Loggerhead Shrikes

Ninja Assassins

Loggerhead Shrike in December

Loggerhead Shrike in December

Silly bird. Hiding your eyes behind a ninja turtle mask won’t make you invisible …

I suppose the purpose must be to conceal its identity from oblivious and uninformed birdwatchers like me.

I saw quite a few of these pretty birds in the spring but up until today I didn’t know what they were. They are loggerhead shrikes — a threatened species. I was surprised and saddened to hear about their status.

Not secretive at all, I have frequently seen them perched on lamp posts and trees watching everything that goes on around them. The startle distance is about the same as for a mockingbird. This one in particular was adorably curious — it even flew toward me to see what exactly I was up to. If only I had a fat juicy bug to reward its bravery! (note to self …. )

loggerhead shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

They are excellent fliers. Watching them hunt is breathtaking. They don’t seem to attack other birds; they target grasshoppers and their ilk. And that I assume is the source of their survival issues: death from poisoning. They’ve actually been extirpated from at least one state. I hope they can continue to find a safe refuge here in Austin. I already thought they were delightful but now I appreciate their presence even more.

For more information about their gruesome hunting habits, songs and more I invite you to check out Cornell’s All About Birds site.

Monarch Butterflies vs The Corporate Machine

butterflyguyWhere does The New York Times get its reputation for hard hitting investigative journalism? They must be coasting on James Risen’s reputation because they look like nose-in-the-sand pushovers when it comes to environmental issues.

Earlier this year I looked at their approach to bee reporting and found more spin than substance. I wondered if that was an accident of fate so I decided to do another test case. This time I looked at how they reported the issues surrounding the failing monarch butterfly migration.

Recommendations About How to Help Monarch Butterflies

Unless you’ve been hiding away on the space shuttle this year you probably know that the monarch butterfly migration east of the Rocky Mountains is in danger of collapse.

Over the course of 2014, five stories were published by The New York Times about monarch butterflies. Most off the content involved information about the migration and butterflies in general but two of the reports offered brief recommendations about what we can do to help.

But before they told us what we could do they made sure to set a limit. On February 14, they printed the following statement which turned out to be the key phrase for the whole year’s reporting. Above all else

We can’t ask farmers to change their habits.”

Yet, isn’t that exactly what people did when faced with ecological catastrophe in the 1930s? Rather than pretending the dust bowl didn’t happen, people learned from the experience and stopped using damaging farming techniques. I have to wonder why change was possible then but unthinkable now.

But let’s go back to the action plan. As ‘the newspaper of record’ with vast resources and access to the wisest experts in the land The New York Times gave the public this advice:

In February: Let’s plant milkweed on roadsides and between fields. Maybe we could offer subsidies for farmers to set aside land that is free of herbicides.

By November the advice became: Gardeners should replace tropical milkweeds with native varieties. Make sure to cut them back in the fall. Oh, and we ought to do more experimental work.


Do you know how much tropical milkweed is grown in this country? I don’t. But I can give a rough estimate of how much land is used for GMO crops. The USDA reported that in 2012:

Corn fields took up 87.4 million acres
Soy fields used 76.1 million acres
Cotton fields used 9.4 million acres.

The total rounds up to 173 million acres of land. Of that land the majority was planted with Bt and Roundup Ready seed. Looking through the window at the lone tropical milkweed plant waving back at me from my backyard I am honestly astonished that anyone could think it poses any threat at all in comparison to all those millions of acres of poisoned land.

It really is a bit like living during a plague year in old London. All around us is a mass die off resulting from infected flea bites. Meanwhile some guy is making a profit from selling the death blankets to survivors. In the middle of all this drama someone else comes along hoping to start a debate in the town square about the relative merits of cotton vs linen bandages for buboes. I know which problem deserves my attention.

The New York Times disagrees with me I guess. They seem to think that plague sellers like Monsanto and Syngenta are the ones who need protection. I can tell because of the way they have portioned out their story real estate. And because they refused to investigate those who are accountable.

Unequal Story Space Regarding the Causes of the Problem

To be fair The New York Times did specifically mention on two occasions that habitat loss is the prime threat to monarch butterflies. But their phrasing of the problem is a bit disingenuous and a kind of deflection. The cause of all that shrinking habitat is known. Whenever I see ‘habitat loss’ in print I prefer to replace the phrase with ‘herbicide use.’

Knowing that they are aware of the main cause for the problem it is jarring to see which of the problem causes receives the most discussion space. (Please refer to the chart below).

butterfly causes piechart

The problem of herbicide use (orange) is dwarfed by an issue that at this time is only speculative — that gardeners growing tropical milkweed (blue) might cause harm to monarch butterflies. The two other causes are largely tangential issues since they have been largely solved (deforestation in Mexico) or impossible to control (severe weather). It is noteworthy that no mention is even given to climate change which has been named as a contributing cause by other publications.

These days people spend a lot of time reading stuff on the internet. Actually, they spend a lot of time looking at pictures and skimming text. Small facts buried in a wall of text don’t stand much chance of being remembered or even seen. As with the stories written about bees much of the stuff written about monarch butterflies this year seems designed to divert our attention from actually addressing let alone solving the problem.

News for the One Percent

The New York Times Public Editor recently answered a complaint that the paper is out of touch with most people’s realities and that its stories mainly address the needs of the one percent.

I have to agree with that complaint. If my two little case studies are indeed typical then The New York Times has a policy or culture that looks strongly pro-corporate and anti-environment. Maybe they really do think that the potential loss of the butterfly migration is trivial: merely the cost of doing agribusiness.

I do not think that loss is trivial. I think it is a canary. Who knows what is happening to less glamorous insect populations. And insects are Mother Nature’s favourite animals; if they go the whole life system could collapse.

I heard The New York Times may reinstate the Environment desk. If they do, I doubt it will make much of a difference to their anti-environment reporting agenda.

Though it is a bit early for end of the year predictions I am going to make one anyway. I think that new environment team will primarily look at climate change and mostly continue to ignore the other pressing issues. Even within the issue of climate change I think their focus will likely be on mitigation rather than actually correcting the problem. This means lots of green-washing articles (buying our way out of the problem) and plenty of profiles of people making money while supposedly ‘helping’ us fight carbon pollution. I seriously doubt they will provide us with good information to drive policy making.

In other words, reading the New York Times will remain pretty much a waste of time if you care at all about our environment.


How I made the Pie Chart

I used the search function at The New York Times website to identify the stories published about monarch butterflies and limited the time frame to the current year. I broke those stories into sentences (sometimes phrases where appropriate) and used Open Office’s word count to find out how much space was allotted. The word totals were sorted into various categories:

  • monarch butterflies in general and the migration
  • problem causes (which got sorted into the pie chart categories)
  • recommendations
  • other (mostly a profile about a scientist)

Wildlife Wednesday: December


grackle in the sumac

My neighbours have two amazing sumac trees. This one blazes red and orange. The other is yellow and gold. Thanks to whoever planted them so many years ago.

I really love the colours of autumn. Added value: when tromping around in the bush the poison ivy becomes spectacularly visible. No dripping oozing wounds for me this month.

Fox Squirrels

It is breeding season for the fox squirrels. They are normally solitary creatures but lately I typically spot them in twos and threes leaping across the road and twirling up tree trunks. How do they run along the electrical wires? They seem fearless to me. An emblem of freedom.

resident squirrel2

fox squirrel

I hope a couple will turn our squirrel box into a nest this year.

I also hope fewer will die on the road but I know that is not likely. Every year the road gets busier and even though I live in a residential zone there will always be that guy who thinks his hurry is more important than the life around them.

Cars are the prime predator for fox squirrels. I take some consolation in knowing that each death probably means a meal for a vulture or other scavengers but it is small comfort really. There is a new carcass on the road near my house and when I pass it I wonder if it was one of the new squirrels I saw grow over the summer or one of the older tougher survivors. I have an image in my mind of one of the wee ones who gorged itself silly on mulberries this spring. I laughed when I saw it later at the bird feeder. Its mouth was all stained purple like lipstick gone drunkenly wrong.

Northern Cardinal

I know you probably don’t even believe I do have a bird feeder but it remains in its stupid place that makes taking photos nearly impossible.

Anyway this next photo does not show one of the many cardinals who visit the feeder as far as I know. I spotted him on a walk along the creek. Actually I saw a little bit of red that was just a bit TOO red to be a leaf — at least in these parts. He was nestled in some very thick brush on the ground. I had to really stretch to get even this crummy shot. If anyone saw my contortions they must have had a great laugh!


Northern Cardinal

Obviously he saw me too. His little crest is up showing his anxiety. Plus he looked directly at me. He could have flown away but instead he just remained perfectly still.

And I marvelled that cardinals are so successful in urban environments. Even my dim eyes easily spotted the red. Surely they are beacons to real predators.

Which I suppose might be the point. He is there to distract danger away from the little ones. Any male that can survive for any length of time must be clever enough and quick enough to make an excellent breeding partner.

But what about remaining still? I looked it up and apparently it is a better strategy than I thought. The brush was thick enough to deter a cat pounce. But more importantly, a lot of predators are designed to spring out at a moving target. As long as he remained steady he would remain quite safe.

Felis catus

Which reminds me an indignity I recently suffered …

feral cat

feral cat

I frequently see a few cats regularly prowling around the creek. Most are fat house cats — the kind that mew pathetically and rub against my legs hoping for a tasty bit of salmon. But I think this one is feral.

The other day I saw him walking ahead of me on the path. He was about 500 feet ahead of me. He passed a certain point and a single white-winged dove screamed and fluttered away. When -I- passed the exact same point eleventy billion white-winged doves screamed a hullabaloo loud enough to alert every living thing for miles and took off like they saw Death itself.

Come on! Do I not feed them every day!?!?!?! Am I really seen as more of a threat than a feral cat? Sigh.


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Thanks to Tina for hosting Wildlife Wednesday each month at My Gardener Says.