The bird sounds of Houston

Open your Houston windows to the soft, hot humidity early in the morning and listen. You may hear tires on asphalt of the West Loop, but you will also hear the birds. Just five species fill much of the sound canvas, white-winged doves, Carolina wrens, northern mockingbirds, great-tailed grackles, and northern cardinals. Learn these five, and see how long into your day it takes to hear all of them.

White-winged dove

White-winged doves are new, surging into Houston from a Galveston introduction only in the late 1980s. To me their sound was once exotic, typical of McAllen along with the chachalacas down on the border.  Is it global warming or human transport that has let them overwhelm the dove community of Houston? Their song is barred owl-like, but much softer, who cooks for you?

Carolina wrens are the noisy, tiny birds no one ever sees. Put a little wren house up in a scrubby corner of your yard and help these jewels out. They have the long wren tail at an angle and a defiant white eye stripe. Pay attention to this song, for you will realize it is one you hear daily. You might even spot a little wren disappearing into a brush pile, or atop the wooden fence built after Hurricane Ike took down the original one.

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Northern mockingbird

Of all the birds on this list, no doubt northern mockingbirds are the one you know. The males sing to their mates from up high, varying their song as they try for flamboyance. They will flutter up in fights as they divide Houston into mockingbird territories. Or they may be witnessed dancing along their borders, one hop after the other, as so many of my students discovered. If songs were tails, mockingbirds would be peacocks.

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Great-tailed grackle

 

Great-tailed grackles make improbable sounds resembling cars backing up or metal clashing when the males court the females, rushing them with ever closing circles of blue-black feathers. Then here they nest in the trees along freeway medians when parks are not available.

Northern cardinals may sing the way a child might imagine the arch typical bird to sing, in pure simple notes. They will be a backdrop to any Houston morning.

High above are the chimney swifts, seldom settling except when they swoop into their night time roosts. Spring is here when their chips are above us.

Dusk is for the night hawks, night for the screech owls, and the toads. So leave your windows open as long as you can, Houston, at least through May.

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Best place to stay in San Antonio

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Red-tailed hawk

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Great-tailed grackle

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Preparing for Dave’s 60th birthday!

DSC09995Across the street from our colorful casita a lonesome voice sang a corrido, strumming a slow guitar accompaniment. I could not tell if the song came from the balcony or the porch, obscured by bushes. The next night the sad songs repeated, echoing my youngest son’s anticipatory nostalgia on graduating from Trinity University, soon to leave San Antonio forever.
A couple of blocks down the street are  San Antonio’s oldest cemeteries, where a few paces separated a few graves of Bravos and Martinezes few decades old from the much older and more abundant Woefel and Spanseil and other German and English graves of the 1880s. This is what Ed Snyder says: “The City Cemeteries were the first public cemeteries in San Antonio  −  City Cemetery No. 1 was established in 1853, and the Alamo Masonic Cemetery next to it a year later. You really won’t find many tombstones dated before 1853, as Texas was only annexed to the United States in 1845.” You should read his whole post, though.
A pair of red tailed hawks endured attacks by great-tailed grackles and mockingbirds before soaring up. Next door five very small dogs attended to the street from behind the safety of their fence. Next door the other way two boys dolphined with delight in their above ground pool as their younger sister watched from the ladder, lifting her dress above her head to plunge in up to her panties.DSC09956DSC09968
Our house was as green as the youngest grass, encased in metal, doors and bars. The floor was glossy treated concrete, immaculately clean. Bedrooms flanked the living room, two left, one right, the master, with two closets. Behind was the kitchen and eating area, back towards the joyful voices of the splashing boys. The single bathroom was plenty, requiring only a little talking and  planning. Our intense green home was not a microhome now so popular, for it clearly had a family in mind.
Ours was one of several on the narrow lot with a parking lot out front. The pink home housed the maintenance man who told me the dogs in the neighborhood would not bother me, if that was God’s plan. Esther dressed, curled, combed, and cut hair in the front yellow building. I wondered what these homes once were before Esther found Airbnb. Was I living in a home where families had flourished, sons in the west bedroom and daughters in the east? Esther’s father built her these homes to rent out back in the eighties, she said, a little business on top of dressing hair.

Music, playing boys, curious dogs, ancient cemeteries, and wild birds make up this unique and central neighborhood. So the real question is, who would choose a soulless hotel in concrete  San Antonio when you could have your own snug casita with Esther’s glossy brown floors?

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Famous biologist Rich Kessin writes a novel with the best feminist twist I’ve read

Rich Kessin could almost be called a Houstonian since he loves the city and spends several periods a year with us. When he isn’t being a famous Columbia professor and mentor to the entire social amoeba community, it turns out he’s turned his hand to fiction. He’s now written a book that I could hardly put down as I read a late draft. It is called The Famine of Men and you can get it from his website, or from Amazon, though more funds go to Rich from his site.

Why do I like the book so much? Partly it is that it is by my friend, but that would not keep me going. Rich has a poetry with his words, an insight into what motivates people, a clear perspective on the complexities of research. But the book doesn’t get too technical. It has too cool a plot for that. It has mystery viruses, epidemics, mixed with love affairs, lab politics, and Amish religion and custom. It feels like I’ve entered a whole world, one I can snuggle into a comfortable chair and put out my own issues for awhile. But it isn’t too much of an escape, for the lab scenes are all too familiar.

Check out this great book and wonder it the world wouldn’t be a better place if the Kessin virus were reality!

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Don’t kill the ants in the lounge!

Leave some sugar out and there will be ants. Sugar ants, tramp ants, crazy ants, fire ants, you name it, we do not live in sterile environments and ants find food. If you bring in a plant, you may well bring in a happy, usually harmless colony of ants.

So why is it that people at the first sign of ants want to call in the dealers in poison, the chlorinated organophosphates and the like? Why are people not more afraid of these chemicals than of a few ants? What kind of environment do they imagine we have? Why can’t we just tolerate a few ants and use them as a reminder to be a little neater?

What if all the microbes on our bodies and our work areas were as visible as the ants?  What would we do then? Would we bathe and scrub with soap like Lady Macbeth, washing out stains that will not leave? Aren’t we doing more harm than good, turning our immune systems back on ourselves when they have nothing foreign to chew on? Why are we so obsessed with this form of purity?

Yes, we have a faculty lounge here at Wash U. It is largely unused because it is locked and only for faculty, to protect the free packeted coffee. And yes, there were ants in there today, the kind I call crazy ants, named for their speed. I bet I could get a great photo of them from Alex Wild. The poison guy was called. He wanted to put out a gel, just a gel, why not? Yes, it has something toxic in it. Yes is was manufactured somewhere. No, we don’t know what the standards for its manufacture were. What will it harm besides the ants?

The thing is, we don’t need it. We don’t need purity. What we need is nature and more of it. We need living things. We are extincting so much. How do these harmless little behaviors, so called, contribute? Where does the poison come from? Where does it go? What is the end?

I like the attitude of my wonderful Venezuelan friends, Juan and Simonetta Castillo. When the termites hatch and fly, the cats feast. When the army ants move through, everything is cleaned. Keep the house open to nature and accept what comes with the seasons. I need to get out of here for respite in the peaceful tropics. Ants, I love you!

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The heartbeat of nature

HomeIt may not seem like much, but that strip of forest behind my childhood home made me a biologist, a lover of nature, a seeker of the unexpected. I thought about it as the airplane made a wide loop into the Lansing airport that I knew would take me right over home.

How small the strip of forest seems today. How ravaged are the fields and forests that once seemed so primeval. I suppose I was the kind of animal that did not need wild corridors. I freely crossed roads, fields and even back yards of homes in search of wildness. I knew the gravel pits were man made. But that did not detract from the tadpoles, beetle larvae, snapping turtles, and blue gills in them. I longed to eat off the land in those long summer days, but more often simply pilfered fruit trees, or community gardens where a middle school now stands.

That church had not gouged out our woods when I was young. The aspen were still standing. Our previous home seemed miles away, though it is now on my daily walk circuit and doesn’t even get me to the ten thousand paces that make my Fitbit buzz.

I don’t think I realized until college that the landscape I loved was not Michigan’s eternal one. We are looking at the result of catastrophic logging. Once I knew that, I believed for a short time in succession. But now half a century has passed, and Michigan’s woods only look more damaged. It isn’t only last fall’s ice storm that broke so many trees and limbs, the pale stubs still showing. It is the ragged nature of this prespring forest. These trees are not majestic. There is no sign anywhere of a return to the climax forests Michigan should have, though I haven’t read the literature on this topic.

But the spring peepers are calling. Soon the mosquitoes will be out, and soft green will hide our scarred and feeble forests.

 

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The loneliness of Facebook

You may scarcely know your Friends that post most often. They have cooked something new, have cute puppies, or have children with prizes. They might have taken a quiz that reveals what trivia they know or what experiences they have had that everyone else might have had. They may be somewhere they like. They may have read an interesting study.

If you stay on Facebook a lot, you will learn about important papers published, about who has died, or if they find that crashed plane’s black box. But what you will not get is any true connection with your Friends. What you will not get is any idea of what they are really up to, what is bothering them, what family tragedies they are enduring, or what true joy they are experiencing, though actual death will appear if it is of an elderly parent. You will not get any real enrichment of your connection with your friends, though when you see them next, you may feel artificially close. You might know what they had for dinner last night, how their last batch of home-brewed beer turned out, or where their vacation was.

In a way it reminds me of the difference between my junior and senior year in college, when I moved from a co-op of about 50 to an apartment with one true friend.  There were a lot of reasons I made the move, but one of the most important was that I despaired of shallow friendships. I did not have to commit to real friendships at the co-op because there was always someone in the living room. If I felt lonely, I could just go to the living room, and talk with whomever was there. It filled a void, but not in a good way, like a handful of potato chips when I really needed a warm bowl of pinto beans.

So I moved out and into an apartment with Sue. We shared a one bedroom, something students do not seem to do any more. Besides being close friends ourselves, we had other friends to our apartment, or met them, more often in bars or the library than coffee houses – did Ann Arbor even have them in the 1970s? I wish I could say that this was much better, that my life became full of enriched friendships. But I was lonely more often than I had been in the co-op. I did have stronger real friendships, relationships where we had to actually decide to see each other. But I also learned there is a human place for shallow friendships, for soft encounters to fill a temporary void.

Now I’m long past the crucible of college, I have a clear understanding of friendships, close and otherwise. I have a family and a lab group. Why do I even look at Facebook? Is it the village commons, but with no gossip, where everyone appears only as they want to and criticism is forbidden? Is it keeping me from nourishing friendships? Is it the fluff of rice crispies when I really want oatmeal? Are there enough photos family members post that I otherwise would not see to make up for stranger’s successes? Have we traded in occasional loneliness for something worse?

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Away with decorative pillows!

IMG_2794Sleep is one of life’s great pleasures. It helps us process complexity. It renews, refreshes, and makes us fit for companionship, human and otherwise. It is snuggly, even sexy. In the winter it is warm and cozy. In the summer the heat can feel drunken.

If I’m tired, I can look up at any yellow lit window and wish I were home in my snug beg. So the last thing I want to do when I’m about to dive under the covers is remove a bunch of extra pillows, particularly the fat, flowery kind, not even good for reading, but only to adorn the bed. A pillow on a couch might help with support. But why mess with the perfection of a bed? Why make me scoop a bunch of leaden bolsters onto the floor to trip on during the night?

Do pillows make a bed seem like something it is not? Are we embarrassed about our beds? Is it a Southern thing? A Northern or Western or even Eastern thing? Does a hotel get an extra star if they have enough pillows? I don’t know.

I don’t get the extra bolsters, just as I don’t get the knicknacks on tables in rooms meant for guests to use. But I do like to travel, so I’ll just keep shoving those lumps onto the floor and luxuriating in sleep! I’ll have some right now!

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