Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blame It On Blaze, Cowbird Aura, and Prairie Fires on the Brain

This is Blaze. Blaze the Cottontail is glaring. Blaze is annoyed.

Why is Blaze annoyed, you ask? Why is that piece of wide, conceivably horribly tough fibrous nasty bright green grass hanging out of his mouth? Blaze would much rather be eating the small tender sunflower seedlings, and the green bean seedlings, and the sweet peas, and even the delicious complete tomato plant that Blaze ate down to the ground. He did leave Donna a quarter of a half inch tomato behind. Nobody can say that Blaze doesn't share.

Blaze is annoyed because big meanie Donna put a little white plastic fence she found in the rafters of the garage around the garden. Big drag for Blaze. And there is no doubt that the little white plastic fence has annoyed Blaze the Bunnie's ancestors as well. This of course did not annoy them nearly as much as when Donna's Dad, back when the backyard abutted a corn field instead of a park, used to blast away with a .22 out the back door at Blaze's fore bearers. Something that Donna heartily disapproved of, but now Donna's garden is being eaten by Blaze, the seedling eating motor mouth.

What is really bugging Donna? Blaze? Not a chance? It's the ugly white fence that is now heavily featured in her battle of the bath photos no matter what she does.

See the fence? Yeah, I know. So just loosen up a little and think of it as a psychedelic flashback and focus on the birds.
That dealt with...
The point of the photo is to illustrate the fact that not only was there a Battle of the Bath the day I did the post on it but there is a battle of the bath every single hot afternoon. And the next point is that birds are pretty loathe to share the bird bath with anyone, same species, their mate, none of it matters a bit.

Note Mr. and Mrs. Robin arguing over the bath. Mr. Robin says, "Hey I was here first. Wait your turn!" Mrs. Robin says,"I've been having to sit on that bloody hot nest for weeks and just what have you been doing, Mr. Prissy?" Eventually the Mrs. guilts him into sharing but sharing is extremely rare.

(This may get convoluted so pay attention.)

Now back to the first point. What was it you ask? Or do you think you know? You probably don't as I haven't made it yet. You just thought I had. You may have thought that it was all Blaze the Bunnie's fault because of my presentation of the situation. And because Blaze the Bunny is the only motor mouth herbivore I've been seeing, I might have thought it was all Blaze the Bunnie's fault as well if I hadn't given it some thought.

This is a lateral view of Blaze. She is awfully sweet isn't she? (Originally portrayed as male as male animals for whatever reason tend to seem less sympathetic.)

The length horizontally from one corner to the next in each triangle of the little white fence is about 2 inches. Blaze is a teensy rabbit. Blaze is not even four inches long. Blaze did not eat an entire tomato plant excepting a quarter inch of tomato without leaving a trace. Could have been a grown up bunny that I haven't seen but I'm thinking it's more Ground Hog style. Have I seen a larger bunny or a marmot? Nope. Therefore it HAS to be Blaze. Nope.

The lesson here is to test all theories even if they seem cut and dried and "gotta be it".

Ah, and here we are back to Mr. and Mrs. Robin actually sharing the bath. All rules have exceptions.

Have you wondered where all this was going? It's coming, it's coming. We're heading for Cowbird Aura, the third point. Notice the Mourning Dove and the juvenile Cowbird sitting on the edge of the bath at the same time. No one is doing any menacing. That's unusual as I've pointed out. Unfortunately this is the moment in which my camera battery went dead and by the time it was changed I missed the part I'm about to tell you about.
I was more annoyed about that than Blaze is about the sudden lack of seedlings.
The young Cowbird is looking to the right because a Robin is about to land on the bowl. When the Robin lands, the Mourning Dove takes off, the young Cowbird doesn't. Then as if the Cowbird didn't exist the Robin walks into the bath and begins bathing. The Cowbird walks into the bath and begins bathing as well, as did a second young Cowbird who almost immediately showed up to bathe with his buddy. Three in the bath. Wow, that's very unusual.
That's so unusual it is weird.
There are currently five juvenile Cowbirds who tend to hang out together. (Was an entire nest parasitized? All five of the host's eggs dumped and Cowbird eggs substituted? Or were the five young Cowbirds from a number of nests and they just somehow knew to group together? I don't know. I haven't found that detail in the literature as yet.
At any rate, the Robin didn't do a thing about the two in his bath. It was as if he hadn't really noticed them. And no, it wasn't because the Cowbirds were young. Juveniles of various species are menaced out of the bath by adults all the time.

I had noticed that the five youngsters arrive and leave the seed floor together, but while they're there they tend to move freely through the other groups of same species families as if they belong. Why? (It's been driving me crazy.)
What is it that allows them to do this? When other members of the Blackbird family arrive, everyone else gets out of the way in a hurry. Why is pretty obvious when it's a Grackle strutting in with that long beak. All the species seem to know where the other species are in the species pecking order. Perhaps, the Cowbirds don't display aggression signals or the opposite signals either?
As Cowbirds parasitize other species nests have they an evolutionary adaptation which is a special sort of neutral presence?

Which brings us to Kirtland's Warbler and taking a care not to believe what seems to be the obvious without looking carefully.
A Kirtland's adult weighs a half ounce. It's tiny. Therefore when a Cowbird lays an egg in a Kirland's nest, and as Cowbird chicks are specially adapted to hatch first and grow very fast, it's pretty much curtains for the Kirtlands own nestlings. Then there is that rather unsettling sight of a tiny Kirtland's Warbler feeding a huge Cowbird fledgling with no Kirtlands young in sight. Gulp. Talk about big meanies.
Add the fact that Kirtland's Warblers only exist in ten counties of Michigan, and you get one of the most endangered species in the country. The breeding pairs went down to 160 or so, which isn't a large enough number to keep the species going in the wild. And people kept seeing those "horrendous Cowbird fledglings" who'd "killed" the Kirtland's young. Besides it was said by experts that Cowbird numbers had increased by leaps and bounds.
In comes the cavalry in the guise of human engineered Cowbird Control. People begin to "control" the Cowbirds. Because if there are fewer Cowbirds then there will be more Kirtland's fledglings right? And more adult Kirtland's to make more babies, right? Then the little Kirtland's nests on the ground beneath living Jack Pine boughs will be safe, right?
Actually no, as it turns out. "Cowbird Control" over years did not appreciably increase Kirtland's numbers. Well it should have! But it didn't. Even though you'll still find it online that it did, it didn't according to the US Geological Survey, and they're paying attention. What's wrong? What's wrong? Get rid of more Cowbirds!
It didn't help.
Then there was a major fire in the Kirtland's neck of the woods. OH NO! That's the end! Wait...Kirtland's Warbler numbers began to increase. What? Yup. Though it looked like Cowbirds were the obvious problem they weren't. And now it's believed that Cowbird numbers haven't drastically increased in the country. So what was wrong with the Kirtland's Warblers?
Habitat, habitat, habitat. And us of course. As it was said in Pogo, "We have found the enemy and he is us", as usual.
Remember when we helped wildlife (and logging interests) by suppressing natural fires? Well, it turns out Jack Pine need fire to propagate properly. And to add insult to injury, Kirtland's Warblers like their Jack Pines of a certain size. New Jacks weren't growing and the existing ones were lost by attrition or too mature for best nest sites. It wasn't really the Cowbirds, it was us.
Actually, up until a few months ago, the sight of a Cowbird rather made me distressed. What poor bird was going to parasitized?
And it doesn't now? I do think of the host, but now I've seen the frightened needy expression that is almost a constant on a hen Cowbird's face. She too has a need to do what is best for her eggs, for her young. And she can only do what she knows to do for them. Lay them in a nest where they will be well cared for. And though I've talked about a certain neutral presence for the species...
I don't care how neutral your presence is. Nothing is going to be laying eggs in this Cardinal's nest. She's got an eye peeled and she's willing to call in back up.

Here is a Cowbird hen. Not the best photo but it isn't easy to take one. She is constantly on watch, afraid to be seen by anyone or anything at all. Remember her species is often subjected to "control". How did the fire that helped the Kirtland's Warbler affect other species? Perhaps not all that well in some cases if their needed habitat was destroyed by the fire and will take years to get to the place where they can use that area again. (Nature can really suck sometimes, can't it?)

And now we're back to fire, again. Prairie fire. (Never fear, it's all going to link up in the end. In my mind everything always does. It can really be a bother sometimes and so as not to be lonely I'm going to make you join the club.)
The day after the extended family did the trip to the prairie with the Meadowlark nest we did Indian Mounds. Wisconsin has loads of them. After seeing some of the smaller bird, lizard, minnow variety. The five and 8 year old were singularly unimpressed. We went to Aztalan.
By the time we arrived, negotiated the automated parking fee machine, and figured out there was an actual internal parking lot in the 172 acre site, we were well into mid-afternoon.
Two Park Rangers were chatting at a picnic table and when asked if there was going to be a program happening soon, they explained that we'd missed it. But when the found most of the group was visiting from Pennsylvania they decided they'd just do it again, a private tour and all.
I piped up and rather inanely said "That's terrific! The best park interpretation I've ever had was a private tour. " They asked, "Where was it." I explained, " We drove into Little Big Horn and though it had been evacuated because they thought the buildings were going to burn down due to an oncoming prairie fire the Park Ranger gave us an on the trot tour as he checked to make sure everyone else had gone. He said all the smoke boiling around us was probably just like the day the battle took place."
Well, Peg and Dave our Park Rangers, actually Peg in particular began to laugh hysterically, Dave chuckled sheepishly and my we all know my anecdote wasn't particularly amusing so it wasn't that. Peg pointed to the big black spot in the grass across the way, and said, "Dave started a prairie fire yesterday."
I asked Dave how he happened to do that, Dave, an older fellow, looked at his shoe tops and then at me and said, " I was stupid." Good timing. It set everyone off. Turns out Peg had appeared the day before for work, looked across the way to see Dave and a rather blazing grass fire.
Peg, thought to herself, gosh, Dave doesn't have any fire suppression equipment with him. That's because Dave had really planned on a full fledged prairie just sort of happened?

Then it was time for the tour. Aztalan is probably the most important archaeological site in the state. They've reconstructed part of what was there as of 1836, before farmers plowed the bejesus out of it and...
I found it very odd that the palisade that was thought to have been defensive against other tribes, the Aztalan guys, the Mississippians having intruded from down St. Louis way, never had a palisade on the side that abuts the river. Now take into account this is the Crawfish River, we're not talking the big Mississippi it's not really all that much of a barrier, particularly as this side of the river was prairie and the other side wooded. Secondly why was that the case anyway? (See, I'm constantly plagued by questions.) So why at least weren't there some Palisades on the river side with openings for river access if that was an issue?
I tune back in, the Palisades originally had wattle and daub over the wood trunks to fill up the spaces so arrows and spears couldn't go through...

Interestingly no one has figured out what they did with the sewage, a family member suggests it went into the wattle and daub a common practice in medieval times...
Peg explains, that the palisade burned down twice late in the civilization as it was no longer fireproof if it wasn't maintained properly...
Whoa! Wait! It was fireproof? Ding, ding. And the river side doesn't have a palisade? It may have been some "protection" from other tribes, but it was a also a FIREWALL. (Maybe it was the neighbors who set the prairie fires. No definitely the neighbors set fires in order to continue hunting as they'd always done...nomadically.) The fireproof palisade kept the "town" from burning down. The Mississippians being the only group who had full time resident structures. They hybridized corn so people had leisure for art, they were big traders, they had a plaza market place...they weren't nomadic. You want the neighbors to stay out you don't leave half the place without a wall, but if it's fire you're keeping out...the river won't burn.
If I want to keep Blaze the Bunny and friends out I don't put up only three sides to the fence.
When we were shaking hands to depart, Peg admitted that while in college she'd burnt down the Dean's apple orchard when she lost control of a burn.
Geez. This burning down-the-place thing is awfully common.
I sent a note to John Blakeman as he does prairie burns all the time and doesn't seem to suffer from the burning-down-the-place problem.
John wrote:

About the escaped fires. The expertise is in learning where and when NOT to burn. And that's always when the fire can take off. After a prairie or wildfire is set, it's virtually impossible to stop it. It burns until it runs out of fuel. That's the secret. It's not fire management. It's fuel management, before the fire is set. Mow off or rake off adequate fuel breaks before setting the fire.

That's where the inexperienced get into trouble. First, they just don't know how the fire will run (or creep). This can't be learned except by experience. I've done enough to be pretty accurate in discerning how the fire will advance, pending proper weather.

Which is another factor. We had better know how the fire will change if the temperatures and especially the winds change. That's why I don't do any burns without studying the NOAA Fire Weather projections for my area, (which is at ). By the way, today and tomorrow would be ideal burn conditions here -- except that everything's green and we'd just have a smokey mess That's why we burn in March and April.

Many factors, most based upon experience, with a base of real science or hard numbers. But like so much in science, especially the field biology of organisms, such as red-tails, the numbers alone never explain or predict anything very accurately. Human experience and understanding is really the essential factor in gaining the truest picture of the phenomenon. Were it not this, every college sophomore biology student would be making great discoveries.

Perhaps I should leave the real use of the pallisades to the arche0logists and stick to the beasties and birds after all. Maybe. But then I'd have to stop myself from coming up with questions and trying to figure out the answers.
Not likely so I'll just have to keep remembering that they are only theories...
Donegal Browne

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