Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Of Moose and Men and Tony Bubenik

I thought I would share with you a little of the material from my new book Of Moose and Men. The subtitle is not yet firm, but may well end up as something like The Moose, The Whole Moose, and Nearly Nothing But the Moose.

One character whom I met several times through the years, and who was highly regarded among deer biologists around the world was Tony Bubenik. I fist met him in Prince Alberta in 1978, and then several subsequent times, including when he stayed in our home.

He was never backward in coming forward with new ideas or extending discussions. Not all his ideas proved to be correct, but he was the first to acknowledge it when they did not pan out, and to the end of his life at age eighty-two he kept abreast of developments and technology.

His output included something over three hundred articles and contributions in numerous books. He was also fluent in six or seven languages (accounts differ, probably because of differing definitions of fluency) and wrote in thirteen.
To top it all off, Tony was an accomplished artist, and we have two large watercolour crayon works of his. This one shows a scene which he witnessed when walking in the bush. He told me that the look of surprise on the animal's face was exactly what he saw. The sketches that illustrate the story I have below were also his, made from Super8 movie clips shot by his biologist wife Mary.

Tony’s early life was not easy. He first suffered persecution from the Nazis in his native Czechoslovakia (as it was then) and then dealt with the Communist takeover after World War II, when he was forced to work as a labourer. He came to Canada in 1970 and was soon recognized as one of the most innovative thinkers in the field of deer biology.

Because he was fascinated by the role of antlers in deer society Tony carried out a series of experiments related to the pre-flight displays that occur just before and during the rutting season. He loaned me a copy of Mary’s footage and his son George kindly allowed me to use the sketches for the book.

For the moose study he built a dummy head to which he could attach antlers of various sizes. Even with only two legs, as the sketches showed from these and other experiments, the wild animals reacted to them. He found a bull that had taken up residence near a pond in Ontario and proceeded with his study.
First, he put on a tiny set of antlers that matched those of a sixteen-month-old spiker and walked out from behind his hiding place when the wild bull appeared. The movie shows the bull lifting his head briefly from the water, taking one glance at the intruder, who was showing the correct behaviour in moving lateral to and not facing the dominant animal, and ignoring him. This was much as expected.

Next, as his experiment escalated, Tony exchanged the spikes for a set of super antlers, far bigger than those of the resident. This time, when the bull saw him, he again took a look, but he did not hang around. He simply retired from the scene and ghosted into the spruce trees.

Then Tony showed his true scientific inquisitiveness. He put on the last set of antlers, a set that he had constructed to match those of his subject as nearly as possible. This time he was neither ignored nor avoided.

As Tony’s drawing from the film clip shows, the bull came round the side of the pond and began the ritualized threat that precedes a serious fight among bull moose of equal rank. He dropped his head so that the massive palms would show to maximum effect and rocked his head from side to side, showing off his “stuff.” He walked forward with his forelegs spread wide and locked as if they were stilts, like Frankenstein figures in early horror films.

Not surprisingly Mary’s filming technique suffered a bit at this point as she began to retreat behind a tree. Tony dropped the dummy head, having no wish to take his proof to its inevitable conclusion.

The dummies were so convincing that, as Tony wrote:
“On two occasions moose cows offered themselves for copulation even though a short while earlier they were courted by a bull of lower rank antlers.”

Monday, August 22, 2011

Iberian lynx conservation and white rhino

There have been several reports in the scientific literature and on websites (I first saw one by Rebecca Morelle on the BBC site) about the dire situation facing one of the world’s most endangered cats. This is the Iberian lynx, that lives in Spain and has been under intense pressure from farmers and the general impact of humans for a long time. This beautiful cat is about the size of a cocker spaniel and has the ear tufts of the caracal or African lynx. I found this picture (one of many) on this site through Google.

My only picture of a similar sized cat is of Africa’s serval, which has longer legs, but the same sort of body size. This one was taken in Kenya’s Meru National Park in the early 1970s.

There are thought to be only about 250 Iberian lynx left in the wild and there are those who have suggested that this puts them at risk because of low genetic diversity and inbreeding. The story is typical of the roller coaster for many species of wildlife. In the 1960s there were an estimated 3000 of the cats, but by 2005 the numbers were down to about 150. One major factor in the decline has been the reduction of the main food source, the rabbit. A successful and active captive breeding program has brought them back up to today’s numbers, but they are now only found in two isolated pockets in the south of Spain.

However, a recent report on the BBC website cites the authors of a scientific article by Dr. Love Dalen and others in the journal Molecular Ecology which suggests that the cat’s survival may not be doomed by its tiny population size.

The research suggests that the lynx has had little genetic variability over the last 50,000 years, and this has not hampered its long-term survival. The authors go further and imply that the information should offer hope to conservationists who are trying to reverse what seems to be a path to extinction.

Dr. Dalen, from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, is quoted as saying that "This indicates that some species can do fairly well at low population sizes, even for a very long period of time."

While most geneticists argue that there is a vital place for the use of genetic profiling in the conservation management of wild species there are examples of very successful recovery of almost terminal situations when genetic diversity has been severely limited.

As I wrote in my book The Trouble With Lions:
“The white rhino qualifies as one the really impressive examples of conservation in action. The southern race, which once occupied an area in parts of what are now South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola and Botswana, had all but died out by the year 1900.

A 1904 estimate had only 10 animals left in the country, all of them in the Umfulozi area of Zululand. Mainly through the efforts of one man, B. Vaughan-Kirby, who was the first game conservator in that part of the country, the species was brought back from the brink. In 1916 he reported 20 animals alive.

From that nadir the numbers climbed slowly to something short of five hundred when in 1952 Ian Player, oldest brother of champion golfer Gary, got involved in the very earliest translocation efforts and movement of the animals to many parts of Africa, and indeed to zoos overseas.

Between 1961 and 1972 white rhino had been moved to an impressive 38 new locations in South Africa and eight other African countries, including Kenya, where they went to Meru National Park and became my patients when I lived in the area for ten years. Over and above these destinations rhino also moved to 17 different countries, including Canada, the UK, and the USA.”

This pair of white rhino came to Meru in the late 1960s fror what was euphemitically called "Lesotho" (this was the days of apartheid and no credit could be given to South Africa in Kenya).

Let’s hope that with a population of 250 and a long history of limited genetic diversity, that the Iberian lynx can make a comeback like the southern white rhino has done.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Moose sounds - moans and grunts

In the past week I have learned a whole lot more about moose calls. I had known that during the rut bulls make a noise that has been variously described as a grunt, a hiccup and even, somewhat bizarrely, as sounding like “a human being in the throes of seasickness.” This last description was made by Frederick Selous, the famous hunter of African big game who came to Canada in the early 1900s.
I wonder if this bull, painted by the late Tony Bubenik, was grunting.

I also knew that cow moose make a moaning call during the rut and had believed it to be a protest to courting bulls, especially youngsters.

Then a BBC Nature story written by Ella Davies appeared about a second reason for the moan. Davies had interviewed Dr Terry Bowyer, who used to work in Alaska before moving to Idaho State University. What Bowyer showed, after many hours of observation, was that the moan has a second surprising purpose. His paper was recently published on line in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology. He and his team showed that the moan is used as a tool to attract bigger bulls if a small male approaches. When that happens females moan more and this triggers aggression in larger males.
In fact, As Terry said in the interview
“Male aggression was more common when females gave protest moans than when they did not, indicating that this vocalization incited male-male aggression. Protest moans allow females to exert some female choice in a mating system where males restrict choice of mates through male-male combat.”

In this regard it echoes shades of human behaviour and clearly shows that there is a considerable element of female choice during the rut. When I chatted to Dr. Bowyer he told me that one of his colleagues, who read the manuscript, said to him, “This is not unique to moose, I have seen it in bars in Wisconsin.” I replied,” Not just Wisconsin, I saw it during my student days in Glasgow.” Of course we both acknowledged that this comparison is an oversimplification. As Terry said in that same BBC interview,
“Human females have far more opportunities for mate choice than do female moose because of differences in mating systems.”

The grunt of the rutting bull and the moan of the cow are not the only sounds that moose make.

As we sat over a beer during our recent writer’s retreat at the Sage Hill Writing Experience naturalist and long-time moose watcher Roy Ness of Whitehorse told me of two encounters with moose during which he heard more than just the moans of a cow.
In mid-September 1983, at the height of the rut, “I was in what's locally called the Teslin Burn,” he said.
“I was camped at the end of Grayling Lake, south of Teslin Lake, an area of regrowth that had the highest moose density in the Yukon.”
As he sat on a three-metre tall knoll at the end of the lake in the gathering autumn dusk he listened as a cow accompanied by her calf came to the shore from quite a distance away."

As I read Roy’s subsequent emailed graphic description of the next ninety minutes I got goose bumps.
“I was sitting there as it got dark and I heard the cow call. It started high and went down the register for about 10 seconds, closely repeated several times, each shorter than the last, until it ended in a couple of short grunts. She would call every five or ten minutes, each time getting closer and each time getting answering grunts from a bull at the far end of the lake.”

There was no moon that night and by the time the animals arrived in the meadow just below the knoll only the stars gave any light. It must have been magic.
“Even though they were only a few meters away,” he wrote, “I could barely discern their shapes. She continued to call for about an hour while her calf seemed to be playing—fits of running about then standing still for a while.”

I called him and as we chatted about his experience he told me that the cow suddenly became aware of him, although there was no wind to speak of. At that point “she let out the loudest sound I've ever heard escape the lungs of any animal. It was a lion’s roar with a deep loud belch mixed in. I nearly jumped out of my clothes.”
The cow took off at a great rate, down the meadow and through the willows, crashing though the bushes and letting out the same call as she went.
I wonder if the cow and bull ever got together, as happened in this picture taken in Prince Alberta National Park by Gerhard Stuewe.

This alarm call is made by both sexes.

On another occasion, in early June Roy watched a cow and her small calf feeding in some willows. “I could not see them a lot of the time,” he said during our conversation, “and they certainly could not see each other all the time. However, they both let out a series of high-pitched calls, almost like squeaks, as they stayed in touch. I couldn’t tell which was the calf, and which the mother.”

Vince Crichton from Manitoba is Canada’s senior moose biologist and has witnessed and videotaped a play fight encounter between two young bulls during which they both made sounds that closely resembled the moan of the cow during the rut. He told me “ If I had not seen them and heard their moaning I would have said it was cows – quite amazing – have video of this and I was about 20 feet from them.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sarus crane conservation

Amidst al the doom and gloom about wildlife and the dwindling numbers of so many species, form fogs the world over, to rhino, lions and South American primates, it is nice to find a story that has a more positive message.

According to the Thai Society for the Conservation of Wild Animals the Sarus crane in Thailand had been extinct for at least twenty years. The government Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) goes further and states that it disappeared from its natural habitat in Thailand 50 years ago.

Efforts by conservation groups, including the Eastern Sarus Crane Reintroduction Project, under the Zoological Park Organization(ZPO), with the Royal Patronage of H. M. the King of Thailand have made the all-important start to reversing the situation.

The ZPO has successfully bred sarus cranes through artificial insemination and ten chicks have been prodcued. A story in the Bangkok English newspaper of 2nd August quotes ZPO director Pimook Simaroj as saying that the chicks have been released into the wild and in a related story The Sarus Crane Reintroduction Project Thailand have posted a Youtube video that shows a radio collar device being fitted to one of the birds before release. The ZPO and the Thai Department of Natural Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) plan to release more cranes.

If the survival rate is satisfactory, the DNP will discuss with related authorities to withdraw sarus crane out of the extinction, but as Nisakorn Kositratna, ONEP's secretary-general said “it may take more time before the cranes can be taken off the extinction list.” That's because the freed cranes were bred in captivity and a species can be removed from the list only after it successfully breeds in nature and its wild population grows.

In neighbouring Cambodia a new Sarus Crane reserve was created on 6 Jan this year, although it did take 5 years for the consultative and bureaucratic process to be completed. According to a report on the website
“In March 2010 the site held over 270 Sarus Cranes, more than 30% of the global population”

The sarus crane, in all its grey glory and red head, is indeed majestic. I got this picture of a pair when I traveled in India a twenty-five years ago. It is the tallest of the cranes at about 150 cm and was originally given the romantic name of Antigone antigone by Karl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.

Quite why he chose the double barrel is a bit of a mystery, but I speculate that it was because the bird was believed to be truly monogamous. Not just monogamous, but also according to myth, so faithful that if one partner died the other would pine way and die. If I am right this was a reference to Oedipus’s daughter and heroine of Sophocles’s play who was unable to control her emotions on the death of her brother Polyneices and Linnaeus is bound to have had a classical education.

The name was later changed to Grus antigone to more neatly, but very prosaically, fit it into the crane family in general, a group that includes the very common Sandhill crane, the Whooping crane that nests in northern Canada and is even more endangered than the sarus, and several others.

These birds once ranged across southeast Asia, as far west as parts of India and Sri Lanka and even into northern Australia and are generally divided into subspecies according to the area in which they live.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed for this beautiful bird and the efforts of the dedicated people who are trying to keep it, and its habitat, in a viable state.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sage Hill and Writing

Getting over the highs and lows of my ten days at the Sage Hill Writing Experience, which took place at St. Michaels Retreat in Lumsden, in Saskatchewan’s beautiful Qu’apelle Valley.

The Highs?

1. Meeting an amazing array of writers, about fifty of them, from all across Canada. Nine were faculty, working in poetry, fiction and non-fiction. You can see their mug shots and bits about them on the Sage Hill website.

2. Watching Philip Adams conduct, compére, entertain and organize everyone. While not as tough as herding cats, his job required him to sleep little, laugh a lot, drive to and from the aiport at crazy hours and keep us all on track.

3. Listening to everyone read from their work. On three evenings about a dozen of the “students” had five minutes to read something. Each was introduced by the person who read before them. On three other evenings faculty had the chance to read for a longer period, up to half an hour.

4. Camaraderie and friendly chats over a glass or two of whatever takes your fancy.

5. Good food, amazingly good for institutional grub. Hats off to the team in the kitchen.

The Lows?

1. First up, the fact that I found out that my camera had been stolen on the way to the retreat. It almost certainly happened at a Subway stop in the town of Davidson. Not only my little point-and-shoot digital, but the specialized and expensive 400 mm lens that I use for bird photography. I have quite a number, like this one of a hammerkop who looks as if his eyes were bigger than his stomach at this spot on my website.

The one below, of a kildeer in our driveway with her newly hatched chick, is the last one I took with the big lens. With neither piece of equipment to use I cannot give any new photos here.

2. My bum knee – I won’t bore you, except to say “think twice (or many more times) before you go for a full knee replacement.”

There was a joint class for “beginners’, but from the quality and tone of their readings they were far from neophytes. There was a poetry colloquium. There were sessions on creative writing and on mystery.

I was in the smallest group, who were all working on non-fiction stories. Here we are. From left to right, Jean Crozier, Me, Myrna Guymer, Ted Barris, Ayelet Tsabari and Evonne Garnet.
We were led by award-winning military historian Ted Barris.

Ted has not only won awards for his books, but he had to leave early in order to attend a ceremony for veterans. As he said himself, “I am not a veteran,” but his work has highlighted many veterans issues and he has told their stories from both world wars, Korea and other conflicts. His commendation read, in part:
"Ted Barris has made such exemplary contributions by generously giving of himself and so both benefiting veterans and making manifest the principle that Canada’s obligation to all who have served in the cause of Peace and Freedom, must not be forgotten.”

Jean Crozier, Evonne Garnett and Ayelet Tsabari were my class-mates. One other person, Myrna Guymer, started with us but had to leave at very short notice on the second day when she received news that a tornado had ripped through her home town and knocked everything, including her own home, sideways. With her husband unwell and awaiting surgery she felt she had no choice but to head home.

Jean is working on the tricky subject of widowhood, her own and the same for others. Her initial idea had been to document her life with her late husband, whose photography she so admires, but Ted persuaded her that the subject may have a much wider scope.

Evonne has, as Ted put it in his blog written on the 26th, “the greatest and worst story to tell.” "She is struggling with her mother’s story of growing up in a household where rape, paedophilia and abuse were the norm." Her mother kept a meticulous journal of everything she suffered and Evonne’s challenge will be to find a way to use it. Ted quotes Evonne when she writes “with only the aid of her (her mother’s) journals and her faith, she broke free of the abuse cycle to find a measure of peace and freedom.”

Ayelet is working on what she delightfully calls “a suite of essays” that Ted stated “explores her own travels as a woman apparently unable to settle in one place”. Ayelet read from her darkly comical story about her time in the Israeli militry and being subjected to a lie detector test on suspicion of gun theft.

Ted has also steered me in a new direction and urged my to write about bears, and drop the “porcupine” segment of my planned book. He reckons there is enough about bears, particularly polar bears, to make an important book. I’m still wrestling with that as I last worked in the Arctic in the mid-1980s, but with lots of research and interviews I might be able to tackle it. I suppose that I did this with Of Moose and Men, with interviews and emails to over 80 people world-wide.