Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Young bird, male, female

If you are waiting for a passenger pigeon to come and roost in your back yard, you might as well forget about it because passenger pigeons are totally and completely EXTINCT.  The last passenger pigeon, who was named Martha, lived in the Cincinnati Zoo, and she died of old age on September 1, 1914.  She might have been 17, 18, 19, 20, 27, 28, or 29 years old when she died, but it is usually said that she was 29.

Martha in her enclosure, 1914

After Martha died, her body was sent to the Smithsonian, where she was mounted.  She was scheduled to be on display through September 2015 at the National Museum of Natural History as part of an exhibit called "Once There Were Billions."  A memorial statue of Martha stands on the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo.

Martha at the Smithsonian, 1956

It is true that there used to be billions of passenger pigeons in North America.  They were the most abundant bird on this continent and maybe in the whole world.  Their name came from the French word passager, which means "passing by."  They were very social birds who lived in huge flocks that migrated from place to place, mainly in northeastern and north central North America.  One flock in 1866 in southern Ontario was described as being 1 mile wide and 300 miles long.  It took 14 hours to pass over, and it included more than 3.5 billion birds.

Painting by Walton Ford; Photographed by Butcher Walsh

Passenger pigeons lived in deciduous forests east of the Rocky Mountains.  They nested in places with lots of oaks and beech trees that provided "mast," which means acorns and nuts and other such edible stuff that trees produce.  In a "mast year," there is more mast than usual, so the pigeons migrated to the places where there was the most mast for them to eat and feed their young.

The birds usually arrived on their breeding grounds in March, April, or May.  Nesting areas could range in size from 120 acres to thousands of hectares in size.  The largest breeding colony ever recorded was in central Wisconsin in 1871.  It was about 850 square miles in size with an estimated 136,000,000 birds nesting there.


There could be more than 50 nests in each tree.  The female chose the site, and the male brought twigs to her to build the nest with.  The twigs were woven together to make a nest about 6" wide and 2.4" deep.  Each female laid a single egg.  It was incubated for 12 to 14 days.  The male sat on the nest for several hours in the middle of the day, and the female sat on it the rest of the time.

The baby bird grew quickly and within 14 days, it weighed as much as its parents.  After 15 days or so, the parents abandoned their nestling.  It begged for a while, then fluttered to the ground.  In 3 or 4 days, it had all its feathers and could fly.  By the following spring, the new baby was sexually mature and could breed.

Hatchling, 1896

Nesting colonies attracted lots of predators such as weasels, minks, martens, raccoons, wolves, foxes, bobcats, bears, mountain lions, hawks, owls, and eagles.  Some of these predators ate the eggs, others ate the nestlings, and some went after injured adults.  In spite of this, there were such huge numbers of passenger pigeons that predation did little damage to the size of a flock.

Passenger pigeons were good fliers and could migrate long distances.  They liked to spend the cold weather in swampy areas.  Sometimes so many birds would roost on one branch that the branch broke.  They often piled on each other's backs to roost and rested in a slumped position that hid their feet.  Under a roosting site, there might be a pile of dung a foot deep.

"Falling Bough" by Walton Ford

The pigeons changed their diet according to the season.  During fall, winter, and spring, they ate mostly beechnuts, acorns, and chestnuts.  In summertime, they ate berries, earthworms, caterpillars, and snails.  They also liked to eat cultivated grains such as buckwheat, when those were available.  Of course, farmers did not like it when the birds ate their crops or even when they ate all the acorns that would have fed domestic pigs.  Another thing pigeons were fond of was salt, which they got from salty soil or brackish water.  Every day the birds left their roost to forage for food, sometimes flying as far as 60 to 80 miles.

So with billions of passenger pigeons, how did they go extinct?  One thing that happened was that people started cutting all the forests down, so there weren't as many places for the pigeons to nest and roost.  Also, there weren't as many nuts to eat.  Portable saw mills, which began to be used in the 1870s to clear-cut forests, speeded up this process.

"Passenger Pigeons" by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

At the same time, pigeon meat became popular.  Native Americans had always hunted pigeons, but they usually only ate juveniles and did not disturb the adults.  Early colonists found pigeons to be an important food source for common people and slaves.

It was hard to know where the pigeons would show up because they were always migrating, but the telegraph solved this problem, and hunters could find out easily where the flocks were.  Also, the railroad provided an easy way to ship pigeon meat back east, where it had become a delicacy.  So hunting the birds became profitable, and hunters found ways to kill thousands of them quickly and easily.  Trees were sometimes set on fire using toxic substances which the birds inhaled and died.  Nets could be set up which were partly open, and a few pigeons were blinded and tied to stools inside the net.  These "stool pigeons" fooled other birds into thinking there was food there, and then they would be caught in the net.

James Pattison Cockburn, 1829

Even larger numbers of pigeons could be killed by shooting them.  A good blast with both barrels of a shotgun could bring down as many as 60 birds.  They could be shot during migration or while they perched in bare trees.  Sometimes a trench was dug and filled with grain.  Then the pigeons were shot when they came to feed.

In 1878, at a nesting site in Petoskey, Michigan, 50,000 birds were killed each day for almost 5 months.  One hunter was reported to have sent 3 million birds to eastern cities during the course of his career.

Eventually, the passenger pigeon population reached such low numbers that the species could no longer survive, even though there were quite a few birds left.  People have suggested cloning the passenger pigeon from existing DNA, but this would probably not work because there would not be a big enough population of birds to keep the species going.  Plus, you would have use other types of pigeons as parents, and they would have different methods of raising their young, so it would all be very confusing for the birds.

A famous naturalist named Aldo Leopold spoke at the dedication of a monument to the passenger pigeon at the Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin on May 11, 1947, and here's what he said:

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons.  Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind.  But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Friday, September 25, 2015


Recently, Mom has been buying old-time postcards of Kansas City, mostly on eBay, because (1) she likes them, and (2) other people like them and will buy them in her antique booth.  Anyway, today I am going to show you a few of these postcards and tell you what I learned about them.

Mom did not have to buy this first one because she found it in her mom's stuff.  It shows a race track at Smithville, which is a small town north of Kansas City.  My grandma Helen (mom's mom) grew up on a farm near Smithville.  Mom herself was born in Smithville because that was the closest hospital to where her folks lived in the north part of Kansas City, but Mom did not grow up on a farm.

Anyway, it was news to us that there had ever been a race track in Smithville, but it turns out it was built in 1925 on the old fairgrounds.  Horse shows had been going on there since 1900, and one thing led to another until some men decided to build a track.  At first, the racing was mostly with harness horses because that was the most popular kind of racing in those days.  Betting was not legal, but you could do it by making a $2 donation.  During the racing season, there were races every day of the week except Monday.

In 1928, some new promoters took over the track, and they changed the races to be mostly running horses instead of harness horses.  But those promoters left town after running up a bunch of debts.  Some other people tried to save the track, but it was too far from Kansas City for people to come out there often, and the farm people preferred harness racing.  Later, motor car and motorcycle races were held on the track.  But finally, in the 1940s, the big grandstand was torn down, and that was the end of that.

This next postcard shows a road that was named for Kersey Coates, who was an early businessman and developer in Kansas City.  Mr. Coates was born in Pennsylvania in 1823.  He moved to Kansas City in 1854, a year after it was incorporated.  He bought land on the bluffs above the Missouri River and built a ritzy neighborhood called Quality Hill.

He also started building a hotel at 10th and Broadway, but then the Civil War came along.  Mr. Coates was an abolitionist and served in the militia.  He let the Union cavalry use his unfinished hotel to  stable their horses.  After the war, the stable became a big, fancy hotel.  Mr. Coates was also part of the parks commission.  In addition, he and some other businessmen convinced the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad to build the first bridge across the river at Kansas City instead of at Leavenworth.

Kersey Coates Drive ran along the face of a cliff, about halfway down.  It looked kind of scary to people who looked up at it when they arrived at the old Union Station in the West Bottoms.  Some towers and steps were built above the roadway, and you could go up them to a park at the top.  In this postcard, you can't see them, so either they hadn't been built yet or else they were farther down the road.  Now there is a freeway where Kersey Coates Drive used to be.

On the east side of town, there is a long north-south boulevard called The Paseo.  It was inspired by the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.  The Kansas City Paseo is 19 miles long, running from Cliff Drive on the bluffs of the Missouri River in the north to 85th Street in the south.  In the middle of the Paseo, there is a wide parkway which was laid out in the early 1900s.  The parkway has fountains and sculptures and that kind of thing.

The Paseo was built through some slum areas, and the African-Americans living there had to move to other slums so that the boulevard could be built.  By the early 1920s, the northern end of the Paseo started getting a bad reputation because of prostitution, gambling, and drugs.  Nowadays, there are many parts of the boulevard with a lot of crime and blight.

The most interesting thing about this postcard, in my opinion, is the two men on the bench.  Well, the one on the right is just sitting there in a normal way, but what is the other guy doing?  Here are some possible theories:  (1) he is sleeping, or (2) he has a tummy ache, or (3) he is dead, or (4) he is looking for something he dropped.

This is Mom's favorite Kansas City postcard so far, because it shows steamboats at the landing on the river.  If you go down to the river at this spot now, you can still see part of the old landing.  Or if it isn't the original landing, it is still a very old one.  Of course, there are fences to keep you from going there, but Mom knows some people who feed a feral cat colony that lives under the landing.

But getting back to the steamboats, it turns out that they were still coming up the Missouri River as late as the first decade of the 20th Century.  This is about 20 years later than we had thought they were still operating.  Steamboats were not very safe to ride in because they were always sinking.  One reason they sank was they ran into rocks or snags that punched holes in their hulls.  Also their boilers sometimes exploded, which caused the boats to catch on fire and sink.  Between 1819 and 1910, about 700 paddle wheelers operated on the Missouri River.  Of those, 300 or so were wrecked.

If you want to see all the kinds of things a steamer carried up the river to forts and pioneer settlements, you should go to to the Arabia Steamboat Museum in the River Market area of Kansas City.  The Arabia was a boat that sank and that was later dug up in a cornfield.  It was in the cornfield because the channel of the river had changed.  There are lots of other steamboat wrecks that could be dug up, but it takes a lot of time and money to do it.  Personally, I'm not much of a digger, so I'm not going to even try it!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


This is a true story about a sheep that lived in New Zealand, and his name was Shrek.  He was born in 1994 and lived at Bendigo Station, near the town of Tarras, on the South Island.  Shrek was a Merino sheep, and he did not like to be sheared.  So when it was time for shearing in the spring, he ran off and hid in a cave.  No one could find him for SIX YEARS, and by that time, his wool was really, really long!

When Shrek was finally found in 2004, he didn't even look much like a sheep anymore.  His owner, John Perriam, said "He looked like some biblical creature!"  It took about 20 minutes to shear him, and his fleece weighed about 60 pounds.  That was enough wool to make 20 large men's suits.  The normal weight for a Merino pelt is about 10 lb., with really big ones sometimes weighing as much as 33 lb.

Usually, Merino sheep are sheared once a year, in the spring.  Young sheep are sometimes frightened by the process, but it only takes 5 or 10 minutes for a professional shearer to do it.  As sheep get older, they learn that shearing doesn't hurt, and they are more relaxed.

The wool on domestic sheep will keep growing and growing if they are not sheared.  The sheep have evolved this way because of how humans groom them.  Wild sheep such as Bighorns shed their wool, so they don't need to be sheared.  If a domestic sheep is not sheared, it can cause a lot of problems for the sheep.  A full fleece can lead to heat stress in summer.  Also, there can be problems with mobility and with impaired vision.

Shrek's shearing was done live on national TV, and right away he became a celebrity.  His wool was auctioned off to raise money for charity, and a children's book was written about him.  Also, Shrek got to meet Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

In November, 2006, Shrek was shorn again.  This time the shearing was done on an iceberg floating off the coast of Dunedin, New Zealand.  It seems strange to shear a sheep on an iceberg, but it was done to make more publicity and raise money for charity.

In New Zealand, there are 10 times more sheep than people, but that didn't keep Shrek from winning the hearts of the many Kiwis.  The famous sheep raised money for charities, helped publicize the wool industry, made hundred of public appearances, and contributed millions to the economy.

So when Shrek had to be put to sleep in 2011, everyone was very sad.  He was 16 years old, which is equal to about 90 in human years.  He had been sick and in pain for about 3 weeks, so that's why his owner decided to let him go.

Shrek tried to be a hermit, but he ended up in the limelight instead.  He did a lot of good things for his country, and he will always be remembered fondly.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

AT THE ZOO, part 2

Well, I promised to tell you about some of the less scary animals at the zoo, and now I'm going to do that.

First of all, there are the penquins, who aren't very scary at all.  They eat fish, but not chihuahuas.  Or at least I've never heard of one eating a chihuahua.

Two Humboldt penquins

Here are two Humboldt penguins.  This kind of penguin lives along the coast of South America, almost as far north as the equator.  Those barnacles on the rock behind the penguins?  They's fake.  Actually, the rock is probably fake, too.

One Humboldt penquin

A gentoo penguin swimming
A bunch of mostly king penguins,
except the one in front, who is a gentoo.

This is a blue tang, which is the kind of fish Ellen DeGeneres played in Finding Nemo.

Lorikeets are small parrots that live in places like Malaysia, New Guinea, and Australia.  This one sat on Mom's shoulder for a little while.  Then it got bored and decided it could find something better to do.

A small herd of African elephants

The elephants were hot, so they kept throwing mud
all over themselves.

A bat-eared fox, taking a nap in the sun.

Here are some pictures of the carousel.  Mom took the pictures while the carousel was standing still, with no one on it, but there were plenty of riders later.

Mom's last stop was in the gift shop, where they had lots of stuff for sale, including orangutans:

And these things, whatever they are:

Thursday, September 10, 2015


To be perfectly honest, I'm glad that chihuahuas aren't allowed to go to the zoo.  The reason for that is because the zoo is full of big, scary animals that could eat a little chihuahua in a single bite.  If I went and saw those animals, I would probably have nightmares for a long time afterward.  So it's better just not to see them.

Mom isn't scared of the big animals.  Some of them could eat her, too, although it might take 3 or 4 bites instead of just one.  But Mom says she feels safe at the zoo because of all the fences and glass and stuff like that.  I guess she is entitled to her feelings, even if I know they are wrong.

"Roar!" says Nikita.  "I need a juicy chihuahua to eat!"

Anyway, today I am going to show you pictures of all the very scariest zoo animals and get it all over with.  Then I will talk about the nicer, smaller animals in another entry.

When Mom went to the zoo yesterday, she wanted to be sure to see Nikita, the polar bear.  She has seen Nikita several times before, but Nikita is going away to another zoo in December.

The reason Nikita is going away is that he and the girl polar bear, Berlin, have never made any little polar bear cubs, even though they tried several times.  Berlin is kind of old, for a bear.  She is 23, which is maybe too old to be a polar bear mother, although I don't know much about these things.  Nikita is lots younger, so another zoo wants to have him mate with their female to see if cubs will be the result.

Mom has never even seen Berlin because it seems like she is always "off exhibit" in case she is pregnant.  It's really hard to tell if a polar bear is pregnant, and there are even dogs who are trained to sniff polar bear urine and give their opinion on whether the bear is going to have a cub or not.  A beagle was brought in recently to sniff Berlin's urine, and he didn't seem to think she was pregnant.  But just in case, she is being kept somewhere out of sight.

So polar bears can eat chihuahuas, or at least I know they sometimes eat sled dogs, who are bigger than chis.  And another animal that might eat a chihuahua is a lion.  Mom did not see any male lions at the zoo yesterday, but there were 4 females who were hanging out in the shade really close to the glass of the viewing room.

By the time Mom got to where the lionesses were, the weather was sort of hot, like 82º.  It was hotter than Mom thought it was going to be, so she was getting sweaty.  The lions were very smart and just hung out in the shade, which is the best thing to do on a hot day, unless you can go where it's air-conditioned, which is even better.

A whole bunch of the animals were taking their afternoon naps, like for example the Eastern Black Rhino, who does not look very cute and cuddly when he's sleeping (or at any other time, really).  I think rhinos are herbivores, so they wouldn't eat chihuahuas, but they wouldn't mind stomping on them either.

Two of the African painted dogs were napping, but then some screaming children woke them up.  Personally, I hate it when that kind of thing happens.  African painted dogs are carnivores, so I suspect they would be perfectly happy to have a little chi meat for lunch.

The scariest-looking animal that I'm going to mention is the crocodile.  These reptiles have sharp toenails and leathery skin and evil yellow eyes and thousands of teeth.

They lurk in the water with only their eyeballs sticking out, and then they suddenly lunge and grab you in their huge, long mouths.  We don't have crocodiles in this country, but we have alligators, who do the same mean, sneaky things. Which is why, personally, I plan to stay as far away as possible from both crocodiles and alligators!

Monday, September 7, 2015


You have probably heard of search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs, and of cadaver dogs.  And maybe you have even heard of Human Remains Detection (HRD) dogs, which are sort of like cadaver dogs, but not exactly, because HRD dogs help with crime scenes, old cases, and stuff like that.  Cadaver dogs are more dogs who find people who got killed in natural disasters or because they drowned in the lake or got lost in the woods.

But now there is a new kind of job that dogs do, and it is called Historical Human Remains Detection (HHRD).  This job is so new and so specialized that only about 18 dogs in the whole world have been certified so far to do it.  The difference between an HRD dog and an HHRD dog is that the first kind of dog is looking for residual scent, small scent sources, and old cases where maybe a body has been buried or hidden for a few months or years.  The HRD dogs learn to ignore any kind of fresh human scent or any animal scent.

The historical human remains detection dog, however, is trying to find where human bodies decomposed a really long time ago, like 100 years or even more.  Another name for these dogs is historical grave detection dogs.  Sometimes the grave is so old that there are only tiny fragments of the body, but what the dog is detecting is the odor of decomposition that was left in the soil when a body used to be there.

I would just like to mention, at this point, that the human nose has about 5 million olfactory cells, and the canine nose has about 220 million.  Also, almost one-eighth of the brain of a dog is devoted to processing olfactory input.  Everyone, dog and human, should remember this very important information because it explains why dogs are able to do some of the spectacular things they do, such as finding 100-year old grave sites.

Dogs can be trained to do different types of scent work, but they work in different ways according to the job they are doing.  A dog who is sniffing the air for the scent of a live human will hold his head up.  But a dog who is looking for old graves, old bone, and teeth will work slowly, with its nose close to the ground because these types of scents tend to be found only on the surface of ground and not in the air.

The best conditions for working a detection dog are temperatures between 40ºF and 75ºF, with moist ground, high humidity, and a light breeze.  Dogs can work in more extreme conditions such as high heat or snow, but the working time will be decreased.  Prehistoric graves are the most fragile and difficult scents for dogs to find, so the dogs need frequent rest and water breaks.

Legend, a Belgian Malinois trained as an HHRD dog.

It can take as long as two or three years to train dogs for this type of work.  Many of them start training as puppies, imprinting on the scent of human bones at a very young age.  The best dogs for the job seem to be those with longer noses, because that means they have lots of smell receptors.  Also, they have to have a strong work ethic and a huge desire to please.  The Institute for Canine Forensics, in Woodside, California, trains many dogs for HHRD work.

Detection dogs are trained by rewarding them for finding the right types of remains.  They learn to "alert" by sitting or lying down when they find the scent.  They are taught to ignore anything else, such as animal remains.  As training goes on, the job of finding the human remains is made more difficult until the dog alerts even on very small amounts or fragments, such as a tooth or bit of bone.  The HHRD dogs, just like HRD dogs, are taught never to pick up or dig up the remains.  Everything has to be preserved just the way it was found.

HHRD dogs learn to work an area with a handler, in a methodic grid pattern.  Humans sometimes think that remains and artifacts must be in a certain location, but dogs don't know that, so they are free to figure out where these items really are, just by using their sense of smell.
The findings made by this type of search dog can be extremely useful to archeologists.  Examples of searches done by HHRD dogs include finding the boundaries of poorly marked cemeteries, locating lost graves or cemeteries, and finding scattered bones or artifacts related to burial.  Groups that have requested dogs to do searches include archeologists, American Indian tribes, cultural resource management firms, construction companies, cemetery preservation foundations, and families wanting to find lost family cemeteries.

So once again, dogs have proven themselves to be extremely clever and useful to people.  Probably, we will see more and more HHRD dogs in use in the future.  However, we will probably not see chihuahuas doing this job because (1) a lot of chihuahuas have short noses, and (2) not many chis are so eager to please that they will go out in all kinds of weather to sniff around all over the ground for people who have been dead for centuries already!