Another dangerous Chinese import

Praying mantises (known to entomologists as “mantids”) have been frequent topics on forums and blogs this week. Hummingbird enthusiasts are often alarmed to find a mantis/mantid lurking in their flowers or perched brazenly on their feeders, and rightly so. Big mantises can overpower, kill, and eat small vertebrates such as hummingbirds (grisly photo documentation of a mantis eating a Ruby-throated Hummingbird here).

Normally I’d be tempted to shrug and say, “That’s nature,” but among the twenty-odd mantids in the United States the only widespread species that’s large enough to catch hummingbirds is one that doesn’t belong here: The Chinese Mantid, Tenodera aridifolia sinensis. At an adult length of at least four inches, close to twice the size of most common native species, this is one formidable predator. It’s probably the most widespread species in North America thanks to mail-order sales of egg cases (oothecae) to gardeners and insect enthusiasts.

I’m very fond of mantids, and I remember being deeply disappointed when I first learned that the biggest, most dramatic ones are aliens. A little Web research confirms that Chinese Mantids are the largest of their kind in North America, though estimates of maximum size vary from 85 to 150 mm (3.3-6 inches) [Wikipedia][Enature]. Having seen big females that were at least four inches long, I tend to trust the higher figure. I’m not sure how big one would have to be to catch and hold a hummingbird long enough to kill it, but somewhere we’ve got a slide showing a concerned Black-chinned Hummingbird hovering a discreet distance from a feeder occupied by a Chinese Mantid less than four inches long.

One of the less helpful pages I came across while researching the relative sizes of native and exotic mantids was an information sheet on praying mantids at the University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science Education Outreach (CISEO). Each of the site’s information sheets has a section on positive and negative impacts on the ecosystem of the critters in question—a great idea in theory. The mantid page mentions under positive impacts that they are indiscriminate predators but lists no known negative impacts on the ecosystem. This is certainly true for our smaller native species, but what about the humongous Chinese Mantid?

In the interests of accuracy and balanced reporting, I shot off a quick email to the webmaster suggesting that the page be revised to mention the Chinese Mantid and its predation on vertebrates. This was his reply:

Interesting that you consider a negative impact only for large species. What about all of the small insects that all species of mantids eat? All species consume a variety of things in order to survive. Plants included. The only species I know of that has a truly negative impact because of what it eats is us. So, if I had written the text I don’t think I would have included the negative impact. Unfortunately the concept of negative impact is almost entirely anthropocentric. I like hummingbirds too, and the fact that some species find them tasty is just a part of the natural world.

The CISEO webmaster is more than entitled to an entomocentric view of the world, but the insinuation that my view is anthropocentric, or even avicentric, is way off base. The issue is not so much size or phylum as how alien species effect natives and their ecosystems. I’d take an equally dim view of a fellow ornithologist championing House Sparrows, European Starlings, Eurasian Collared-Doves, or Ring-necked Pheasants in North America.

The predator-hater implication also misses the mark by miles. Growing up with hunters and ranchers on one side and Disney on the other, I found myself drawn to predators as fascinating underdogs. Hawks and snakes are still among my favorite animals, and I certainly don’t begrudge native predators the occasional meal of a hummingbird or any other species of wildlife, native or exotic.

My concern is not that mantids are eating hummingbirds but that the Chinese Mantid is sufficiently different from our native mantids for its predation to have an unnatural impact on native wildlife and ecosystems. Its far greater size allows it to kill much larger prey than its native counterparts, and the vertebrates it kills have far greater potential longevity and far lower reproduction rates than its invertebrate prey, magnifying the ecological consequences of such depredations. In this broader view of the issues it seems disingenuous and anti-educational for the information sheet to claim no known negative ecological impact and to fail to acknowledge that not all mantids in Arizona actually belong here.

The point that we tend to view the value of wildlife, exotic or otherwise, through an anthropocentric lens is well taken, and the reputation of mantids as beneficial insects, whether native or not, is a sterling example of how this lens can distort your thinking. It brings to mind a call to Ramsey Canyon Preserve from a man in Phoenix who apparently took the “tree-hugger”epithet a bit too literally. He wanted The Nature Conservancy’s help to stop his neighbor from cutting down some eucalyptus trees. I explained that TNC was about protecting native species and ecosystems, and that exotic suburban ornamental trees didn’t qualify. “But I thought you people saved trees!” he protested.

One of the biggest challenges for environmental educators is that most people’s opinions of other species depend on what’s in it for them. Mantids are promoted and sold as “friends” of gardeners and farmers. Shady eucalyptus trees comfort people who haven’t embraced desert life. Voracious aquatic predators are stocked in lakes and streams far and wide to thrill fishermen who enjoy a good fight. Ungulates with ornamental headgear that looks good on a wall are imported and bred on ranches for the shooting pleasure of trophy hunters. Problem is, many of the anthropocentric efforts to promote “desirable” species threaten the integrity of native ecosystems.

Environmental education can help create a better-informed and broader-minded constituency for conservation, but is this really the goal of CISEO? The webmaster’s e-mail address is at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture, and the project is funded by grants from the National Institute of Health, so it’s tempting to see a thinly veiled agenda. The mission statement on the home page says:

Our objectives are to develop new integrated education materials that foster the use of live insects as teaching models and to offer teacher training in background information about arthropods and how to use them in the classroom.

Perusing other information pages turns up the positive contributions of mosquitoes to ecosystems as food for fish, birds, bats, and other arthropods, so it’s not all about direct economic and/or health impacts on humans.

One would also hope that the webmaster, a retired entomology professor, might be aware that exotic insects endanger native insects. One prominent victim is the Xerces Blue (Glaucopsyche [lygdamus] xerces), a butterfly whose slide to extinction coincided with the arrival in its California home of the Argentine Ant, Linepithema humile, which displaced the native ant species that cared for the tiny butterfly’s caterpillars. The Xerces Blue may not be significant in terms of agriculture or public health, but the Argentine Ant’s ecological and economic impact has been far reaching.

The Argentine Ant is just one example that refutes the CISEO webmaster’s notion that Homo sapiens is the only species whose feeding habits have negative ecological impacts. We’ve contributed to the decline of many species and extinction of a few in the course of feeding ourselves through hunting, fishing, and agriculture (whose impacts include habitat destruction, pesticides, predator control, water diversion, and diseases introduced by livestock), but alien wildlife can also eat native animals and plants out of existence. Just ask Arizona’s own Santa Cruz (Monkey Spring) Pupfish, Cyprinodon arcuatus…oh, wait, you can’t—they’ve been extinct for decades, gobbled up by exotic Largemouth Bass. Looking for a hummingbird example? How about the critically endangered Juan Fernández Firecrown, found only on the remote islands off the coast of Chile from which it gets its name? One subspecies is already extinct, and the few hundred remaining individuals are threatened by the feeding habits of non-native rats, cats, coatis, and rabbits as well as loss of native vegetation to alien plants and logging (which ironically seems to have benefited its less specialized cousin and competitor, the Green-backed Firecrown).

These are problems of our own making. We may not be able to bring back what we’ve lost, but the very least we can do is have the intellectual honesty to take responsibility in hopes that some of the damage can be reversed and that future ecological meddling can be averted. It’s never too early to encourage responsible stewardship of biological diversity, and I hope CISEO will consider incorporating this subject into its lesson plans.

Arizona’s second documented Ruby-throated Hummingbird

On Sunday, September 23, Scott and Linda Terrill spotted an adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird visiting Marion Paton’s feeders in Patagonia, Arizona, only the second state record for this species. It’s a gorgeous bird—take a look at photos by Christie Van Cleve and Mark Stevenson on the Arizona Field Ornithologists’ Web site.

For photos and documentation of the first state record, see the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory’s photo album.

For exhaustive analysis (including sonograms) of a controversial hummingbird that was prematurely reported as the second Arizona Ruby-throated, see my analysis of the Gilbert “mystery” hummingbird.

Extreme Makeover: Hummingbird Edition

The hummingbird traffic around the old homestead has been so heavy that it’s been dangerous just stepping out the door. Good diversity, too, with eight species. The activity has been highest in the early morning, late evening, and before and after thunderstorms, so it’s been hard to get good photos, but here are three Rufous reluctantly sharing a feeder with each other and a young male Costa’s.

3 Rufous, 1 Costa’s

Between drinks, as many as a half dozen at a time would line up on the utility lines over the front walk and driveway.

Hummers on a wire

Though there’s been no shortage of hummingbirds at our two official banding stations, I couldn’t resist the temptation to do some banding at the house. With Anna’s, Costa’s, and Violet-crowned around, which have a better-than-average chance of sticking around this winter and/or returning next year, there’s an opportunity to get some useful information from the effort.

When we band at our other stations, our goal is to limit our interference in the birds’ lives as much as possible in the process of gathering the data we need to achieve our research goals. This includes not interfering in natural events, even those that might be harmful to the bird. If a bird has parasites or a naturally acquired injury, we make note of it but don’t intervene. We’ll never know the fate of most of these birds, but those that are re-encountered can tell us a lot about how hummingbirds deal with these challenges.

At home, where the protocol is more flexible, I don’t feel like I have to keep my inner Florence Nightingale locked in the janitor’s closet. Yesterday’s banding provided opportunities to polish up my hummingbird karma by helping a couple of birds in need. One was a young male Rufous who had lost most of the feathers on the right side of his head. His right eye was sealed shut because the surrounding feathers were matted together by some rigid glue-like material – maybe sugar, maybe pus. Gentle washing with warm water on a cotton swab loosened his feathers and freed his eyelids, though he was still having trouble opening the eye. Then it was back in the holding cage for a gentle blow-dry. Though he looked much better afterward, his naked face still looked so ugly that I decided not to take any photos.

The second bird in need was a young male Black-chinned who looked like he’d lost a lot of feathers on his left side between the breast, cheek, and shoulder. Turns out that many of the feathers were still there but, like in the Rufous, were matted into hard lumps by some contaminant. So it was back to the bathroom for more warm water and cotton swabs. After a few minutes and a blow-dry my little patient looked much better.

BCHU makeover

No “before” shot, so you’ll have to trust me that this is an improvement. Even after a good fluffing of his newly clean, dry feathers, the plumage around his neck was so sparse that I could watch his crop filling up as I gave him his complementary drink before release.

There’s a good chance that whatever these young fellas got into wasn’t entirely natural, so helping them out wasn’t totally unjustifiable from a scientific standpoint. Hummingbirds are amazingly tough, and I’m optimistic for these birds’ future.

UPDATE: The partially denuded Black-chinned was seen at the feeders the next afternoon.

The significance of Alex

Hillary Nelson, columnist for the Concord [NH] Monitor, did a magnificent job of eulogizing Alex, summarizing the breadth and depth of his significance to science and to our understanding of our own place in the universe. Read it here.

Farewell, Alex

Farewell, Alex

I’m writing today with a heavy, heavy heart, friends. Alex, the African Grey Parrot who, with his human mentor Dr. Irene Pepperberg, revolutionized scientific thinking about avian intelligence and communication, has died suddenly at the age of 31. Any bird lover should mourn Alex’s passing, but this tragedy hits particularly close to home for me because, though I never met him, I know his best friend Irene, and my own family includes an African Grey, 21-year-old Jesse, who is very dear to me. Had I harbored any scientific skepticism about Irene’s conclusions from her work with Alex, living with Jesse would have vanquished it.

Until Irene began her studies with Alex in the late 1970s, scientists and laypeople alike vastly underestimated the capacity of parrots and other birds to think and feel (we wouldn’t want to be anthropomorphic now, would we?). Neuroanatomists went so far as to dismiss the avian brain as too anatomically simple to perform the higher functions once ascribed exclusively to humans but grudgingly extended to our fellow primates and cetaceans. Predictably, reports of Alex’s accomplishments were pooh-poohed by insecure scientists and philosophers who rush to their ivory battlements any time another species appears to be encroaching on exclusively human turf (language, tool use, culture, music, etc.). The same crowd has denied the significance of the accomplishments of Washoe the chimpanzee and Koko the lowland gorilla, who learned to communicate in American Sign Language. Wearing down such substantial opposition took unconventional thinking, rigorous methodology, meticulous documentation, and selfless dedication to uncovering the long-ignored truths about the minds of birds.

By scientifically documenting Alex’s ability to communicate using human language and to grasp abstract concepts, Irene fostered a broader awareness that parrots are not merely amusing mimics but sensitive creatures with complex emotional and intellectual needs. These revelations have helped to change our traditionally exploitive and abusive relationships with parrots. Alex may have lived his entire life in human company, but he was a charismatic ambassador for all his kin, wild as well as captive. Today it’s unacceptable to treat captive parrots as home decor or amusing novelties, and wild parrots have been promoted from colorful tropical icons to sentient beings. Not that we don’t still have a long way to go, but more parrots are living better lives now thanks to Irene and Alex.

Not surprisingly, given Alex’s worldwide fame, there has been a huge outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Sadly, amidst the public sharing of grief in various online communities some puerile bottom-feeders masquerading as animal rights activists have posted vile, defamatory, and completely ignorant remarks about Alex and Irene. Know this, friends: Alex was never a “lab animal” in the traditional sense, he lived a far better life than the vast majority of pet parrots, and he significantly raised the standards for care of captive parrots.

Irene was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered, and she was amazingly self-composed considering the pain I know she’s in. Thinking back to what an emotional wreck I’ve been for weeks after losing a dear creature, I’m in awe.

Be strong, Irene – Alex may be gone, but his life’s work and our love and respect for him and you live on.