Sunday, February 27, 2011


I was comfortably hunkered down reading about the monstrous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1859 when Mars interrupted to show me the latest carnage occurring in our own front yard - another hawk on pigeon bloodbath -- our fourth one this calendar year.

This time the killer, pale brown with white speckles, had its back to us - completely obscuring any view of its prey as we looked out our dining room window. The perp was standing, hunched over, on a thick blanket of disembodied black feathers atop one of our now-disappearing snow banks. Just when I had the picture framed in our digital Sony Cyber-shot the raptor took flight, leaving behind the dark groundcover of pigeon plumage and a small blotch of what had once been vital fluid in the gray snow.
The victim, like its predecessors, had been lured to its execution site by the food at our bird feeders -- like the fragrant nectar that attracts insects to carnivorous plants. That however is not the birdseed's primary purpose. It is instead another unintended consequence of an apparently altruistic act.

The concept of unintended consequences was popularized by Sociologist Robert K. Merton and can be roughly grouped into three types:
"* A positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as serendipity or a windfall).
* A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).

* A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse), such as when a policy has a perverse incentive that causes actions opposite to what was intended."

You would think that the pigeon massacre falls into the second or third category. Well, maybe - maybe not.
(St. Francis & the Prairie Dog, Santa Fe, N.M. - photo by Mars)

On the surface our dedication to the care and feeding of the neighborhood birds may seem to be quite St. Francis of Assisi like. It is in fact, at its heart, a somewhat self-serving attempt to cultivate an ambiance of cuteness, color, and cheerful chirping that changes our staid, suburban scenery into the imagined world in which we would really like to live -- in the same way that the plants we scatter around our landscape alter that part of the environment. But, truth be told, our view of that best possible avian world does not include pigeons.

Nonetheless they come -- with their unappealing shape, drab color (muted by centuries of urban soot), and annoying "songs". And, by the sheer force of their girth and numbers, they muscle out the more desirable ground-feeding cardinals, finches and juncos that we seek. Then they eat our birdseed. (In fairness there is one almost totally white pigeon with gray spotting reminiscent of snow country camouflage that is pretty neat to look at. It's the exception that proves the rule.)

Hawks however are a different story.

For one thing, they don't really care about our sunflower and millet -- so in that sense they provide totally free entertainment. And what they do seem to care about -- we don't. Plus, most importantly, they provide a dramatic counterpoint to the artificial world of sweetness and light engendered by our smaller, more pacific avian guests.

The ideal life, as the philosopher Aristotle teaches, lies in living the "Golden Mean" -- the perfect balance between extremes. In this case it is the midpoint between the Garden of Eden and the State of Nature.

If there only was a similarly rapacious plant (other than weeds) that overtly attacked the unintended residents of our floral beds -- sort of a well-programmed Venus Flower Trap. Now that would be a seriously serendipitous windfall.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What do red winged blackbirds mean?

A flock of red winged blackbirds landed at our bird feeders the other day. There were about a dozen of them. I had never seen any of them on our property before. Nor had I ever seen more than two of them at a time. They stayed for ten minutes. Shortly after they departed a large brown and white hawk swooped by at feeder level, but finding nothing to claim its attention, it just kept right on going.

It is February so the birds had their drab winter coloration -- in this case faded yellow stripes on their shoulders with nearly invisible red beneath. Their normal habitat is around cattail marshes, which is where I have seen them alongside a pond in a public park near our home --about one half mile away.

It had snowed several inches that morning so activity at the feeders was high due to the difficulty of acquiring their normal, natural sustenance. So there probably is a logical explanation for the presence of the red wings and the raptors. But I just finished reading "Cleopatra" by Stacy Schiff, and thoughts of Caesar, the ides of March, and avian omens are floating in the back of my mind. I've also read "The da Vinci Code". When it comes to suspicious symbolism you just cannot be too careful.

I asked the Internet "What do red winged blackbirds mean?" responded "they mean there is danger ahead" - just like Caesar and the black crow he saw on his last day as emperor. I really don't have time for "danger" at the moment so I decided to believe that all of this dark symbolism foretold the coming of the marauding hawk. And I continued my search for a more propitious prognostication on the Internet at and

"It is one of the most abundant birds in North America. They are polygumous, [sic] and one male can have 15 different females making up its nesting territory."

Instead of a Hitchcockian movie scene, maybe what visited us were a male and his harem out on the town. Nothing to worry about there.

"When resting the blackbird is frequently seen stretching, legs extended back, side wings in full extension, tail spread, and the head tilted to one side as if listening. Yoga and movement therapy are beneficial for those that hold this totem."

That makes sense. I have been taking Pilates classes at my health club.

"When blackbird flies into your life your connection with nature and the forces of creation increase. The magic of the underworld surfaces in your life. Awareness is heightened and change on a cellular level begins. The blackbird teaches you how to acknowledge your power and use it to its fullest."

Like when I shoveled the snow that morning.

"Blackbirds are known for fiercely staking out their own territory, and they will often drive off any other of their kind that are in the vicinity. Because of this, the sight of two blackbirds sitting together is often considered a good omen. In Europe, blackbirds came to be associated with St. Kevin, and one story tells of how they nested in his hand. Again because of this association, to have blackbirds nesting in your environment is usually a beneficial sign."

In other words - NO DANGER AHEAD. I knew if I looked long enough...

"The male red-winged blackbird will lose its luster during the winter. This reflects how the summer is the time of vibrancy and vitality for those with this bird as a totem. It indicates the need to use the winter to go back into the great womb of life in order to be able to bring forth new energy and expressions of energy the following summer."

This whole symbology thing is really tiring. Maybe I should just take a nap.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The First Rule of Camouflage

You can learn an awful lot from watching the wild animals in your front yard. For example, many animals try to blend into the backdrop as a means of self-protection.

But it takes more than just the right coloring to do that successfully. In order to be at one with your surroundings, you first have to be at peace with yourself. This is known as...

The First Rule of Camouflage

Gray fur on gray bark,
body prostrate, legs dangling --
squirrel tree yoga.

What If...

What If the Greek philosopher Plato Had Been Born 2,000 Years later --
In Scotland?

Perfection exists,
for many of us, in an
imagined golf swing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Found My Sewer

I found my sewer -- I can back to writing now.

For the past several weeks most of the time that I would normally have spent hunched over my Mac keyboard, pounding out whatever it is that I am pounding out now, has been consumed in a less than satisfying orgy of ice chopping and snow shoveling -- interrupted only by cups of hot tea and short daytime naps.

Our part of the country has been socked with its worst ever - in terms of inches of snowfall - ever. The good news - for those of us who love the look of pristine, white, frozen precipitation - was that there was a lot of it. That's because - and this is also the bad news - whenever the snowplows threatened to turn our smooth snow-globe landscape into jagged mountains of gray frozen slush, Mother Nature redecorated. And thereby afforded Mars and me the opportunity to spend several more hours out in the snow-scape -- reshaping M.N.'s exterior design scheme with our own idea of how the snow on our property should be arranged.

We live on a three-way suburban street corner with a one-car driveway and a sidewalk along the two street-facing sides of our property. Each snowstorm (and I've actually lost track of how many there were) was at least six inches deep. At most I remember, three days between them. We also received, at the end of our driveway and around the bend onto our sidewalk, the street's-worth of slush that the town plows accumulated in their travels -- several times, each storm. And somewhere beneath that dogleg iceberg was my sewer.

It's actually not "my" sewer. It technically belongs to the town and to the metropolitan water district that services our burg. But based on the number of hours of one-on-one quality time that I have spent with that metal-grated hole in the road - it is mine.

I never intended to become the neighborhood sewer rat when Mars and I purchased this property. In fact it was a job opportunity that I didn't even know existed. But over time even someone as unobservant as me could not help but notice that many times when the sewers were called into action to do what they do -- they couldn't. In the warmer months they became clogged with leaves. In the winter they disappeared under walls of ice. At first I expected someone in uniform to show up and resolve the problem. They didn't. In fact, during snow situations, they created the problem, and then over time, made it even worse.

I was at home during our town's 2009 tornado when the rain poured down, the wind blew, the power went out, and the intersection in front of our house flooded. The depth of the standing road water allowed safe passage only to high-riding SUVs. Smaller cars wisely turned back. I knew immediately what the problem was, and as I went outside to clean the catch basins I looked forward to the immense feeling of satisfaction that comes from saving the world from certain disaster with minimal labor.

As I stood ankle-deep and hands-plunged in the rapidly rising water, I wondered -- did I really want to leave this life as a result of being welded to a municipal drainage conduit by an errant bolt of lightning? On the other hand it would make a pretty entertaining story for someone else to tell. But, since I did not get fused in place and the passageway did get cleared, I guess I and my other neighbors who came out did the right thing. Despite the drama, the rescue effort took less than five minutes.

But most of the real work happens during the winter. In a normal year the volume and frequency of snow is low enough to allow me the time and energy to shovel out my sewer after I finish my sidewalks and driveway - before the snow freezes to a degree of hardness impervious to any human effort to dislodge it. And so it was for the first two or three (who can remember?) of this season's white tempests. But the most recent wave of atmospheric chaos kept coming too fast and too frequently -- and then, that quickly, my sewer was gone, buried under at least four feet of rock-hard slush rubble. Since then we have been in a week long snow drought.

It took five days of intermittent chopping and shoveling - plus the help of the natural sunlight which, even in below freezing temperatures, softened the topmost snow enough to allow daily progress. Now, even though there is still a small obdurate bump of solid ice in front of the catch basin, any running water that finds its way onto our roadway will have a way to leave.

The feeling of accomplishment has returned -- although unfortunately not in proportion to the effort expended. But at least I can now go back to my literary efforts. As soon that is as I am able lift my arms up to keyboard height again.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Another Myth Demolished

The recent spate of endless snow, and our equally endless efforts to remove it, reminded Mars of a certain mythological Greek king who was punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. It made me think of how really easy he had it.

Another Myth Demolished

Driveway ice-chopping
is worse than Sisyphean.
His shoulder still works.