Turkey Vultures in Our Neighborhood

The other day, on my drive to work, as I exited our neighborhood, I came upon this strange picture. Two large birds were in the middle of the road. One of them was apparently working on eating some roadkill. The other one had spread its wings, standing on the median, in an apparent gesture of perhaps guarding its mate while it ate, by looking threatening.

[click to enlarge any of the pictures]

Upon closer inspection I identified them as turkey vultures. Here is a zoomed image. These are large birds.

Very slowly I drove a little closer, making sure not to scare them. Here is a picture showing it as close as I got.

When I inched further along, the one on the road flew away onto a nearby fence to watch me, and the one on the median, which has its wings spread, hopped away from me and kept an eye on me.

I didn’t exit my car as to not to scare them.

As I drove away I saw that the roadkill they were munching on was a fresh rabbit.

And that is the wildlife in our neighborhood.

I won’t describe the scene the other night when our neighbor found a rattlesnake in her side yard next to our house!

Dairy Herd Free After Years of Confinement

This is really hard to watch.


Movie Review: Alpha

Set in the last ice age in Europe, a tribe of Cro-Magnon men goes on a hunting trip. Keda, the chief’s son, comes along for the first time. His proud father is teaching him how to hunt, and how to be a man. But during the hunt things go horribly wrong, a buffalo charges Keda and throws him off a steep cliff. The hunting party can only assume he is dead and eventually they leave, the distraught father almost being dragged away by his friends.

Miraculously, the boy survives and must now fend for himself, fight off predators, and somehow find his way home, before winter comes and makes travel impossible. When a pack of wolves attack him,  he barely escapes into a tree, but he injures one of them. The wolf and the boy reluctantly form a bond and protect each other as they try to journey home. He calls the wolf Alpha.

Alpha is a survival movie. We see and feel how prehistoric people lived and survived. The landscape didn’t look like Europe 20,000 years ago to me, but rather more like South Dakota, but that is a minor point. I liked the fact that the tribe didn’t speak English. That would have been too easy and too distracting. They spoke their own language, accompanied by easy to read subtitles. This helped make the film more realistic.

I marvel about prehistory, and how unlikely it was that men survived at all, and how amazing it is that we’re all here today, descendants of these very Cro-Magnon men. If you have ever speculated how humans first started domesticating dogs, this is the movie to watch.

We Have Pets – Our Doves

We have a small¬†upstairs balcony, just large enough for two chairs looking down on the street. The balcony is completely covered¬†by the eaves of the house. Inside, there is a supporting beam, and¬†that’s where a pair of doves have decided to build their condo.

[click to enlarge]
Most of the time, only one of them is here, just sitting there, resting. They are now used to us, so we can get within a couple of feet and take a picture without scaring them. We come up and talk to them through the screen door.

Today, we saw both of them there at the same time, one of them in the nest and the other in the adjoining condo – or perhaps separate bedroom.

We don’t know if there are any eggs in the nest yet. We’ll check the next time they are both out shopping.

If I were a dove, I’d find this spot too. It does not get any better. It’s completely protected from terrestrial predators, since it’s under a balcony that cannot be reached from the ground. It’s invisible from the outside. While other birds could get there, they’d have to know it’s there first. And it’s protected from all weather and wind.

When choosing real estate, it’s all about location, location and location.

In contrast, I searched for nests of doves, and found that not all doves are as smart as our pets. Check out this one:

[picture credit: imgur.com]
It’s right out in the open, on top of an ultrasonic bird repellant machine. It does not seem like the gizmo is working on the doves. Hopefully it won’t drive the chicks crazy when they hatch.

Book Review: Aliens – by Jim Al-Khalili

The full title of the book is:

Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Aliens are little grey humanoids with big heads, large black eyes, slit mouths, and sometimes they speak English. Or are they?

I have always been of the opinion that we are in no way prepared for a meeting with actual aliens, if they exist.

Homo sapiens has been on the planet for about 200,000 years. Recent discoveries have moved it up to about 300,000 years, yet to be confirmed. Bottlenose dolphins have been around for about 15 million years, and I actually believe they are just as smart was we are, they just haven’t become toolmakers, because they evolved in an environment that does not require shelter, and where food floats by them so they didn’t need to develop agriculture to survive. But I digress.

Dolphins are alien intelligences,¬†and they have lived next to us for the duration of our entire existence. The ancient Romans talked about dolphins and interactions with them. Yet, with advanced computer technologies, translation software, and decades of research into dolphin language, we still haven’t communicated yet.

Because communication with aliens is very hard.

If real aliens landed on earth, we earthlings couldn’t do a thing with them other than look at them. And they would look at us, marvel at our “intelligence” like we marvel about the intelligence of octopuses (or dolphins) and that’s where it would end.

Aliens is a collection of scientific essays about aliens and an excellent reference work. It analyzes the origin of life on earth, how life could have developed (or not developed) on other worlds, the likelihood of that having occurred, and the odds of us ever meeting another civilization.

If you have ever wondered if we are alone, read Aliens and you will marvel and be inspired.

Book Review: Other Minds – by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes Рand a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since¬†an octopus has¬†no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

Saving the Elephant

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, in 2014 the total population of African elephants was estimated to be around 700,000, and the Asian elephant population was estimated to be around 32,000. The population of African elephants in Southern Africa is large and expanding, with more than 300,000 within the region; Botswana has 200,000 and Zimbabwe 80,000. Large populations of elephants are confined to well-protected areas. However, conservative estimates were that 23,000 African elephants were killed by poachers in 2013 and less than 20% of the African elephant range was under formal protection.

— Wikipedia

In 2013 alone, over 1,000 park rangers were killed while attempting to defend African elephants from poachers. The elephant is a terribly endangered animal and it may only be a few more decades before there are no more wild elephants left.

Imagine my surprise when I found this advertisement in the October 2015 Robb Report Collection edition:


RobbReport1This is  a magazine for the very rich. It is full of articles and advertisements for super cars, private jets, 3rd homes in remote islands, art and culture, and Рapparently Рbig game hunting.

It is beyond my comprehension how BigGame.org can position itself as a conservation and education organization, when it’s really just a club for big game hunters – the Dallas Safari Club.

It makes it sound like killing elephants is a noble and worthy endeavor.

Tell me what you will, we can educate and observe completely without shooting a single elephant for sport. Making it sound like hunters are the good guys in this terribly destructive game is simply irresponsible.

Hunting big game for sport is as outdated as slavery. What exactly are “hunters’ rights” that need to be protected? Sounds kind of like protecting the rights of slave owners to me.

Elephants, along with whales and apes, are the most intelligent creatures on this planet, and we’re wiping them out – for sport (in the case of big game hunting) and the relentless greed for ivory in mostly Asian markets.

We humans have a responsibility to protect our fellow intelligences.

Convergent Evolution and Humanoid Aliens

Stop picturing little green men in your mind whenever you talk about aliens because, according to Simon Conway Morris, a leading evolutionary biologist from the University of Cambridge, if aliens exist or we ever encountered them, they would look a lot like humans.

— Sparkonit¬†(from the book The Runes of Evolution)

It has always bothered me that aliens in popular culture media more often than not are humanoid. This never made sense to me. Simon Conway Morris argues that similar conditions would result in a similar fauna on an alien planet, so the alpha predator that would eventually emerge and become sentient would be humanoid.

65 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid effectively wiped out a majority of the fauna on earth. In particular, the entire dinosaur population did not survive. Scientists speculate that at that time dinosaurs like velociraptors¬†may have been¬†hunting in packs and coordinating their actions. Let’s assume for a minute that the asteroid didn’t hit the earth that day and missed it, and another one didn’t come in the next 65 million years, a quite possible scenario.

Velociraptors would have had millions of years to further hone their hunting skills. Perhaps they might have learned to use tools, first sticks of wood, sharpened at the end, as primitive daggers and later spears. It’s easy to imagine that they would have developed sufficient intelligence to make tools. After all, they had claws with opposable thumbs.

Mammals would never have dominated the earth, and primates may never have evolved superior intelligence. In that world, there would now be the descendants of those tool-making velociraptors as the alpha predators. Sorry, they would look lizard-like, not humanoid.

So, changing one minor detail about our planet’s history by diverting a chance asteroid encounter, a pivotal series of events would not have happened, and the likelihood of humanoid aliens would be minimized.



Pork Chops Anyone for Today’s BBQ?

Pigs are highly intelligent animals, rumored to be smarter than dogs or cats. The¬†novel Animal Farm by Orwell takes advantage of that fact for its plot. Pigs in “factory farms” spend their entire lives in small cages. Mother sows can’t even turn around. Their waste is flushed into open cesspools and when they fill up, the farmers spray the waste into the air so the globules drift away with the wind – onto the neighbors.

This is what it takes to provide cheap pork at Costco. Real farms would be way more expensive. Our hunger for inexpensive meat overrules our sense of responsibility for the lives and welfare of animals and the pollution of our environment.

Check out the video above and then go enjoy your BBQ.

SeaWorld and Whale Slavery

The whales are so smart they know that even if they hear the cranes coming up the pathway [to lift them out of the pool] or certainly if they see them, they won’t separate, they won’t allow it to happen because they know the possibility … that one of the members of their family or their social group could be taken away from them. … You’ll [hear] extremely upset vocalizations from whales that are … being taken away, and then the whales that they’re being taken away from.

— Former Orca Trainer for SeaWorld

This reminds me of the practice in human slavery, when female slaves were forced to “breed” children so they could be sold off as quickly as possible for profit.

SeaWorld has never really recovered after its drop in stock price and popularity resulting from the movie Blackfish. Recently I have seen prime-time TV advertisement by SeaWorld defending its practices.

Here is another, somewhat older website about the Miami Seaquarium – called in parody Seaprison.

We consumers can help by not patronizing businesses that enslave animals to make human profits.

Mother to Rescure when Baby Elephant Falls

When I watch this short video of adult elephants rescuing a baby that fell, I cannot help but compare it to images that I have seen a thousand times of human mothers at playgrounds coming to the aid of their children as they tumble off some teeter totter or slide, fall into the sand face-first and start crying.

Comparisons like this reinforce my conviction that we humans are arrogant and misguided when we claim that we are different in kind from all animals, that we are somehow the crowned kings of nature.

We may be a little better at tool-making than most other animals, but I don’t see much difference when I observe these mother elephants and human mothers rescuing their toddlers in distress. I am sure the feeling in their hearts, human and elephant,¬†are quite the same.

Quite the same.


Octopus Disappearing and Escape Artist

We have all heard about how smart octopuses are. They are¬†among the most intelligent of all invertebrates. The exact extent of their intelligence and learning capability is much debated. Some people even try to keep them as pets, but it is difficult, since they can escape out of “secure” tanks due to their problem-solving skills.

Here is a video of an octopus getting off the deck of a ship through a very unlikely opening. I thought this was amazing to watch.



Dolphin Asks for Help from Diver

Here is an inspiring video of a dolphin basically asking a diver for help – and then getting it. Events like this confirm to me¬†that animals are not different in kind from humans. I know that religious people like to say that God made the animals, and then he made man and woman. We also like to rationalize that somehow we’re the crowning of the animal kingdom, and therefore we have the right to use and abuse animals as we see fit – and hunt and kill them when it pleases us.

There are so many examples of animal intelligence, the video below being just one of them, that clearly illustrate thinking, planning, collaboration, interspecies trust and interspecies communication. There is nothing that we have that dolphins don’t have, other than – we grew up on land and developed digits that we can use to manipulate things, like tangled fishing lines – and dolphins grew up in water and developed advanced echolocation techniques at the expense of having digits.

Watch this video and then tell me again that a dolphin¬†is “just an animal.”

One Very Smart Crow

I cannot say anything to add to the impact of this video.

This shows abstract thinking, planning, problem solving and creativity all at once – in an animal. It represents a powerful argument and example against human exceptionalism.

I believe humans are not the only animal that uses tools, that thinks, that has a sense of identity and self. I don’t believe that humans are different in kind from all the other animals.