Eulogy for an indoor cat

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Joey the indoor cat. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 1, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Eulogy for an indoor cat.”

By Barb Gorges

Today I write a eulogy for Joey, an ordinary orange and white house cat who lived with our family.

I offer the details of her life as an example of the advantages of an indoor cat.

Joey died in the fall at the age of 18 ½ years old. She was my writing companion, sometimes draped over my left shoulder, sometimes over my lap. She exuded enough cat hair to melt down my previous laptop by clogging up the fan.

She was opinionated. She talked about a lot of things, her self-assured gaze drilling into you, assessing you.

Joey and her brother were products of a liaison between an unknown father and a footloose mother belonging to a friend. Our boys, in grade school and junior high then, enjoyed building climbing gyms for the kittens and playing catch and release cat toy games with them.

We took the cats outside occasionally on harness and leash, but Joey’s brother soon refused after stepping on a bee and getting stung.

Joey was always the one to look for before opening a door. It wasn’t that she wanted to go outside. She just wanted to go to the other side, whether into the basement or into a closet. If she did get out the front door, all we had to do was quietly leave the door open, circle around behind her, where she was quivering under a bush, and gently herd her towards the door.

However, one time she escaped without us realizing it right away. It took three days for her to come home and start pounding on the aluminum storm door. We were the only happy people that week after 9/11.

One good reason to keep your cat indoors is so you don’t have to worry about them. Of course, you could build them a “catio”—safe enclosed space for them to enjoy the outdoors. The enclosure would also prevent your cat from hunting local wildlife.

Even if it isn’t important to you to save billions of animals each year—birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—from domestic cats, if you have children, you don’t want them in contact with cats that roam outdoors.

Cats are the hosts for toxoplasma gondii, a parasite with eggs that persist in soil. We know it causes serious health problems for pregnant women who come in contact with cat feces. But we now know that a large percentage of the global human population is infected and studies suggest toxoplasma gondii can cause behavioral and personality changes and is associated with disorders including schizophrenia.

Outdoor cats, whether owned or feral, are a bigger and more complicated problem than we ever expected. You’ll want to read “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer,” by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella, neither of whom are cat haters.

For an introduction to the book, see the video of Marra’s talk last month at www.AllAboutBirds.org. Search with the term “cat wars.”

One moment Joey was a tiny kitten, and the next moment an adolescent adventurer, then an unflappable middle-aged cat who would still perform amazing acrobatics to catch miller moths buzzing ceiling lights.

And then she became my elder, content to follow the daily rotation of sunny spots around the house, lounging among the house plants while watching birds at the feeder outside.

I believe Joey and her brother, who died of natural causes a few years ago, had better lives, longer lives, than if they had to roam outside in the hazardous world. I know I’ve had a better life because they were inside with me.

In Joey’s memory, please work to keep cats off the street.

xxx

 

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Bird brains

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Male Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 28, 2016, “UW songbird brain studies shed light”

By Barb Gorges

We are used to thinking about many animals standing in for humans in studies that will benefit us: rats, chimps, rabbits. But should we add songbirds to that list? They apparently work well for studying how we learn to speak.

At the February Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Karagh Murphy, a University of Wyoming doctoral candidate in the Zoology and Physiology Department, explained how Bengalese finches help her study how brains learn.

Learning by example, whether bird or human, takes place in two parts. First the student observes, or in the case of male birds learning to sing so they can defend their territory and attract mates, they listen. Then they attempt imitation, practicing by listening to themselves and getting feedback.

What Karagh wanted to know is if HVC neurons in the birds’ brains are active at both stages, hearing and doing. It’s just a simple matter of plugging a computer into the right place in a bird’s brain.

First though, you have to wrangle your subjects, capturing them in the walk-in-sized aviary, and then get them used to having the wispiest of cables attached to the tiny instrument on their heads. Otherwise, they are too stressed to sing.

Karagh recorded the firing pattern of the HVC neurons, producing something like the electrocardiogram that shows heart beats, and compared it to the spectrogram, another linear graph of peaks and valleys that visualizes the frequencies of the song she played for the bird to hear, and then the song the bird sang. Both spectrograms matched the peaks and valleys of the HVC neuron pattern, essentially showing the neurons are used for both auditory and motor output, the action of singing.

Recently, something very similar has been found in humans, called mirror neurons.

The second speaker was Jonathan Prather, an associate professor in the department’s neuroscience program. While Karagh has been studying males learning to sing, Jonathan has been figuring out what the female Bengalese finches want to hear.

Female birds don’t sing. At most, they produce call notes to communicate. But they enjoy listening to males sing and they judge them by their song to determine which one is the fittest potential mate, which will give them the fittest young.

Jonathan thought there might be a “sexy syllable,” some part of the song that would get the females excited, measured by how often the females call in response. He measured their responses as he played back songs he had manipulated.

Or maybe it was tempo, so he manipulated the recording to go faster in some trials, then slower in others. Or maybe the female birds would react differently to songs at different pitches. That would be similar to human women who, studies have shown, are attracted to men with deeper voices (connected to higher testosterone levels).

Apparently, female finches are looking for quantity and complexity, for males who sing in the most physically (neuromuscular-wise) demanding way. That means sweeping from high to low notes a lot, and really fast. Think how opera stars singing the most demanding repertoire get the biggest applause. A bird that can sing well is well-fed, healthy and of good breeding—perfect father material.

The field of neurobiology is more about figuring out human brains, but when birds are used as models, birdwatchers find it intriguing. The questions from the Audubon audience reflected their familiarity with birds.

Our songbirds in Wyoming are only seasonal singers, so birds from equatorial locations that sing year round are used to make trials more efficient. Would there be a difference?

Are female bird brains different from the male brains? Yes, because learning songs increases one part of the male brain, however, females have other roles that increase the size of other parts of their brain.

If a young bird never hears another bird sing, will it eventually sing? Not really, it will only babble in an unformed way, as human babies do when they start out.

If a young bird hears only the singing of a different species, will it learn that song instead? Yes, although not completely perfectly—there is some genetic influence on bird song.

And what about the mimics? What about birds like starlings and mockingbirds that learn to imitate lots of other birds’ songs and even some human vocalizations and mechanical noises? Karagh broke out in a grin. That line of study could keep her busy for her entire career.

Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

Archiving bird columns shows changes

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Hard copies of 16 years of Bird Banter columns published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle are filed away. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 11, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Archiving bird columns shows changes.”

By Barb Gorges

I’m afraid to mention this, lest the editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle think I’ve been doing this too long, but next month is the beginning of my 17th year writing this bird column.

It started because Bill Gruber, the Outdoors editor in 1999, asked me if I’d be interested.

I protested that there were people in town more knowledgeable—and there still are. But I had the time. And I could always research and ask the experts.

Besides Bill, I’ve worked with these other editors: Ty Stockton, Cara Eastwood Baldwin, Shauna Stephenson, Kevin Wingert and now Jodi Rogstad. All have been kind in their editing, catching style and grammatical errors.

A year ago, I had this great idea to archive all of my past columns as blog posts. I’d taken an online course in blogging as part of my teaching recertification and I was intrigued. For one thing, I could add a widget that allows me to search all my past posts. So I could find out how many times I’d written about say, the Christmas Bird Count (about a dozen times).

I decided to make it a publicly accessible blog, www.CheyenneBirdBanter.wordpress.com. So far, I have 86 followers from all over the world without actively publicizing it.

Because bird topics are seasonal, and because there might be followers, strict chronological order wouldn’t be best. So I used chronological order within each month, starting with February. The first post was the column I wrote that month, in 1999, followed by the one from February 2000, and so on.

Then I realized that these old columns could be outdated. So each one is accompanied not only by the date it originally was published, but by a short update on the topic.

There are some things that just don’t change in the bird world, but technology has. I can now find an incredible amount of information online, and I can ask experts questions without having to call them long distance or mail a letter to them.

The most dramatic change in the bird world has been the advent of eBird, of course. The first column mentioning it was in 2003. It seems like every six months they come up with a new way for all of us citizen scientists to explore the eBird database—and more easily contribute to it. Amazing scientific studies are generated by it too.

The birds themselves continue to change. Mostly, it’s population numbers and distribution.

For instance, there are more crows in Cheyenne today. There are way too many more Eurasian collared-doves now than there were in 1999, a year after the first one in Wyoming was identified in Cheyenne.

Do we have fewer numbers of any species? Evening grosbeaks don’t seem to be visiting anymore. But a few years ago, lesser goldfinches started becoming regular, if still uncommon, visitors.

There is never a lack of topics to explore in the bird world. Feedback shows that a lot of WTE readers are willing to come along on these sometimes intellectual excursions with me.

Hearing from readers is what makes writing these columns better than merely writing in a diary or notebook.

Information from readers has driven me to investigate topics, especially when there are several calls about the same thing. What to do about flickers drilling holes in wood siding is a column I’ve forwarded often since writing it.

Interestingly, for a while if you googled my name, the column that seemed to come up most often—because a friend in Colorado reposts my columns to his blog—is the one I wrote about the University of Wyoming graduate student studying hummingbird metabolism. In fact, it has been included in some online science anthology I can’t access without buying a subscription.

There are now more than 300 Bird Banter columns posted. It has been fun looking back at them, seeing how, between the lines, they reflect my family’s life. And I’m happy to have become the community bird lady, a responsibility which I appreciate.

More conventionally, I can be classified as a science writer. Actually, that isn’t too far off from my course of study in college—and what one of my professors thought I should be.

Well, thanks, WTE editors and readers, for this monthly privilege. What’s up at your bird feeders these days?