Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Distant Mirror

While apes are our closest cousins on the tree of life, monkeys offer more distant insights into our family lineage.

One of the incorrect arguments against evolution is to question why if we evolved from monkeys are monkeys still around? The question is flawed on several levels. We didn't evolved from monkeys. Monkeys, apes and humans evolved from a common ancestor. An ancestor that has in fact gone extinct. But just as both you and your ancestors and-or descendants can be alive at the same time, evolution does not demand that ancestors disappear when new species split off from the ancestral stock. It is enough that the descendant and ancestor species be separated in space so that they can no longer interbreed. And thus the genetic lineages diverge over time.

So while monkeys are not our ancestors, we can still learn from them what our common ancestor may have been like. We can study behaviors across species and infer that common behaviors derive from that common ancestor.

One of the reasons monkeys are so fascinating to observe its that we can see ourselves in them. We recognize those common behaviors while at the same time knowing the differences.

So, do you recognize any of these fellows in the folks that gather around your Thanksgiving table?

(I definitely recognize the one sticking out her tongue!)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Meeting the Neighbors

We had seen them often when we first moved in, as we drove the long way round to our new home. Always at the same place along the road, by the same house. As we learned the roads around our new home we traveled by them less and less. And since we were busy doing all those things you do when you move to a new home we didn't get over to see them as much as we would have liked. But of course they were still there. Mom, dad, kids often cavorting about in the fields along the road. And I kept thinking I needed to stop and spend some time with them, get to know them.

Yesterday I finally did.

Other than their distinctive dress, I knew little about them. I now know they are immigrants from India, although I don't know when they migrated over to this neck the woods.

As with many immigrant groups, they tend to associate mostly among their fellow immigrants, creating a space of their own. We'll see if this is the case with this group, or if they expand into the greater community in the coming years.

They were wary of my presence and I didn't want to upset them. So after a couple of minutes and a few photos I moved on. I plan to go back to learn more about their life and customs. Hopefully they'll come to accept me. I'll let you know how things go.

Monday, November 3, 2014


I do not remember when my fascination with apes began. Perhaps it was when watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Or by reading the articles about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, or Biruté Galdikas ("Leakey's Angels") in National Geographic. I do remember a picture in a book I saw at a friends house when I was very young that had a picture of a chimp, an orang, and a gibbon seated at a table having a meal and thinking how cool would it be to have playmates like that.

The great apes are our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. We share ~ 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and slightly less with the other great apes.


Bonobos, formerly referred to as the "pygmy chimpanzee" are highly intelligent social creatures. One bonobo, Kanzi, learned to communicate with humans via a keyboard and uses a vocabulary of some 500 English words and can understand several times more. In the wild they are generally peaceful, with the females atop the social hierarchy.


I remember reading about the "man of the forest," which is what the indigenous peoples referred to as the orangutan, and their solitary life in the treetops of the forests in Indonesia. 


I could relate to spending time in trees as there was a tree in our yard that I would climb as a youngster and sit and read for hours after school.

Gorillas on the other hand spend most of their time on the ground, with only the young climbing trees on a regular basis.


I don't know why these beasts fascinate me so. But they always have.


I have shelves of books about great apes. As well books about the lesser apes like the gibbons and siamangs. And books about monkeys, lemurs, and the other members of the primate group of which we humans are a member.


I saw many of our primate cousins at the San Diego zoo, where I took these images.  I was there on a recent business trip. It is on my bucket list to see all of the apes in the wild.

I hope I get the chance. Things are not looking good for the long term survival of these species. Habitat loss is the main threat with the forest homes being destroyed at an alarming rate. Unfortunately most apes live in regions of strife or corruption. And apes are more often viewed as food in the bushmeat trade then as creatures worthy of the right to life.

But all is not lost. And you can help. The three women I mentioned at the start of this post, Leakey's Angels, provide a way. Two, Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas, are still working with chimpanzees and orangutans respectively. Sadly, Dian Fosse was murdered protecting gorillas but the work she started continues today. The links below with take you to the websites of the projects these women started.

The Jane Goodall Institute works to ensure a bright future for both chimpanzees and the people who share their home.

The Dian Fosse Gorilla Fund International does the same for gorillas.

The Orangutan Foundation International has perhaps the toughest task, as the habitat was never large to begin with and is under intense pressure from logging and palm oil production.

All three are worthy of your support. They have had mine for years.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mourning Doves

My friend Greg (of Greg's World fame) is a very avid birder. Last year he did a NJ Big Year and totaled 310 species. An avid citizen scientist, Greg did his big year to raise money for NJ Audubon's Citizen Science program.

And Greg's favorite bird in the whole world is the Mourning Dove.*

So he would have really enjoyed the show outside my window this past Friday.

There were at least twenty-five of these birds in the yard, enjoying their lunch at the same time I was enjoying mine.

Mourning doves are one of the most common birds in the United States with an estimated population of 350 million birds.

Think about that for a moment. Think about how often you see a mourning dove. And how often you see multiple morning doves. Now imagine instead of 350 million there were 5000 million or 5 billion of them. That was what it was like to be alive when the passenger pigeon, a now extinct cousin of the mourning dove, was.

We, Homo sapiens, are responsible for the demise of the the passenger pigeon. Let that sink in. There were five billion. Now there are none. And the prime culprit was our outright killing of these birds.

And we are still doing it. Some times directly, as with the bushmeat trade. And other times indirectly by destroying habitat. For some species it is too late. For others there is still time to make a difference.

And that's one of the reasons that Greg did his big year. And why I too volunteer my time as a Citizen Scientist for NJ Audubon (and other worthy organizations). To help gather the data needed to prevent other species from going the way of the passenger pigeon.

Click here or search the internet for citizen science projects to find a project you can join. And if you can't donate your time you can always donate your money. It can be as simple as recording what you see at your bird feeder. Or you could plant milkweed and other native plants in your yard to help native fauna. Or you can go out in the field and do surveys.

Please help. The other inhabitants of our world will thank you.

* Did I write "favorite bird"? I meant "least favorite bird". Sorry for any confusion.

The American Pumpkin Holiday

In these parts, October means pumpkin carving. So we had a pumpkin carving party.

Alcohol and knives, what could go wrong?

Fortunately, nothing did. No humans were injured in the making of this blog post.

The pumpkins on the other hand ...

Now, don't eat all your candy at once or you may end up like this ...

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 27, 2014


I posted about our resident Turkeys at the beginning of the month. And I noted two things in that post. First that one of our neighbors had told us that we'd see more of the birds this time of year. And that I'd continue to try to get good images.

This post is evidence that both are true. Although it's not clear that I'm getting better images.

Some are pretty good, like the portrait above. But most are still blurry, as these birds just don't stand still.

This past Saturday we had thirteen birds in the side yard. And another fifteen in the front yard.

And then we had twenty-eight birds in the side yard. The adults seem to have left the group and these are all smaller sub-adult birds. Although they are growing up.

And this time we saw something new from our birds.

The boys were starting to show off.

Mostly they displayed to no one in particular.

Occasionally two males showed off to each other, although is wasn't clear if this was intentional or if it was just an accident of proximity. We didn't notice any clear aggressive or challenging behavior. But then again, I don't know all that much about turkey society or what to expect.

And sometimes they tried to get the attention of the lady turkeys. Who generally seemed more annoyed than anything else. As the boys seemed to just be chasing them around, when all they wanted to do was eat.

So they were chased this way.

And then that way.

And then back again.

Finally they'd had enough and decided to leave.

So all twenty-eight headed off into the woods at the southeast corner of the yard.

With a couple of the boys hurrying to catch up while trying to still look important.

It will be interesting to see how long they remain in this big group. I've seen much smaller groups of adult birds wandering in the area. We still have groups of a dozen or so birds visit every day. Just this evening we had two groups, one of fourteen and one of thirteen visit and then merge into one large group, which then headed off into the southeast woods, albeit this time from the front yard.

Regardless I'll keep trying to get good images. And should I succeed I be sure to share them here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Purple is the New ...

... Finch in our yard.

This pair appeared Saturday morning at our feeder.

I don't remember ever seeing a Purple Finch in New Jersey before. And now there are two in my yard.

The forecast was good for Purple Finches this year. And it seems to be accurate. These birds breed in Canada and only head south in large numbers when the food supply is low. And that is the basis for the forecast, the seed crop is not a good one this year. So south the roam looking for food.

We weren't the only folks to see them this weekend. My friend Linda reports that she saw a dozen in Cape May, along with a few other birds.

We only had two but they did spend the entire weekend. Here's hoping that they decide to spend the winter with us.