Monday, February 18, 2013

Owl outing

Way way back at the beginning of this blog, we had a winter here in northern Minnesota that was full of great gray owls. I could not drive to work without seeing a dozen or more. It was amazing, and it was probably what got me to start blogging.

There has not been a northern owl irruption like that since, and there may never be. But recently I had heard of numerous sightings of boreal owls near Duluth, with a few great grays also reported. With the ever-present chance of seeing a snowy owl at the Superior airport, I decided it might be worth a day trip. I mentioned my tentative plans on Facebook, and I found a friend, Diana, whom I knew from the Christmas Bird Count, who was interested in accompanying me. When it comes to birding, two sets of eyes are much better than one.

The birding reports made it sound like we could just drive along Scenic Highway 61 along the Lake Superior shore until we encountered parked cars and spotting scopes, which would point the way to a boreal owl. Alas, the boreal owls, which would have been a life species for me, were evading even the most ardent birders that day. But we had one sighting and photo opportunity that made the day worthwhile:

During the great gray owl irruption of 2005, I did not yet own a digital camera, which was frustrating given the number of perfect photo opportunities I had. This shot more than makes up for it!

Friday, February 08, 2013

DNR EagleCam

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources now has its own Eagle Cam, and apparently the parents couldn't wait to be Internet stars because they laid their eggs in January, much earlier than normal for Minnesota!
DNR EagleCam
Unfortunately, this video stream will not work for those of you who, like me, do all my home Internet on iPad these days. Come on, Flash and Apple, get along already!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

From "Notes on the Art of Poetry"

If you want a definition of poetry, say: "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing", and let it go at that. All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation, or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem.

The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God.

-Dylan Thomas, from 'Notes on the Art of Poetry', 1951

Friday, February 01, 2013

Birds, cats, science, emotion, and compassion

If you follow any news media online, chances are you have read about a study that came out this week, estimating the numbers of birds and mammals that are killed by domestic cats (pets and feral) each year. And, even from respectable, restrained news outlets such as NPR, this story was accompanied by sensationalist headlines, such as "That cute kitty is a killer!" Well, duh. Anyone who is familiar with cats, or has watched an episode of "Tom and Jerry", knows that cats have a desire to kill small animals. That's why humans found cats useful, long before the advent of the Internet and cat videos.

A disclaimer: I am an avid bird watcher, and I have cats. Three indoor cats, to be exact, and three cats that hang around my house outdoors, the remnants of a once larger "cat colony" that showed up uninvited here the summer after we moved in, nine years ago, in the body of a promiscuous female I called "Evil Calico". The bird loving me and the cat loving me had intense internal struggles about how to handle the outdoor cat population; bringing excess cats to a shelter was not an option around here, and although we have a .22 rifle, I never felt right about the killing solution. As it turned out, the number of cats eventually dropped to two females, one male, and a kitten has not survived to maturity in two years. This "cat herd" did provide my Best Cat Ever, though:

Anyway, back to cats killing birds. The news releases about the study provoked the usual response: bird watchers shared it on social media, and my local birding listserv lit up with posts from birders getting in their two cents' worth about "irresponsible cat owners", "this is astonishing", etc. I, being the scientifically trained skeptic I am, wondered if there was more to the story than the sound bites and headlines. Something about a study that could provoke such rancor did not seem objective and scientific to me.

I read the published paper, which can be found at no cost here. Since I seem to have left that part of my brain that deals with methodology and statistics behind as soon as I defended my Master's thesis, I was glad that another source, Vox Felina, did a thoughtful job of critiquing the methodology and conclusions.

Now, I think we can find some points that cat people and bird people can agree upon. And, I think the media did a disservice to both groups by portraying each as single minded fanatics. One, cats, if left to roam, will kill what they can. Sometimes they won't even eat it. (Humans have this same disgraceful habit) Two, there are specific areas, such as islands, where predation by cats, whether pet or feral, has contributed to the decline, and even extinction, of some species. For these areas, a recovery plan, if feasible, should definitely address the harm done by cats.

...a study that gives numbers without context is meaningless. Do we have population estimates of the bird population in the US? As a fish biologist, I know how difficult it is to get an accurate estimate of the population of fish in a small lake.
...a study that gives numbers without any estimates of what species are killed, and in what proportion to the total, is meaningless.
...The issue of mortality is hard to convey to a public who does not have a basic understanding of animal population dynamics. A certain number of any species will succumb to mortality, without affecting the overall population. Certain species that are adapted to the urban environment may occur in higher numbers than what would be expected in nature, and may also be preyed upon by urban cats.

And then we have conflicting issues of compassion. The drive of compassion in humans is undeniable; it is what keeps us civilized, it is what gives us hope. One side has compassion for the prey, the poor vulnerable victims of a predator brought upon all corners of the earth by humans. One side has compassion for the cats; it is not their fault they are here, and that they have an urge to kill (a Sylvester and Tweety cartoon comes to mind, in which Sylvester attends a twelve step program for his "addiction"). Cold, hard science tends to disregard compassion. In my career I have seen, on one hand, ridicule for people who bring "nongame" species in (i.e. songbirds) for rehabilitation; on the other, I have seen many people who choose wildlife management as a career who think the only good cat is a dead cat.

Can we find common ground? I think the media hype surrounding the "study" that came out this week only serves to divide people. As is the case with most stories that qualify as "news" these days.

UPDATE: Apparently I am not alone in thinking this way. NPR blogger Barbara J. King questioned the statistical validity of the study,  as well as its usefulness:
Demonizing cats with shaky statistics, however, won't help us build the pillar of understanding required to strike a satisfying balance between the needs of cats and their supporters with the needs of wildlife facing a feline threat.
There is a (mostly) thoughtful discussion in the comments section of King's blog post.