Jimmy Stewart, the Abominable Snowman, and Christmas


Fun to revisit this post each Christmas season and each time some new yeti news comes out!

The Waterthrush Blog

I’ve long been a fan of the actor James “Jimmy” Stewart.  He was a handsome everyman, homespun yet sophisticated, scrawny yet tough.  He did it all from comic pratfalls to Hitchcockian suspense to dusty Westerns.  He also famously ate himself into a stupor to make weight so that he could enlist in the US Air Force during WW2.  He flew 20 combat missions and ultimately retired at the rank of Brigadier General.  Jimmy wasn’t just a great actor, he was a true patriot and one of thousands of American heroes in whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.

But that story is for another time.  This one is Christmas-themed: At this time of year, it is a singular pleasure in our home to invest a couple of hours reveling in arguably Stewart’s most iconic role: George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. (Plus I get to look…

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More nails in the yeti/bigfoot coffin


The pseudoscientific business of belief in undescribed hominids wandering the wilder places of our planet marches on like a yeti across an alpine snowfield. I found this Barry Gibb-resembling bigfoot at Pike’s Peak in Colorado last summer, and it was one of dozens of bigfoot-themed items celebrated and for sale in the gift shops. 20245852_10104792646604752_2489587807736474282_nThe Bigfoot Field Researcher’s Organization has five scheduled field trips in 2018, with individual registrants paying $300–$500 a pop. Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot has insulted our collective intelligence through at least 11 seasons and 89 episodes and, without a single bigfoot ever having been “found”, sponsors still pay for it to air. Bigfoot remains big business.

How to rectify that, though, with the complete lack of the hairy namesake?

Bigfoots can’t be reliably photographed, evidently, and they’re so rare that it’s unlikely to ever find a dead one – at least according to arguments from proponents. But bigfoots, yetis, and similar mythical beasts leave behind traces in the form of their footprints. Those are really easily to fabricate, however, so even better would be hairs, bits of bone, etc. from which experts could extract DNA and determine what the heck these things really are.

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Photo of a footprint I found in the woods last summer that dwarfs my size 11 boot. It’s big, in some squatchy habitat, and it even shows the “mid-tarsal pressure ridge” of a flexible foot that some scientists like to say is diagnostic evidence of a real bigfoot. (And I made this print myself in < 60 seconds.)

So what happened when the best physical evidence was subjected to genetic analysis by real-deal scientists? This:

Sykes et al. 2014

Thirty-seven samples of most robust provenance from the US, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sumatra, and Russia were analyzed, and all were confirmed 100% NOT bigfoot, yeti, orang-pendek, or almasty. They were instead confirmed to have come from bears, serow, horse, cow, raccoon, tapir, sheep, porcupine, canid, human, and deer. There really is no such thing as bigfoot.

Rather than persisting in the view that they have been ‘rejected by science’, advocates in the cryptozoology community have more work to do in order to produce convincing evidence for anomalous primates and now have the means to do so.” Sykes et al. 2014.

New this week, however, is a published study of genomic analysis of additional material from the Himalayas.  Perhaps this time we can finally find proof of the yeti!

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In this study, researchers analyzed 15 samples of bears from collections in the Himalayas and 9 samples of putative yeti tissue. The result?  One dog and 23 bears.

Lan et al. 2017

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This result from Lan et al. 2017 does not mean that there is no yeti (can’t prove a negative and all that), but it illustrates that the things that people in the Himalayas think are yetis are, in fact, bears.

So here is what we’ve learned over the past few years:

  1. It is decidedly, demonstrably, and objectively NOT the case that so-called mainstream science ignores cryptozoology in general and bigfoot/yeti claims in particular. These were real scientists using real science and publishing in real journals.
  2. The absolute best evidence that cryptozoologists had to analyze amounted to 100% not-cryptid, known animals.
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Some perspective on peak abundance of Passenger Pigeon


You’ve heard the story before, and it’s sobering: Once perhaps the most abundant vertebrate on the planet, a combination of unremitting exploitation and habitat loss reduced the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) from billions to none in a few short decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A recent analysis by Hung et al. 2014 used multiple sources of evidence to challenge the notion that Passenger Pigeons had always been that abundant. Their analysis does not, however, question the oft-cited estimate of somewhere between 3 and 5 billion Passenger Pigeons in North America at their population peak in the 19th Century.  Even the low end of that estimate is difficult to fathom, so I decided to do a little back-of-the-napkin calculating to get a bit of perspective on what it would mean to have at least 3 billion birds of one species flying around North America.

For estimates of bird population sizes, I turned to the Partners in Flight Population Estimates Database. This database is a compilation of abundance estimates from the North American Breeding Bird Survey with extrapolations to available unsampled habitat in the US and Canada. It is biased toward the species most likely to be sampled via the BBS (passerines and similar “landbirds”) so there are likely some other species that are more abundant than some of the species on the following list.

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Naturally, we can carve up the methods for making these estimates nine ways to Sunday. That’s not my objective in this post. Instead, I wondered how many cumulative populations of our most abundant species here in North America it would take to get to 3 billion. So here we go. To roughly approximate the abundance of the low estimate of Passenger Pigeon in the 19th Century with North American landbirds today, we would need to add together every single . . .

  1. American Robin +
  2. Chipping Sparrow+
  3. Dark-eyed Junco +
  4. Savannah Sparrow +
  5. White-throated Sparrow +
  6. Red-eyed Vireo +
  7. Alder Flycatcher +
  8. Yellow-rumped Warbler +
  9. Song Sparrow +
  10. Red-winged Blackbird +
  11. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher +
  12. Brown-headed Cowbird +
  13. Mourning Dove +
  14. Swainson’s Thrush +
  15. Golden-crowned Kinglet +
  16. Northern Cardinal +
  17. Ruby-crowned Kinglet +
  18. Yellow Warbler +
  19. Common Yellowthroat +
  20. House Sparrow +
  21. Horned Lark +
  22. Orange-crowned Warbler +
  23. Western Meadowlark +
  24. Indigo Bunting +
  25. Tennessee Warbler.

There you have it. Passenger Pigeon was once at least as abundant as our top 25 most abundant landbirds today, combined.

Posted in bird evolution, birds/nature, deforestation, editorial, Endangered Species Act, environment, history, IUCN, life, Links, National Audubon Society, Partners in Flight, population estimates, population monitoring, RMBO, skepticism and science, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Eisenhower Matrix, and a step toward greater productivity


If you want to be more productive in reaching some goal, you can make the decision that “Tomorrow I’m going to be different!” Every time I do that, however, it doesn’t pan out. Rarely can someone just decide to change their lives. Most of us need an actual plan. That makes sense. We’re pulled in 99 directions these days with things demanding our attention. I’m convinced of two things about modern American society: the number of people suffering from anxiety, depression, etc. is skyrocketing, and a big part of that is that our species evolved to live a life of much slower pace.

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If my wife and kids would let me, I’d totally be down for transforming myself into the Ox-Cart Man.

So what can we do short of dropping out of society, Thoreau-style? There’s no one thing that can help everyone be more productive in the advance of some goal (so don’t get suckered into spending $19.99 on something that claims to do that), but when I encounter good ones I share them here.

One cool idea you might have seen is the Eisenhower Matrix, named for our 34th President who is credited with the phrase “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” There are many great examples of people representing this idea in a matrix or Eisenhower Box, but I’m seldom satisfied with them so I made my own custom version. The point here is that you list out the things you need to do and then you assign them to the appropriate corner of the matrix and act accordingly.

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Please feel free to use, share, etc. this version with my blessing, and best wishes on your path to greater productivity!

 

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October 18 – Engrossed in Pine Grosbeaks — Lynn Barber’s Alaska Big Year – and Beyond


As I posted yesterday on Facebook, our first two Pine Grosbeaks of the fall were at our feeders the evening of October 16th. Yesterday, a day that began at 19 degrees in our yard, there were more – one female and three males at one time, and at other times there were 1-2 males, possibly […]

via October 18 – Engrossed in Pine Grosbeaks — Lynn Barber’s Alaska Big Year – and Beyond

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Audubon’s “Melody” the Piping Plover


The Waterthrush Blog

Many years ago, I met Piping Plovers on the islands of the Virginia Coast Reserve.  My work there dealt with terns, skimmers, and gulls, but it was a real treat to spend two summers in that wild place and enjoy the other wildlife there.  Oystercatchers, Seaside Sparrows, Willets – these were creatures foreign to a young man from the dairy country of Central New York.

Perhaps the most endearing denizens of those lonely dunes and windswept beaches was the Piping Plover.  Small birds, the color of the sands that sustained them, these birds are as emblematic of wild beaches as Spotted Owls are ancient forests or Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are longleaf pine savannas.  To this day, when I imagine hearing the sweet “PEEP-lo!” of Piping Plovers, I hear it breaking through as a sweet melody above the regular static of ocean waves on the beach.  I hear it and feel…

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AUTHOR BLOG: To the Grasshopper Sparrow, the Grass May Be Greener on the Other Side — Auk & Condor Updates


Emily Williams Linked paper: Patterns and correlates of within-season breeding dispersal: A common strategy in a declining grassland songbird by E.J. Williams and W.A. Boyle, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:1, January 2018. Late in the summer of 2013, when Alice Boyle, a new faculty member at Kansas State University, was embarking on studies of grassland birds at […]

via AUTHOR BLOG: To the Grasshopper Sparrow, the Grass May Be Greener on the Other Side — Auk & Condor Updates

Posted in academics, animal behavior, bird banding, bird evolution, birding, birds/nature, environment, evolution, Links, skepticism and science, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment