Friday, February 25, 2011


I do not like the Tucson Rodeo, but not for the reasons you might suspect. While the event draws its share of animal rights activists in protest, it throws a wrench in the day-to-day life of those who do not take in the parade as participants or spectators. The parade has also been visited by tragedies.

Those who are real rodeo snobs refer to the rodeo by its Spanish title, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros. The parade has been going for 86 years now, and is supposedly the longest non-motorized parade in the continental United States. So “popular” is the parade that Tucson closes schools, from elementary to the University of Arizona for at least the parade day (Thursday), if not the day after as well. Some local businesses also close, which means if you have errands planned you could be out of luck.

Unfortunately, those who go to watch the parade have occasionally been witness to disaster. In 2006, the buggy carrying the Mayor and his wife was rammed by a horse pulling another wagon. The Mayor had a bruised arm, but his wife suffered whiplash and a concussion and had to be taken to the hospital. The following year, a five-year old girl riding in the parade was thrown from her horse and then trampled to death by horses pulling a stagecoach. Complicating matters was the fact that by rule she should not have been allowed to ride in the first place. Children eight years and older are the only ones permitted to ride on their own mounts.

What about the cruelty to animals employed in the actual events of the rodeo itself? Here is where I part ways a bit with the animal rights community. My feeling is that the greater crime has already been committed, centuries ago when we domesticated these beasts and compromised their genetics forever. Selective breeding has made them human creations. What we do after that is at most adding insult to injury. They may still be “sentient beings,” but barely. There is little elegance to a cow, especially when compared to a truly wild ungulate.

Surely I can’t feel the same way about horses! Well, they technically have no place here at all: The Spaniards brought them to North America. Wild mustangs are not wild, they are feral, and do not deserve the same consideration at the truly wild mammals with which they compete for habitat and forage. I am not about to advocate sending them all to the glue factory, but what we need is a dedicated range for a small population. Make it the “Wild Mustang National Wildlife Refuge” or something, but get them concentrated so bison, elk, and other such wildlife can have the landscape that is rightfully theirs.

I remember attending a rodeo as a child in Oregon. I wasn’t that impressed, though I do recall that cowboy Larry Mahan was something of a star, perhaps because he was born in Salem, Oregon. There is no doubt that these men (and women) are athletes, as are today’s ranchers who scratch out a living on the range. The rodeo may simply not be the way to celebrate the buckaroo any longer.

Monday, February 21, 2011


It was a normal end of the day routine: go to the bus stop, wait. Glance up to see what birds are on the wires overhead at the corner of Grant Road and Alvernon Way in central Tucson, Arizona, hoping the time will pass more quickly. Saw a lone bird atop a utility pole. You know how you have those conversations with yourself, trying to talk yourself into one identification versus another? Well, mine went something like this:

Me: “It must be another pigeon. Has to be.”
Myself: “But it’s so white, and it looks a little bigger than the other Rock Doves across the street.”
Me: “Nah, it’s just all puffed up, showing off, you know.”
I: “What is it doing all by itself, then?”
Me: “Well, it’s too small to be a hawk if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Myself: “You’ve got your camera with you, zoom in on it.”
Me: “I’d have to get it out of my backpack, and out of the case….Oh, here comes the bus anyway.”
I: “I guess we’ll never know now….”

I boarded the bus, and once inside still looked longingly out the window at the mystery bird that surely must be a Rock Dove with an inflated ego. Then my thoughts were interrupted…..
Bus Driver to another passenger: “Do you need to use the lift?”
Me: “Well, if we’re going to be here another three minutes boarding this person, I might as well train my camera on that silly bird….”
SFX: Unpacking camera, turning it on, zooming in….click, click, click.

I then reviewed the images, zooming in on the white blob in the middle of the picture….
Me: “What the….No way!....Are you kidding me?!

I could hardly believe what I was seeing, but it soon became undeniably obvious that the “pigeon” was an adult Peregrine Falcon.
Me (audibly, to the other passengers as I clicked away): “That’s a falcon on top of that light pole out there.”
Bus passengers in reply: Ok, pretty much crickets chirping….

Peregrine falcons are not exceptionally rare in Tucson, so seeing one is not necessarily cause for celebration all by itself, but this incident taught me something about myself: I shouldn’t dismiss the careful observations of Me, and I should listen to Myself more when he pesters Me to look a little more closely, verify my suspicions, and satisfy My curiosity. Trust your own instincts, too. It could pay off with a sweet surprise!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Urban Wildlife in the News

The subject of urban wildlife has always been near and dear to my heart because of my own experiences with various birds, mammals, herps, and invertebrates in the various cities where I have lived. I am delighted that more focus is being directed to our wild neighbors lately, as evidenced by a couple of articles brought to my attention recently by friends on Facebook.

Dr. Douglas Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware, made ”A Call For Backyard Biodiversity” in a recent issue of American Forests. The article is a condensed version of Tallamy’s brilliant book, Bringing Nature Home, where he makes the case for landscaping with native plants. He then articulates a strategy for creating wildlife corridors by linking backyard habitats.

Another recent article in the New York Times highlights the surprising diversity of mammals and birds to be found in both urban areas and natural forests. The surprising subject of this study is the Fisher, a large mammal in the weasel family that had for decades been on the decline due to excessive trapping and conversion of its habitat to agriculture and subdivisions. A secretive predator, it is apparently now adapting to human presence and reclaiming some of its historical distribution patterns.

All this causes me to reminisce about the days when I was part of a volunteer team at the Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon) that worked together to publish a quarterly magazine called The Urban Naturalist. I joined the effort in about 1984 at the invitation of the editor, Mike Houck. Mike was already a friend and mentor, so I welcomed the chance to contribute to what became an award-winning journal. I wrote and illustrated articles on insects, and occasionally short pieces on a specific park or greenspace.

The Urban Naturalist frequently had themes for a particular issue, so I wasn’t always able to get a story in, but I always felt respected and welcomed at editorial meetings. Eventually the “staff” all went our separate ways and the publication ceased to exist. It was not soon to be forgotten, though.

In the late 1990s, the Oregon Historical Society approached us with the idea of compiling some of our best essays in a book. Wild in the City: A Guide to Portland’s Natural Areas was published in 2000. I was honored to have several of my stories included, and also some new illustrations to complement articles authored by other people.

At some point I will be sharing some of those old stories in this blog and my “Bug Eric” blog. I also hope to make available species lists for insects and arachnids I have observed and collected in Portland, Cincinnati, and Tucson. I encourage my readers to do the same. Your observations over time can be of great significance. The National Phenology Network can certainly make good use of them.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Men, Women, and Breasts

The other night I received a call from a breast cancer awareness organization asking for a monetary donation. I did not comply, though I have donated to this cause in the past and will certainly do so again when I feel I have a more sound footing as far as my personal finances go. It got me thinking, though, that I don’t see many, if any, appeals by breast cancer foundations directed toward men.

Let’s face it: Men like breasts. Men like women. Men have money they too often spend more freely on lingerie, pornography, and other indulgences of a sexual nature that don’t benefit their female partners, let alone women in general. We really are idiots in this regard. We need to take responsibility for our carnal desires in many ways, but supporting women’s health should be at the top of the priority list.

I think there are several ways to go about achieving this goal.

  • Create a Valentine’s Day fundraising campaign whereby men can donate various amounts in the name of loved one’s to breast cancer research, prevention, and treatment.
  • Every Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show from here on in will have the models sporting pink ribbons (….somewhere) with a hotline number at the bottom of the television screen that ogling men can call to pledge a donation for breast health education and cancer research and treatment.
  • Implement a “Pornography Tax” on all forms of porn, plus sex toys and the like, the proceeds of which will go to a variety of causes, including research and treatment of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, sexually-transmitted diseases, and the prevention of sexual violence, prostitution, sex-trafficking, and other intolerable conditions affecting women.
  • The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue will now include all models wearing pink ribbons (….somewhere), plus heavy public service advertising for breast cancer awareness.
  • Playboy gets some balls (sorry) and puts a pink ribbon around the neck of its bunny logo. It also devotes more ad space to breast cancer awareness and sexual responsibility in general. This should be a relatively easy sell since there are women in positions of power at Playboy Enterprises.
  • Require Clear Channel and other billboard advertising corporations to provide one month of free public service advertising to breast cancer awareness and/or women’s health issues in general.

Come on, guys, you probably have even more ideas for fundraising and education. We all have mothers, lovers, wives, sisters, and other women in our lives. What better way to honor them than to support causes that can improve the lives of women everywhere?

NOTE: Image courtesy of ”BingeAndPurge”. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Downside of "Citizen Science"

I realize that what I am about to write will probably offend even some of my most loyal followers, but it needs to be said. Natural history museums, zoos, nature centers, parks, and other public and private institutions have come to rely too heavily on volunteers to accomplish their missions, especially in management of specimen collections.

Case in point: Today one of my Facebook friends posted this recruiting announcement. I was all excited until I saw it was for volunteers. Do you really want non-professionals handling specimens? The time and expense to properly train them really outweighs hiring a professional? You can’t contract for this kind of work?

Those institutions that do offer paying opportunities sometimes have unrealistic expectations, desiring PhD- or Masters-level candidates when a Bachelor’s degree, or even experience in lieu of a degree, would be more than enough to execute the requirements of the position. Increasingly, work in collections management in particular has become grant-dependent, for a limited amount of time, and still heavily reliant on volunteers being managed by the person hired for the project. This only serves to set up a destructive cycle of neglect of collections followed by salvaging of specimens years later, followed by another period of neglect and so on.

I freely admit that I take all of this as a personal insult to my previous professional experience and current abilities to work in a museum setting and advance the goals of whatever department I’m working in. I don’t think I am necessarily “better” than any other person in this field, but I certainly have better qualifications than a volunteer or docent off the street. Museums deserve better than that as well. I don’t need to make a fortune, either, but I need to be able to pay the rent, afford health care if I need it, pay for my own continuing education, and save for increasingly frequent stretches of unemployment when I don’t have any income.

That leads to another point I believe is not being considered: The failure of investments that retirees were counting on for income has left them looking for paying work as well. The volunteer pool will be steadily shrinking in coming decades. Better to address this now, and reward good work with a paycheck instead of just a pat on the back or a plaque.

The continuing devaluation of professional personnel in the natural sciences, from museum collections to field work and public education must cease. We owe it to current generations, as well as future generations, to deliver the high quality services that only experienced professionals can provide. Could it be that the trend toward “anti-scientifism” is one result of such a heavy reliance on non-scientists to do scientific work and deliver science education? I’m just sayin’.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Living on Earth is a risky business. The planet is full of natural hazards, and manmade hazards pose even more threats to life and limb. Unfortunately, American culture seems to approach the concept of risk without one wit of rationality. The results include a ridiculously litigious society, proliferation of gambling establishments, and increasingly poor management of parks. We desperately need a re-assessment of what defines risk, liability, and responsibility.

It may help to categorize different types of risks. I have taken the liberty of making up my own categories simply to illustrate important points about each type. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Stupid Risk. These are risks that each individual has a choice in making, and most are what one could call “recreational” in nature. Examples might include extreme sports, gambling (from casino games to bingo to the state lottery), and investment in the stock market. Astonishingly, American culture glorifies this type of behavior. We even televise the “Winter X Games” and Jackass. States not only participate in multi-state lottery games, but actively advertise them. At least some advertisements for investment firms include disclaimers when it comes to their guarantees of success.
  • Imposed Risk. This is the kind of risk that I find most offensive. It encompasses mostly corporate activity whereby the risks are largely borne by the people least likely to be able to comprehend and fight them. It also imposes risks to the environment. Mining and hazardous waste disposal are two obvious examples of this kind of risk. Factory farming may be another. Some might consider genetically modified organisms (especially food crops) to be in this category. Wendell Berry has consistently made eloquent arguments for why we should be intolerant to such practices, citing in his many essays the problem of “absentee ownership” of land by corporations. The impact of a coal mine, for example, is felt at the site, by the rural population that lives there, not by the corporate executives in far-off urban locales.
  • Insurable Risk. These are the risks with which we are perhaps most familiar, at least at a personal level. It applies to life, health, property, and vehicles, as well as to potential disasters such as fire, theft, and flooding. Ok, maybe not flooding these days. We can get “coverage” to be able to recoup our losses in the event of some kind of traumatic event. It mostly applies to material goods you will notice, and you might not be able to get insurance for your own health should you have a “pre-existing condition.” Such cases are usually beyond one’s control, determined generations prior through genes. Wonderful.
  • Legal Risk. This kind of risk is largely defined by the question “Can I be sued for that?” We are collectively intolerant of the most improbable of potential accidents; and conversely eager to file a lawsuit over event outcomes for which we abdicate our own responsibility. We apparently agree that “stupid risks” are completely acceptable, even to be encouraged, whereas “legal risks” are totally unacceptable and must be prevented from occurring at all costs, literally and figuratively.

Our entire society appears to be liability-driven these days. I see the effects of this in the changing landscape of our urban parks. Here in Tucson, Arizona, we frequently use agave plants in landscaping along roadsides, on college campuses, and other public areas. These succulents are also known as “century plants” because they bloom so infrequently. When they do, they send up a very tall, dense flower spike crowned with glorious golden blossoms that make the long wait for the floral fireworks worthwhile. The bigger the plant, the taller and more spectacular the central spike. Unfortunately, the taller the spike, the more potentially top-heavy it can be. Guess what. At the first hint of instability, the landscapers hack down the spike. Frequently they uproot the entire plant. This is happening in an increasingly pre-emptive fashion whereby the plant doesn’t even get the chance to bloom beyond green buds.

When I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1990s, I found the same approach to dead standing timber. God forbid that one of these boles might topple over onto a hiker, or, worse yet, somebody’s vehicle. Too bad that cutting down the potential Tree Trunk of Doom renders homeless cavity-nesting birds, countless insects, mushrooms and other fungi, mosses, and other organisms essential to forest ecosystem health. How about filling in the *$#@! Groundhog holes instead?

The warning sign pictured at the top of this post is in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area just north of Tucson where mountain lions are seen with some degree of regularity. The increasing pressure of urban development from the south met the devastation of the Aspen fire from the north back in 2003. There was suddenly nowhere for far-ranging mountain lions to go, and three cats were frequenting Sabino Canyon a year later (see this link for more). Last time I checked, nobody was forced to go hiking, jogging, running, or site-seeing in Sabino Canyon, yet the improbable risk of a mountain lion attack was deemed unacceptable. The first suggested course of action was to kill the cats. This was met with such hostility that Arizona Game & Fish officials had to quickly retract the plan. The Recreation Area was subsequently closed for a brief time and at least one cat was captured and turned over to a wildlife rehabilitation center near Phoenix.

We must ask ourselves what is truly unacceptable risk, and learn to start tolerating random acts of nature that are beyond our control. Don’t venture out if it isn’t worth the risk to you, but don’t punish the rest of us. I’ll happily sign a waiver for the chance to brave prowling pumas at Sabino Canyon.