Thursday, November 16, 2017

Silence of the Birds

I am in my deer hunting stand, watching and wondering. Wondering where they all have gone.

Not the deer. I am beyond the days of anxiety over seeing a taggable deer. I am just content being here, soaking up the forest sounds and sights.

My wondering is about the birds. Each November that I sit in this stand there seem to be fewer birds.

Today there are no noisy Jays flashing by, squawking and shrieking their concern about my presence. No chickadees flitting nervously, trying to decide whether to get closer to see if I have anything to eat. Not even a patrolling crow or raven croaking a warning about my presence as it passes overhead en route to doing whatever crows and ravens do early in the morning.

I am certain that the numbers of birds in the forest I hunt are declining every year. I have zero scientific evidence to support that, just my own observations and my gut feelings.

Years ago I used to see flocks of grosbeaks and finches at my lake home. The blue jays always were around in numbers, especially if you tossed out a handful for peanuts. There also were some more exotic breeds, like the cardinals, and the warbling vireo whose constant song drove me crazy at dawn and dusk.

Partridge (ruffed grouse) used to be especially abundant. Now there are so few that I won’t hunt them, despite the fact that they are one of my favourite foods.

Certainly there are many studies that support my gut feeling about declining bird populations in general.

A Partners in Flight study from last year says that there are one billion fewer continental birds today than there were 40 years ago. That study was done by a coalition of activists, academics and government agencies in Canada and the United States.

The State of North America’s Birds 2016 reports that 37 per cent of all North American bird species require urgent action to save them from extinction. There is moderate concern for the future of another 49 per cent.

The Red List published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) includes 1,227 world bird species threatened by extinction – 192 of them critically endangered.

Older Canadian studies say that Canadian breeding bird populations declined 12 per cent between 1970 and 2010. The biggest declines were among birds that migrate, and those travelling the greatest distance showing the biggest declines.

Forty-four per cent of all Canadian bird species have declined while 33 per cent have increased and 23 per cent have stayed constant. Arctic shore birds have been particularly hard hit as have aerial insectivores such as swallows and other birds that catch insects in flight. Their numbers are declining faster than any other group of birds but no one seems to know the reason.

A main reason that there are fewer birds in many countries is habitat loss. Much forest and grassland habitat throughout the world is going to agriculture. Logging continues to reduce bird homelands.

Pollution from toxic spills, pesticides, chemicals and heavy metals remains a major factor against bird life despite our efforts to be more environmentally conscious. Many toxic pesticides and harmful chemicals banned or controlled in North America still are freely used in other parts of the world.

Human activity is a major factor in bird kills. Collisions with buildings, power lines and vehicles kill an estimated 900 million birds a year in Canada and the U.S. Cats, feral and domestic, kill another 2.6 billion a year.

We don’t know much about how climate change has affected bird populations. More frequent, stronger storms already are being seen and will impact bird migrations. Coastal flooding might destroy habitat and food opportunities in long-established stopover areas.

Mass Audubon, a Massachusetts conservation society, has climate change projections showing that 43 per cent of species it evaluated are highly vulnerable to climate change over the next 30 years.

There is some good news about bird populations - Canadian waterfowl numbers have been increasing. So have raptors. This is attributable to better wetlands and hunting management and pesticide controls.

This gives hope that with more awareness and more dedicated action, population declines in other species are reversible.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

No safe distance

One bug season ends, another begins. The one just begun is one to be concerned about.

The late autumn-winter flu bug season already is showing evidence that it will be more severe than usual.

Australia’s winter flu season is just ending with the most laboratory-confirmed flu infections in the last 25 years. Some 222,000 cases were confirmed there this year, more than two and one-half times the number last year. As of mid-October, 504 flu patients had died, Australia’s health department reported.

This year’s main flu culprit is A(H3N2). It hits older people hardest.

There is no such thing as a safe distance in today’s world and Australia’s outbreak will be seen elsewhere. Early surveillance shows above normal Canadian flu activity already and the majority of cases are A(H3N2).

Flu statistics in most places, Canada included, are notoriously unreliable. Our federal  government says tens of thousands of Canadians fall ill from the flu every year and thousands die from its complications. However, its figures are pulled out of guesswork.

Most of us who contract the flu do not go to hospital so no one knows how many get it. All anybody knows is how many people are hospitalized with influenza and how many confirmed deaths there have been.

Last year there were roughly 5,300 flu hospitalizations in Canada and 331 confirmed deaths.

We should pay less attention to the numbers and focus on the future threats of influenza, notably the possibility of a pandemic. Many respected medical agencies and medical minds believe we are overdue for a pandemic that will kill tens of thousands, even millions, depending on how we prepare for it.

A virus capable of igniting pandemic already is circulating. It is a bird flu named H7N9 that has mutated to enable itself to jump from birds to humans. In one study, 88 percent of people infected with H7N9 got pneumonia, and 41 percent died.

What that strain cannot do yet is transmit easily from person to person. Researchers believe that could change. If it does, and if the strain retains its potency during mutation, we will have a pandemic in which millions die.

H7N9 is ranked by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the flu bug with the most potential to cause a devastating worldwide outbreak.

This winter and spring will mark the 100th anniversary of the greatest pandemic of modern times – the Spanish flu. That flu, misnamed because it did not begin in Spain, killed an estimated 40 to 50 million people worldwide.

It travelled to Canada with troops coming back from the First World War. It spread rapidly, reaching deep into the nation, including remote areas. Quebec and Labrador were particularly hard hit.

An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians died. The disastrous outbreak led to the formation of the federal department of health in 1919.

The death rate for a usual influenza is only a fraction of one per cent. The death rate for the Spanish flu worldwide was 2.5 per cent and it particularly attacked and killed young adults. Researchers calculated that life expectancy in the United States fell to 39 years of age from 51 during the 1918-19 pandemic.

This year’s flu shot will not prevent takers from getting the flu. Health authorities say, however, that it should lessen the severity and keep people out of hospital.

Much has been written to describe our annual influenzas and how we live, and die, with them. One of my favourite descriptions is my own, written in the opening to my 2006 book Killer Flu: The World on the Brink of A Pandemic.

“Influenza is like the village madman. He prowls the shadows of our communities, emerging occasionally to disrupt our lives and hurt relatively small groups of people.

“Once every few decades, he runs screaming into the streets maiming and killing in much larger numbers. We fear him during these insane episodes, but we know we are incapable of killing him, or even banishing him. So when he returns to the shadows, we nervously accept his presence as a distressing part of the life cycle, and then try to forget him.”


Thursday, November 2, 2017

The brilliance of Stephen King

This being Hallowe’en Week I have Stephen King on my night table. Nothing is spookier than ghostly autumn moonlight spilling through the bedroom window onto the horror master’s words.

Tonight, the master’s words have placed me in an old model Mustang speeding down a dark country road with George Staub, who is smoking and talking about Riding the Bullet, and of course – death. Cigarette smoke is leaking through the stitches on his throat, and the inside of the Mustang smells of grave dirt and formaldehyde.

King is underrated when people refer to him as the master of horror. He is the master of story telling, master of imagination and a master of writing, whether it be horror or not.

I am not a horror fan but I love reading King’s writing, especially when it is about himself and his writing. Reading the introductions to some of his books, or On Writing, his 2000 book about the writing trade, is like sitting in a kitchen having a beer with him. (He no longer drinks because he is a reformed alcoholic-drug addict).

Reading the personal stuff puts you inside King’s head. And, when you are inside a great writer’s head, you begin to learn a lot about writing.

Some serial writers keep churning out the same formulaic stuff. Sell more books, make more money, become more famous. The stories begin to sound the same, with different places and different names.

King is unlike others. He keeps experimenting, looking for ways to keep his writing fresh. Besides novels he has written screenplays, radio scripts, TV series and even a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, with John Mellencamp.

“I like to goof whiddit, do a little media cross-pollination and envelope pushing,” he wrote in the introduction to Everything’s Eventual, a book of his short stories. “It’s not about making more money or even precisely about creating new markets; It’s about trying to see the act, art and craft of writing in different ways. . . .”

He certainly does not need more money nor more fame. He has sold roughly 350 million books since 1974 when Carrie was published and has earned hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite all his fame, money and busy writing life, King continues to write short stories, a genre that has been in the death rattle stage for some time. He writes one or two a year to help keep his craft fresh.

He says writing short stories is not easy or even pleasurable some times. It’s not like riding a bicycle, but more like working out in the gym.

Once a staple of any reading person’s life, and a feature of many high-profile magazines, short stories are nearing extinction. Their popularity peaked in the first half of the 20th century and has been declining since.

Popular magazines such as The Saturday Night Post, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Esquire published one or more short stories in each issue. Short stories were so popular that writers actually could make a living from them. Magazines paid so well for them that novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote them to pay his many debts.

King has published a dozen short story collections, the latest being The Bazaar of Bad Dreams released in late 2015. It is a mix of new writing and stories already published in magazines.

The collection includes writing tips and biography. Each story has an introduction with his comments on how and why he came to write it.

“There’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience,” he writes in the introduction to The Bazaar. “It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will never see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale laid out on a cheap blanket at a street bazaar. . . . Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”

Some people say that the Internet will help to save the short story. I’m not sure how but I hope something does.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

One Paw or Another

I am sitting on the deck watching the squirrels skip through the fallen leaves, searching for something to steal. Squirrels are beastly vandals and unrepentant thieves.

At this time of year they have intense interest in the flower gardens. They work surreptitiously and I’m not sure what they are after, but I’ll find out when I try to start the chainsaw or the snow blower.

They love to hide their stolen goods in pieces of machinery. One year they stuffed the carburetor of an old snowmobile, which caught fire when I tried to start it.

Another year they chewed two holes in the gas tank of my ATV. I don’t know if they were into gas sniffing or just looking for another place to store their little treasures.

As I watch them I notice that they seem to use one paw more than the other. I’ve noticed this with raccoons, another nimble-fingered thieving species, who appear to do a lot of work with their right paw.

This gets me wondering: do animals, like humans, have a more dextrous side that they prefer for certain tasks? In other words, are some left-pawed and some right-pawed?

Most humans are right-handed. Only 10 per cent are southpaws and more males than females are left handed.

So what about the squirrels and other critters of the forest? I consult Professor Google and find an interesting article by two veterinary researchers from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

The article was distributed by a news service start-up called The Conversation, which distributes articles from universities in Canada and other countries. The articles are informative, interesting and free to read and use, and can be found on the Internet at

The researchers, Janice Lloyd and Richard Squires, write that many animals tend to use one side of the body more than the other. Apes and chimps, for instance, appear to be mainly right-handed.

They say that research shows that most kangaroos are left-pawed. Horses, however, tend to circle right, which seems odd considering that horse racing tracks always seem to circle left.

Favouring one side over another apparently is not exclusive to vertebrates. Snails also have a form of laterality. The shells of some snails spiral in a left-handed direction, while others have a right-handed direction. Snails with left-handed shell spirals can mate only with other lefties and righties only with righties.

Another interesting observation by the researchers is that many animals use the left eye and the left ear for investigating items that are potentially frightening.

You can test whether your pet dog or cat is a southpaw or right-pawed. The researchers say that to test your cat, place a treat inside a glass and see which paw it uses to try to get the treat. You can do a similar test for dogs but any dog I have known goes after a treat with both paws.

If you really have too much spare time you can test your dog to determine the meaning of its tail wagging. Italian researchers did that and concluded that dogs wag their tails to the right when they see something they want to approach and to the left when they see something they want to avoid.

Does it really matter which paw or hoof is dominant in a cat, dog or horse? Apparently so.

Laterality also refers to the primary use of the right or left hemispheres of the brain. Determining laterality could help in breeding and training animals.

For instance, information about laterality could help determine which puppies will make the best service dogs. Or, which racing horse will run best on clockwise or counter-clockwise race tracks.

(I thought all horse race tracks were left curved but apparently not. Tracks in England centuries ago all were clockwise but the Americans changed theirs to counter clockwise out of spite during the American Revolution.)

At any rate, my wife says that it does not matter whether squirrels are left- or right-handed. When she sees them skipping through the flower beds she knows they are casing the place for a night time raid for her freshly planted tulip bulbs. And it does not really matter which paw they use to dig them.