Saturday, January 19, 2013

Just How Unique are We? Part 3

I'm offline again for a couple of weeks.

The Pigeon Brain

Years ago, a friend of mine started a location-scouting business in Miami. I was the wildlife division. If a company needed an animal for a photo-shoot, I would find what they needed, manage it on location, then find a home for it afterwards. As it turned out there wasn't a lot of demand for the wildlife division.

The first call was for a parrot to take part in a Gloria Estefan video. Hopi, my yellow-naped Amazon, filled the bill. The second, and thankfully last call I got, was for a pair of white doves, to be released during a photo-shoot for a bridal magazine. I had a couple issues with that. First, the only white dove I could find also belonged to me. The same friend's daughter had found her in a cage in a schoolmate's garage, felt sorry for her, and asked if she could have her. They readily gave up Lovey (as in lovey-dovey.) I ended up with her because my friend had a bird-loving cat. (As an aside, Lovey lived for another 25 years.)

From Unlikely Animal Friends
Back to the photo-shoot: I was unwilling to toss my totally tame dove in the air and hope she found a life somewhere. I scoured the pet stores in Miami, only to discover that every white dove in the county had been recently purchased for an upcoming wedding. I did find two white pigeons, bought them, and told the director, who didn't know a bird from a bat, that they were well-fed doves. 

If you've ever watched a film being made, or a commercial being shot, you know that it requires multiple takes to get everything just right. There was no way to encourage the pigeons off the ground and expect to retrieve them for the next take, so I tied little strings around their legs, staked them out on the lawn, and sat nearby guarding them in case a hungry hawk flew by. When the shoot was over, I owed two white pigeons.

At the time, Lovey lived in a large cage on the balcony of my apartment in Coconut Grove. I brought the pigeons home (via the freight elevator) and set up a little feeding station for them on the balcony. I thought Lovey would enjoy their company, and that the pigeons would hang around until they found other digs in the wide world of pigeons. One did. The other became smitten with Lovey, who hated his guts, and his ridiculous displays--puffing up and twirling--every time he returned from wherever he went. He brought her twigs, which she rejected, snapping her wings in anger. His feelings were never hurt. He cooed softly, and napped on the other side of the wire just out of reach of her bill. It was a pitiful affair, which lasted for the next 6 years until Lovey, Hopi and Rosie, my red rat snake, and I moved to California.

baby pigeons
Here's the Pigeon Brain story from

"Gamblers in Vegas have something in common with pigeons on the sidewalk, and it's not just a fascination with shiny objects. In fact, pigeons make gambles just like humans, making choices that leave them with less money in the long run for the elusive promise of a big payout. When given a choice, pigeons will push a button that gives them a big, rare payout rather than one that offers a small reward at regular intervals. This questionable decision may stem from the surprise and excitement of the big reward, according to a study published in 2010 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Human gamblers may be similarly lured in by the idea of major loot, no matter how long the odds."

My friend's business sans a wildlife division is

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Great Florida Python Hunt
I'm interrupting my Just How Unique are We mini series for a post that illustrates how unique we are--as a species, I mean.

Reading this by Dave Barry required me to hook myself up to a nebulizer to recover. A warning don't drink coffee while reading. I'm not sure what to use to get Cafe Vienna off my monitor.

Python after a hearty meal

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Just How Unique are We: Part 2

An Asian elephant in a South Korean zoo has learned to mimic human words. According to, the elephant can say "hello," "good," "no," "sit down" and "lie down," all in Korean, of course. Though scientists don’t think the elephant knows what these words mean, I bet he does. If my cats know what I mean when I shout “no birds” at them, or “sit” before they get a treat, I’ll lay you odds the elephant has made the link between these words and the behavior associated with them. My parrot knows the difference between hello and goodbye. If I wave when I’m walking out the door, she says “Bye, bye.” Every time. This particular elephant lived alone at this zoo for 7 years, leaving him to bond with humans instead of other elephants.

The deepest calls of an elephant can be heard by other elephants over a range of 6 miles. As it turns out they make these thunderous calls the same way we talk, by pushing air across their vocal cords, which are eight times longer than ours. 

"The sounds the elephants make are off the piano keyboard," said study researcher Christian Herbst, a voice scientist at the University of Vienna, Austria. In fact, at less than 20 hertz in frequency, the main components of these ultra-deep calls aren't detectable to the human ear. 

Until now, researchers weren't sure how elephants produced such low sounds. In fact, it's difficult to study voice production in animals in general, Herbst told LiveScience. "In humans, researchers can insert cameras through the throat into the larynx, or voicebox, while people make different sounds. Animals tend to be less cooperative on that front."

There are two ways to produce sound by vibrating the vocal cords (or vocal folds, as scientists call them). The first is called active muscular contraction, or AMC. With this method, the throat muscles actively contract to vibrate the vocal folds. AMC is how cats purr. The other method of sound production is called the myoelastic-aerodynamic (MEAD) mode. The MEAD mode uses air from the lungs to vibrate the vocal folds. MEAD is how humans talk and sing.

Herbst and his colleagues were able to investigate which one elephants use when they had the opportunity to investigate the larynx of an elephant that died a natural death at the Berlin Zoo. The researchers mounted the larynx on a tube and blew humidified warm air through it to mimic breath. If this method produced vibrations that matched the low-frequency calls of living elephants, the findings would bolster the argument for MEAD-produced sounds. If the vibrations didn't match up, the sounds would have to be produced by the AMC "purring" method. The vibrations matched. That doesn't entirely rule out AMC in elephants, the researchers report in the Aug. 3 issue of the journal Science, but it suggests that MEAD is the more likely culprit for low-frequency cries.

"What is cool to me is that nature came up with a system that you can find in mammals from the very, very large — so basically we now have evidence for the largest land-based mammal — to very, very small like tiny bats," Herbst said.

That size range brings with it an impressive range in frequency, from elephants at less than 20 hertz to bats that can squeak at more than 110,000 hertz. The human vocal cords can produce sounds ranging from about 50 hertz to 7000 hertz, with most voice sounds falling between 300 hertz and 3,400 hertz.

"It still strikes me as fantastic what we humans can do with this system," Herbst said. "Comparative anatomy of the same system in different animals can help researchers understand how voice evolved in the first place. We see variations in the laryngeal anatomy," he said, "and usually, nature has a good reason to come up with slight variations."

Article from LiveScience by Stephanie Pappas

Lawrence Anthony calls up a wild elephant heard 

After Lawrence Anthony's untimely death, his elephants walk 12 hours to mourn him.

And just this week, poachers kill 11 elephants for their ivory tusks, carved into trinkets
mostly to sell to newly rich Chinese.

SPEAKING CHINA. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THE DOCUMENTARY, WILD CHINA. The scenery is stunning, it's culturally fascinating, and in spite of the wild life poached to satisfy some tastes, it is ecologically hopeful.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Just How Unique are We? Part 1

I remember catching my first fish when I was six or seven, and getting upset when my father removed the hook with a pair of pliers and put my bass on a stringer. I was sure he was hurting the fish, but he assured me that fish don't feel pain. I don't know if he actually believed that or was only trying to comfort me, but, of course, it's not true. If animals--even fish--didn't feel pain, or experience fear, they would not survive long in the wild. And any one of us with a pet know that animals also have complex emotional lives. Some scientists still argue the finer points in spite of the growing evidence that we aren't all that special. According to we have plenty in common with other animals. For the next few posts, I'm going to look at a few examples.
This baby gorilla reacts to a cold stethoscope

Facial expressions

I love this picture of a baby gorilla reacting to a cold stethoscope. I don't think there is any other way to interpret it, but, according to an article on, research at McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada, has found that mice, subjected to moderate pain "grimace," just like humans.
  Researchers said the results could be used to eliminate unnecessary suffering for lab animals by letting researchers know when something hurts the rodents.

I don't mean to discount this study, but of all the thousands and thousands of animals sacrificed on the altar of 'for the good of mankind,' and hyper-allergenic mascara, only now did they notice a reaction to pain.

This cat is expressing my reaction to the news.