26 August 2008

Corvid Appreciation

In pretty much any part of the world, crows, jays, or magpies - the group of birds known as corvids - are a daily fact of life, animals so common that most people don't even notice them.  This is especially true in Seattle, which is rumored to harbor the world's largest population of crows (either the American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, or the Northwestern crow, Corvus caurinus, depending on who you believe).  Whether or not this has ever been reliably demonstrated, it is a fact that Seattle is home to a remarkably large number of the animals, most of which roost directly above the house of one of my best friends from middle school.  At my family's house, our backyard was frequented by a more colorful relative, the electric-blue, crested Steller's jay.  When we went camping in the mountains, we were invariably plagued by gray jays ("camp-robbers," as they're aptly known to many people) and Clark's nutcrackers, and if we headed east of the Cascades we saw more than our share of black-billed magpies and Northern ravens.  I've always had a certain fondness for corvids, not only because I saw so much of them while growing up, but because they are among the smartest animals on the face of the planet (there are, of course, lots of angsty people out there who identify with crows because they are seen as dark and misunderstood; the irony of this Gothic fascination is that corvids in general - and crows in particular - are intensely social animals). Corvids maintain extremely complex social structures, have been observed using tools, are inveterate problem-solvers, have remarkable memories, and are apparently capable of quite sophisticated communication.  Further proof of the intellectual capabilities of crows and their relatives was provided this week by John Marzluff at the University of Washington, who suggests that not only are Seattle's crows capable of remembering people's appearance, they are able to communicate the appearance of individuals perceived as dangerous to other crows.  I'm more convinced of the first point than the second, but read the article and decide for yourself; regardless of the extent of their skills of recognition, the study is another testament to the complexity of the corvid mind.  Most of us will never have the opportunity of seeing chimps or gorillas in the wild, and while dolphins are nothing new to many of us, few people ever get to see them up close an in their element.  Fortunately, we all (unless we live in Antarctica) have the opportunity of observing animals on nearly a daily basis that belong in the same brainy category as primates and cetaceans.  Bear that in mind next time you see a jay foraging in your yard, a murder of crows in a tree, or even a magpie raiding a trash can; each and every corvid out there is a remarkable animal, as will become quickly apparent if you spend even a little time observing their behavior.

18 August 2008

What I Learned in California

With the words of Muhhamad in mind ("Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled"), here's what I learned during the last three weeks in the Bay Area and LA.

  • The University of California Museum of Paleontology is much, much more than just a pretty website.
  • Squirrel fossils are less common than you might think if you looked only at the Oregon and Washington collections.
  • You should never try to go to the De Young Museum on a summer weekend.  The Palace of the Legion of Honor, however, is well worth the trip: it has free organ concerts some afternoons, an odd but interesting penchant for juxtaposing Rodin and Dale Chihuly, and perhaps the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
  • Monkey Head Ale is shockingly drinkable given its alcohol content, and the Triple Rock brewpub is a dead ringer for Seattle's Big Time Brewery, minus the shuffleboard tables in the back room.
  • Berkeley does monumental architecture very well.  Santa Cruz does landscaping very well (hard not to when your campus is literally in the middle of a redwood forest).  USC...not so much.
  • A distant relative of mine was honored by having a fossil dog from the La Brea tar pits named after him: Canis orcutti.  The relative in question was William Warren Orcutt, an oil man who, among other things, discovered the first fossils at La Brea and was also the namesake for Orcutt, California.  Sadly, C. orcutti has since been lumped into the species C. latrans, the coyote.
  • If you can only visit one of the California missions, it should be La Purísima, near Lompoc.  If you can visit a second, it should be Santa Barbara, because that's probably what heaven looks like.
  • The San Bernardino County Museum has a surprisingly good fossil collection, but you have to really want to get there.
  • LA remains a sprawling, polluted tumor of a city that guzzles up water and power at an alarming rate.  That said, it does have a larger number of things going for it than I'd previously appreciated.
-It has a trio of art museums (The Getty Center, The Norton Simon Museum, and the LA County Museum of Art) that, while they may not rival Madrid's 'Golden Triangle' are as good as anything on this continent and the equal of many European cities.
-The Getty Center is as ethereally gorgeous in the evening as it is at midday.
-LA rapid transit has gotten significantly better with the construction of many light rail lines, though people still tended to look at me funny when I said I was taking the train in to the natural history museum every day.
-Speaking of the natural history museum, it's fantastic, if a bit dated in places (though really, that's what I liked about it; more about that in a later post).
-Pasadena is gorgeous and is a shining example of what the region could - and probably should - be, though one wonders how much longer they'll be able to keep it so green.
-Union Station is really cool and, incidentally, an exemplary transit hub.
-The Griffith Observatory is great regardless of whether you like sweeping views, Art Deco architecture, astronomy, or free museums.

  • Merychippus gets old very quickly, especially when it's not identified down to the species level.
  • Driving all the way up the Central Valley is more of an ordeal than you might expect, not just because it's really flat and boring, but because there's a decent chance traffic will be stopped by a wildfire on the median.