

Prairie Dog Communication
and Dr. Con Slobodchikoff

“Basically, prairie dogs are a universal lunch item. Everybody likes to feed on prairie dogs,” says animal behaviorist Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University. And the prairie dogs know that. When a predator approaches they emit a series of warning chirps.

Talking Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs can talk. At least that’s the startling conclusion reached by Slobodchikoff.
His research flies in the face of conventional scientific thinking on the subject of animal intelligence.
He maintains that prairie dogs can convey complex information through a language more sophisticated than that of any animal ever studied.
Slobodchikoff has documented more than 100 prairie dog words all revolving around the same subject: predators. From his observation tower on the edge of a prairie dog colony outside Flagstaff, Slobodchikoff operates a directional microphone, a tape recorder and a video camera. From this vantage point, he can spot intruders, such as hawks, cats, dogs, and men and record the alarm calls these potential threats trigger in the prairie dogs.

“Each time we do experiments I’m surprised because each time even I don’t think these animals have the capabilities that our experiments show them to have,” says Slobodchikoff.

Back at his lab he digitizes his audio field tape into sonograms which show what each alarm call “looks” like, complete with adjectives.
The professor has discovered that prairie dogs use adjectives to differentiate objects. For example, they can describe the color of clothes on a human and whether he is tall or short. They can also describe how fast a man is moving or whether he is carrying a gun. And there’s evidence that the animals can remember that specific person for up to two months.

Each prairie dog colony appears to have its own dialect, much like New Yorkers sound different from Southerners. But researchers believe the basic language is the same. That is, a prairie dog from Arizona could talk to a prairie dog from New Mexico.

Animals vs. Humans
Despite the documentation, the notion that the lowly prairie dog could have such a complex communication system is still met with some skepticism. Slobodchikoff explains that some people don’t believe animals are capable of cognitive functions.

Renowned biologist Jane Goodall knows something about that prejudice.“Every time some new discovery appears, there is an instant hostile reaction, not necessarily from the scientists but also from religious people in some cases,” says Goodall.

“There is a real strong need in the minds of many people to keep that line sharp between humans on the one hand and the rest of the animal kingdom on the other. I think the chimp, more than anything else, has helped to blur that line.”

Goodall’s work with the chimpanzee documented cognitive and emotional capabilities in that primate. But the idea that chimps could actually think and feel met with initial resistance. For example, when she used human pronouns to describe chimpanzee behavior.

“The first paper I wrote for “Nature,” the scientific periodical, they actually crossed out where I put “he and she and who,” and put “it” which, I thought, this is crazy. So we have come a long way since then.

Prejudice About Rodents But the prairie dog still has an image problem. This is no primate, with humanlike expressions. This is a lowly rodent.

“The prejudice is that lowly rodents have to be by definition fairly stupid. Therefore what I’m finding must be a mistake in the minds of at least some people,” says Slobodchikoff.

Not everyone who deals with prairie dogs is interested in their language skills. Ranchers say they are pests that ruin grazing land and carry bubonic plague. Slobodchikoff says the prairie dog’s reputation as a pest is exaggerated, and its potential contribution to research underestimated.

The Lessons of Prairie Dogs
After all, says the professor, if prairie dogs have the ability to think and communicate, perhaps other species can do the same.

“If animals can think, if they have self-awareness, this sort of raises an ethical question about what it is we are doing with animals and how we really should treat animals,” he says.
Goodall agrees but is not optimistic.
“It doesn’t happen that way. The resistance continues. We go on trying to convince ourselves that we are different. That we are special,” she says. Of course, there are differences. After all, the prairie dog is not spouting poetry. But when it comes to the basic prose of survival, he’s got it down.

Cognition and Communication in Prairie Dogs
by C. N. Slobodchikoff

My central research question concerns the relationship between the complex communicationsystem of Gunnison's prairie dogs and their cognitive abilities. Gunnison's prairie dogs (Cynomys gunnisoni) are social, colonial animals that are found in the American Southwest,within the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

There are four other species of prairie dogs: the Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), found in the midwesternUnited States; the Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens), found in the state of Utah; the White-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys leucurus), found in the states of Montana and Wyoming; andthe Mexican prairie dog (Cynomys mexicanus), found in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico.Gunnison's prairie dogs typically spend the winter in a state of torpor inside extensiveunderground burrow systems, then emerge in the spring to set up territories (Slobodchikoff1984; Rayor 1988). Each territory is defended by the group living on it, and the social structure can vary considerably within the same colony. Some territories are occupied by a single male or female, others are occupied by a single male and a single female, still others are occupied by a single male and several females, and some are occupied by several adult males and several adult females (Slobodchikoff 1984; Travis and Slobodchikoff 1993). The structure of the social system within a territory seems to be correlated with the distribution of food resources: uniformlydistributed food resources correlate with single male-single female territories, while patchily distributed food resources correlate with single male-multiple female and multiple male-multiple female territories (Slobodchikoff 1984; Travis and Slobodchikoff 1993).

The colonies are spatially fixed, and the extensive burrow systems can persist for perhaps hundreds of years.The spatial concentration of prairie dogs into colonies means that a number of predators can encounter a dependable food source throughout much of the year. Prairie dogs are preyed upon by coyotes, foxes, badgers, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, harriers,black-footed ferrets, domestic dogs, domestic cats, rattlesnakes, and gopher snakes. Also, prairie dogs are hunted extensively by humans for target practice and sport.

Prior to the introduction of rifles, prairie dogs were hunted as a source of meat by Native American peoplesfor at least 800 years (Slobodchikoff et al. 1991). Such predation pressure was probably important for the evolution of anti-predator defenses.

Prairie dogs have dichromatic color vision (Jacobs and Pulliam 1973) and can detect the presence of a predator from long distances. They also have an alarm call system that allows them to advertise the approach of a potential predator. The alarm calls are very loud and can carry for distances of more than a kilometer (Hoogland 1996). The burrows provide an escape route from most terrestrial and aerial predators.

The burrow architecture within a territory has several openings to the surface connected to a series of underground tunnels that can run a horizontal distance of more than 10 meters below the ground surface (Fitzgerald andLechleitner 1973). The alarm call system has proven to be a Rosetta stone for deciphering the information encoded in the prairie dog vocalizations.

When a prairie dog detects a predator, he or she emits a call that alerts other prairie dogs to the presence of danger. The call can be given as a single bark, or as a series of barks that comprise a calling bout. The external referent, the predator, can be seen and videotaped by field observers, as can the escape behaviors of the prairie dogs in response to the predator.

The alarm calls can be recorded on audiotape and brought back to the laboratory for analysis. The calls can be analyzed through Fast-Fourier transform to assess the acoustic structure of the vocalizations. Different parts of the waveforms of the calls can be measured, and statistical analyses or fuzzy-logic neural net analyses can be performed to determine whether calls elicited by different predators are similar to one another or different from each other (Slobodchikoff et al. 1991; Placer and Slobodchikoff 2000). The calls recorded for each predator can be played back to the prairie dogs when no predator is present and when no prairie dog is calling.

Key Terms & Common Behaviors
Chirking: At the first sign of trouble this alarm call is sounded. This is a "chirk-chirk-chirk" sound.

Coterie: A family group of prairie dogs made up of 1 male, 1 to 4 females and their young, up to two years old.

Jump-yip: A strong arch of the back (the "jump"), followed by a shrill "yip". This occurs when a predator has left the area and in territorial displays.

Kissing: Family members greet with what looks like a kiss. They're not really kissing, but gently touching their front teeth together. This is how prairie dogs recognize each other.

Next Time You See A Prairie Dog, Ask About The Wife And Kids
By Leo Banks

CON SLOBODCHIKOFF is a soft-spoken, Berkeley-educated scientist with a shock of silver hair and a stout backbone. He needs the latter to endure the raised eyebrows of colleagues who can't bring themselves to accept the conclusion Slobodchikoff has reached through 10 years of painstaking research--prairie dogs can talk.

Yes, talk. As in tell family and friends of approaching predators, identify the predator, and in the case of humans, describe the clothing and even whether he or she is carrying a gun.

In the world of this animal behaviorist, born to Russian parents, now a professor at Northern Arizona University, prairie dogs are nothing like the rapidly procreating rangeland critters of popular image. He describes them as highly intelligent and capable of conveying complex information through a vocal language more sophisticated than that of any animal ever studied.

For years scientists thought animals could only give calls about their emotions, such as anger or fear. But Slobodchikoff says the more he analyzed the communication of prairie dogs, the more complicated the story got. "The Rosetta Stone of this is the prairie dog's alarm call," he says.

Slobodchikoff gathers data by sitting inside a tower on the edge of a prairie dog colony in the pine forests outside Flagstaff. The wood-frame structure is covered in burlap for concealment. Inside, he operates a directional microphone, tape recorder and video camera.

When a predator approaches, prairie dogs make a sound like a bird chirping, and Slobodchikoff records it. Back in the lab, he runs the tape through a computer program that digitizes it, and breaks it down into frequency and time. Changes in frequency and time are measured, and this data re-entered into the computer and analyzed to see if differences exist between predators.

They do. The alarm call for an approaching hawk, for instance, is different from that of a coyote, which is different from that of human.

In one experiment, Slobodchikoff had a gun-toting hunter appear in a prairie dog colony. The call the dogs gave for that person was distinct from the call they gave for another who appeared without a gun. For the next two months, the first hunter returned periodically, but without a gun. The prairie dogs remembered him as a potential threat and always gave the same call as when he had gun.

The only animal with comparable language ability is the vervet monkey of Kenya. It has calls for three predators, eagle, leopard and snake. Slobodchikoff's research has identified prairie dog calls for four predators--human, hawk, coyote and domestic dog. Badgers also prey on prairie dogs, but he has been unable to distinguish an alarm call for badgers.

Counting its predator words, and numerous adjectives to modify them by color, shape, size and more, Slobodchikoff places the numbers of words prairie dogs can speak in the hundreds.
They also have a kind of grammar--they can speed up or slow down their talking depending on whether the predator is running or walking through their colony. Slobodchikoff calls it a grammar because it follows the basic rules of how you combine sounds, the same way humans do.

And prairie dogs have varying dialects. Every colony pronounces words in a slightly different way, but dogs within the same species can communicate. In other words, a Gunnison Prairie Dog from Colorado could chat with a Gunnison Prairie Dog from Utah.

"My interest is in finding out if other animals can do this, too," he says. "Scientists haven't really thought to look because they just expected that animals couldn't talk."

But it's tough to get funding. A two-pound varmint talking to other two-pound varmints? It sounds too far out. Except to ordinary folks. Non-scientists are fascinated to learn that animals can talk, and don't think it's strange at all. In fact, they're surprised that more researchers aren't studying the question. Scientists are a much harder sell.

"I'd say 25 percent think my findings are interesting," says Slobodchikoff. "And 75 percent are either agnostic or outright disbelievers. When I first presented my research, colleagues told me I must've made a mistake."

ANOTHER OBSTACLE is overcoming anti-prairie dog sentiment. Hunters delight in finding them at the end of their gunsights, various government agencies are more than happy to tell you how to poison them, and ranchers complain that they carry bubonic plague. They also leave holes in the ground that can trip up horses, and they're worse than cows at stripping landscape of vegetation.

"They're a pain in the neck," says C.B. "Doc" Lane, spokesman for the Arizona Cattleman's Association. "They can do enormous damage to a field. They build entire prairie dog towns that can be 10 acres in size."

"If you drive from Denver to Boulder, in the Douglas County area, you'll see large plots of land with no forage at all," says Reeves Brown, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "They've been stripped clean and people think it's from horses and cows. But it's prairie dogs."

Brown recommends a little poison barley at the edge of the colony and a change in attitude: 'If we called them prairie rats, it'd be hard to have much sympathy for them."

Barley is only one way to skin a pest. The University of Arizona's agricultural agent in Coconino County, Slobodchikoff's home, hands out literature to anyone interested in getting rid of prairie dogs. Tips include using strychnine, toxic gas, trapping, shotgunning and pumping carbon monoxide into their burrows.

The latter is accomplished by dropping a cartridge inside, or running exhaust from a car or truck into the hole. "Actually a lawn mower would do the trick," says agent Tom DeGomez, who says two cases of plague in humans in Coconino County have been linked to prairie dogs.

He tells people the long-term solution is to plant trees. "They don't like trees because they like to pop their heads up and look around to see who's coming. They're paranoid," says DeGomez.

Paranoid? Hard to understand why. Navajos and Hopis have only been hunting them with spears and arrows for hundreds of years, and they even have traditional recipes for baked prairie dog. It's considered a delicacy.

"They're everybody's lunch," says Slobodchikoff. "Here's an animal people think of as simplistic vermin, yet it has a complex cognitive brain that can form concepts and remember things for long periods. I think prairie dogs have a lot to teach us."

Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax

A bit before dusk, nearly every evening these days, a Black-crowned Night-heron mysteriously appears, not a muscle moving, peering through the reeds, on the little island just south of Gapstow bridge. Capable of complete stillness for extended periods of time, screened by vegetation, and blending into the rise of rock behind him, you may not notice him at first. Which is exactly the point after all for a bird on the hunt.

Unless of course he's undertaking the process of daily grooming, a tremendously vigorous act for a creature of usual stealth. In fact there is so much movement even preteens on bicycles may take notice. They'll be walking their bikes across the bridge, the decibel level high as they top one another in telling their adventures of the day, when suddenly one will stand rooted, and say, "Look at that! Is it a penguin?."

The heron may continue his absolutions, while keeping an eye on the noise makers until they drift out of sight. When he's finished his feathers, it is back again to that marvel of stillness and hope for a possible snack, before flying into a tree around civil twilight time. It is not always the same tree, but it will be near the pond.

On Saturday, one of the Black-crowned Night-herons chose a tree placed just north of the bridge. Within a short time, a second Night-heron made either for the same spot or for the heron sitting in it, and at the last moment before collision took an abrupt right turn in the air before sweeping grandly off into the night. Though a very close encounter, the first heron , as one might suspect-- did not move a muscle.