Beware the wrath of the birding legions!

A Snowy Owl at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, safe from murderous bureaucrats and and Silver-bellied Gashawks.

A Snowy Owl at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Montana,
safe from murderous bureaucrats and and Silver-bellied Gashawks.
CC image courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr.

(Title borrowed from a column by the late, great Molly Ivins.)

On Monday morning, the New York Daily News broke a story about the Port Authority killing Snowy Owls at airports in New York City. Follow-up articles contrasted trigger-happy NYC with the more responsible and humane policies of Boston’s Logan Airport (a famous location for wintering Snowy Owls). The story quickly spread via Facebook, prompting a petition and phone campaign to stop the carnage (three owls had already been shotgunned by the PA’s euphemistically named “wildlife specialists” after five others struck planes).

Usually such efforts take days, weeks, or months to bear fruit, and some never do, but by Monday evening the PA had come around and agreed to stop slaughtering the owls and cooperate with trapping and relocation. The outrage from the public, including the birding community, was so swift and so fierce that it overcame bureaucratic inertia.

Every day on social media we see calls to action in support of one good cause or another or against the latest outrage. It’s good to know that raising our voices and signing our names can make a difference.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  — Margaret Mead

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Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast: an endangered hummingbird hot spot

A female Lucifer Hummingbird, one of Ash Canyon B&B's star attractions

Hummingbird enthusiasts and other bird lovers around the world have been following the complex and contentious controversy over access to Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast in southeastern Arizona.

Resentments that had apparently been festering for years erupted after the Cochise County Planning & Zoning Commission granted owner Mary Jo Ballator a special-use permit to formalize the day-visitation portion of her operation. Owners of several neighboring properties responded by filing an appeal to have the permit revoked.

Yesterday, the county commissioners held a hearing to consider this issue. The neighbors were allowed to air their objections, including irrelevant complaints about trespass by hunters and hikers and transparently self-serving claims that 1) feeding is harmful to birds(!), 2) the Plain-capped Starthroat that summered with Mary Jo in 2002 and 2003 was a random, one-time thing(!!), and 3) Lucifer Hummingbirds can be seen in many locations(!!!).

I wasn’t the only member of the audience flabbergasted when one complainant took the stand with a copy of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds in hand, sticky notes marking passages he hoped would support these claims. When my turn came to testify, I spent most of my precious three minutes refuting disinformation and defending my book’s integrity instead of praising Mary Jo’s exemplary hospitality to both birds and people.

Despite expert testimony and passionate testimonials from many members of the birding community (including over 350 letters of support), the issues of traffic, noise, privacy, trespassing, and easement interpretations remained, and the commissioners voted 2-1 to revoke the permit. There’s still hope that a compromise can be worked out to allow Mary Jo to continue welcoming visitors while reducing their impact on neighbors. Otherwise, the easement issue may end up being decided in court.

For the time being, Mary Jo will continue to welcome her friends in the birding community on a limited basis. She now has only 6 parking spaces and can no longer accommodate RVs or buses. With this change in operations comes a reduction in income, so Mary Jo needs our support more than ever. If you’re lucky enough to visit her yard this spring or summer, please make a generous contribution to the feeder fund.

Though I doubt she’ll ever see this post, I’d like to thank (again) Bisbee’s representative on the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, Vice-Chair Ann English, for casting the sole vote in support of Mary Jo and against the appeal.

Salting the earth, oiling the sea

For the last few months life has been an emotional roller coaster. The weather here in southeastern Arizona has been insane. Wildlife and people alike are still hurting from last summer’s drought, despite abundant winter rains that produced a good spring wildflower show and renewed the flow of creeks and rivers. A snowstorm struck the high desert and sky islands at the end of April, during what is usually the peak of spring migration. Seeing Red-faced Warblers and hummingbird nests in the snow was an unforgettable yet heart-wrenching experience.

On the personal front, Tom and I are celebrating the engagement of one of our most cherished friends, but three other friends recently lost battles with cancer (two in one week), and three more are fighting it. Many of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues are still struggling with the effects of the economic downturn, and the picture got bleaker with Arizona’s budget crisis, radical cuts to funding for education, and a tourism boycott spurred by the passage of state legislation promoting racial profiling and banning ethnic studies.

A more distant landscape that we love and the communities that depend on it have been brutalized, perhaps beyond recovery. I’m not trying to make the Deepwater Horizon disaster about me, just saying that as a native Texan who spent many happy days on the Gulf Coast I can empathize with the maelstrom of emotions—grief, rage, helplessness, resignation—that residents of the region are feeling right now.

I have nothing but disgust for the cheerleaders for the oil industry who keep chanting “drill, baby, drill” and “jobs, jobs, jobs” in the face of this tragedy. Human lives have been lost. Millions of animals and plants, parts of a natural cornucopia of marine and estuarine ecosystems, are doomed. Traditional ways of life and the communities that depend on them have been devastated. That’s far too high a price to pay for the illusions of energy independence and economic security.

It occurred to me that the oil companies and other huge industries stand to win big from this disaster beyond a short-term spike in oil prices. With the poisoning of the Gulf’s ecosystems, thousands of residents who for generations have fed their families directly from the bounty of the coastal wetlands and the sea suddenly have no jobs, no money to buy food, few immediate alternatives, and little hope for the future. The tourism industry that struggled to recover after Hurricane Katrina was dealt another brutal blow, leaving even fewer options for small businesses and the people they employ. Families and communities will be strained to the breaking point and beyond, as they were in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez.

Into this economic vacuum and social chaos step BP, TransOcean, Halliburton, and their ilk. Having figuratively sown the earth with salt, destroying the fertility of the Gulf and the traditional livelihoods of its people, they’ve created an employers’ paradise now and for the foreseeable future. These companies and other corporate giants will have cornered the Gulf Coast job market. It’s already started, with BP offering to hire out-of-work fishing boats for cleanup work. What’s to stop them from controlling the entire economy of coastal communities, turning once proudly independent Americans into wage slaves?

Part of me wants to see all the U.S. assets of BP, its partners Anadarko and Mitsui & Co., and its contractors TransOcean and Halliburton seized and turned over to a trust to fund ongoing cleanup of the Gulf, restoration of wildlife habitat, rehabilitation of oiled wildlife, and support of communities whose traditional economic base has been obliterated.

Of course, it would be a huge mistake to tie the welfare of the Gulf and its people to continued exploitation of offshore oil. That’s what led us to this awful situation in the first place. Think about all the people who have had so little to say about the disaster because they depend on the petroleum industry for their income. This isn’t just employees of the oil companies and/or the contractors that serve them. It’s conservationists, too.

Members of the oil and gas industry are major contributors to conservation organizations such as TNC, Conservation International, and the Sierra Club. In return for the millions they donate to these organizations, the companies get photo ops and fake awards to dress up their ads and annual reports, putting on pretty “green” masks to distract their shareholders and the general public from the damage they’re doing to the environment.

Even the promising Teaming with Wildlife proposal was hijacked by oil interests. The original bill would have emulated the highly successful Pittman-Robertson Act and Dingell-Johnson Act, establishing modest federal taxes on wildlife-related merchandise (bird feeders, field guides, camping equipment, cameras, etc.) to fund nongame conservation and watchable wildlife programs. TWW had widespread support from the public, manufacturers, and retailers, but because “tax” is a four-letter word in some circles oil-friendly members of Congress cut a deal to fund wildlife programs with revenues from offshore oil leases. Conservationists were forced to accept a Faustian bargain that is now coming back to haunt us.

Yes, the deep pockets of the oil companies are tempting, but the costs are just too high. Thankfully, there are a few politicians who understand this and are willing to take a stand against the formidable petroleum lobby. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had previously proposed expanding offshore drilling to put desperately needed revenues into state coffers, said, “You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster, you say to yourself, ‘Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?'” (Why indeed. Perhaps President Obama would like to answer that question.) “If I have a choice to make up $100 million and what I see in Gulf of Mexico, I’d rather find a way to make up that $100 million.”

I like to think that Gov. Schwarzenegger would come to the same conclusion even if the coastlines of his state were inhabited by working people of modest means instead of rich celebrities. Here’s hoping that other governors and the President follow his example.

Crude Awakening: An infographic to help you understand the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and the incredible costs that will affect us all

Integrity in Science: Non-profit Organizations Receiving Corporate Funding

More species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Recent changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act extend protection to over 120 new (non-split) species, some of which have waited decades for legal recognition. Most are vagrants such as Stygian Owl, Flame-colored Tanager, Blue Mockingbird, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Xantus’s Hummingbird, Bumblebee Hummingbird, and Green-breasted Mango that will finally enjoy the same protection under the MBTA as other naturally occurring species. (You hear that, Brookfield Zoo?)

One controversial addition to the list is Muscovy Duck, a neotropical native that has established populations in southern Texas. The problem is with feral and released domestic Muscovies, which are causing a variety of problems. Not surprisingly, duck fanciers are up in arms over a proposal to outlaw breeding of Muscovies except for meat, and I can sympathize. Though the proposal specifically exempts any live ducks in one’s possession prior to the date the rule goes into effect, it will eliminate breeding of highly domesticated strains of Muscovy for show or pet purposes. Apparently, many of those pets are being abandoned where they become nuisances to people,  reservoirs for disease, and competitors for resources with native species, but the bigger problem would seem to be breeding of semi-wild, flight-capable Muscovies to be released for canned hunts. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and whether duck fanciers can work out some reasonable exemptions.

CFR Parts 10 and 21: General Provisions; Migratory Birds Revised List and Permits; Final Rules

CFR 21.54: Muscovy Duck

Science is back, y’all!

From President-elect Obama’s weekly radio address:

From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.

Amen to that.

The First Puppy

This isn’t a political blog, so I’ve kept my often strong opinions on the issues to myself. Until now. Though I don’t intend to make political commentary a habit, I couldn’t let such a momentous event in the history of the United States pass without comment.

We Americans have managed, against formidable odds, to elect to our highest office not only a person of color but a person of intellect, education, and achievement who understands that our country needs leaders and decision-makers who are our best and brightest and who are willing to serve the best interests of the nation and its people without regard to partisanism, cronyism or their own ambitions.

This historic event has special significance for me. I grew up in Texas during the turbulent days of the Civil Rights Movement and school desegregation. As African American families began moving into the relatively new suburbs of Fort Worth, my father, an old-school bigot and xenophobe, sacrificed his family’s financial and emotional security and the quality of his children’s education to his irrational fear of people of color. He tolerated all sorts of degenerate behavior from his white neighbors, but when a perfectly nice black family moved in down the street he sold the only home I had ever known—a house he built on a street he named—and moved us into a cheap tract home in a “safe” redneck exurb. My more worldly-wise and open-minded mother, who taught me to appreciate such urban amenities as libraries, museums, theaters, and parks, got caught up in the hysteria only to find herself exiled on a cultural and social desert island. This ultimately destroyed my family and drove my mother to alcoholism and an early death. As petty as it may sound, Tuesday was the first time in my 35-year estrangement from my father that I wished we were still on speaking terms so that I could savor his comeuppance.

But enough about me. President-elect Obama won my vote during the campaign with both the content and quality of his speeches, his performance in the debates, and his rejection of smear politics. His acceptance speech was deeply moving, but he really won my heart with his promise to his daughters that a new puppy would accompany the family to the White House.

There’s a long tradition of purebreds in the White House, from to George Washington’s Black and Tan Coonhounds and John Tyler’s Italian Greyhound to the Bushes’ English Springer Spaniel and Scotties. Though there are many perfectly legitimate reasons for choosing a purebred puppy, my first thought was that choosing a shelter or rescue dog would be more consistent with the principles Barack Obama stands for.

I was already drafting a blog post about this when I took a break to watch today’s press conference. After outlining his strategy for economic recovery, national security, and energy independence, the President-elect answered a question about his choice of a First Canine by saying that it would need to be hypoallergenic because daughter Malia is allergic, but that “our preference is to get a shelter dog.” I cried (again).

I’m sure the Obamas will be deluged with offers of assistance from shelters and rescue groups around the country to help them find just the right puppy to become a part of the First Family. What a lucky dog.

(For the record, I appreciated the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation expressed in John McCain’s concession speech as well as the apparently genuine pride and good will expressed by George W. Bush in his address congratulating the President-elect. Maybe it’s not too much to hope that these are the first steps toward a post-partisan future. )

I want to give a quick shout-out to fellow artist and Bisbee neighbor Kate Drew-Wilkinson, who made me a spontaneous gift on election night of a beautiful pair of crystal teardrop earrings. Thank you, Kate—I’ll treasure them as a memento of a momentous evening.