Saturday, August 30, 2014

Remembering Martha

   There is an anniversary this week, much forgotten and not one to celebrate. It is one of the most important anniversaries in North American history.
   One hundred years ago, on September 1, 1914, a bird named Martha died at Cincinnati Zoological Garden.  She was earth’s last surviving passenger pigeon.
   The story of the passenger pigeon, whose numbers went from an estimated high of 3-5 billion to zero in a matter of decades, is a shocking warning that any species, including humans, can become extinct.
   The passenger pigeon was a bird similar to the mourning dove, except it was larger. The average passenger pigeon was about sixteen inches long with a slate blue head and rump and slate gray back. Its breast was dusty rose and the eyes a distinguished scarlet.
   Their numbers were something difficult to comprehend today. During migrations, passing flocks blacked out the sun. When they roosted in trees for the night the weight of their numbers broke branches.
   John J. Audubon, ornithologist and painter wrote after viewing thousands of migrating passenger pigeons:  “ . . . they take to wing, producing by the flapping of their wing a noise like the roar of distant thunder . . . “
   A noticeable decline in the bird’s numbers began in the mid 1800s when they were shot, clubbed, netted, or gassed with sulphur fires by professional hunters. They were sold for fifty cents a dozen. A Smithsonian article says that in Petoskey, Mich. In 1878 market hunters killed as many as 50,000 passenger pigeons a day.
   Hunting was not the only factor in the bird’s extinction. Passenger pigeons needed huge forests for survival and the clearing of huge tracts of forest for farming made survival impossible.
   The passenger pigeon’s extinction led to laws protecting migratory birds and a better public awareness of the need to protect wildlife and the environment.
   Whenever I walk the highway fronting my bush lot in Central Ontario I wonder about public awareness. Every day brings to the roadside a new beer or pop can, plastic bottle or cardboard carton tossed from a car window. Some people are just too stupid to ever get it.
   More on the passenger pigeon can be found at: 
or in my book The Decoy (Key Porter Books).

Sunday, August 24, 2014

All Work, No Play Makes . . .

The summer vacation season is slipping away with more indications that fewer people are taking their vacation time.
   In July only seven million Americans took a vacation, says data collected by the U.S. government. That’s two million fewer than those who took a week off in July 1976 despite the fact that 60 million more Americans have jobs today than in 1976.
   Earlier this year a survey done for TD Bank found that while most Canadians think vacations are important, only 43 per cent reported using all their vacation days. A much older study (2009) by found that 34 million vacation days are left unused by Canadians every year.
   Canada has mandated vacations for workers, but the U.S. does not. It is the only developed country that does not guarantee workers a paid annual vacation.    However, about 75 per cent of American workers are offered some paid vacation.
   A variety of reasons have been given for the trend to fewer and briefer vacations.  More jobs are part-time or temporary, job security has lessened and the average family has less money to spend on vacations. This year’s TD Bank report found that 40 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they cannot afford a vacation.
   So it appears that all work and no play now makes Jack more than just a dull boy. It also allows him to help secure his job and get the bills paid.

   The biggest news about summer vacations this year has been the controversy over U.S. President Obama’s vacationing during the Middle East crises. Obama, probably the planet’s most stressed person, has taken 20 vacations for a total of 138 partial or complete days in his six years as president. In fact, a U.S. president is really only on vacation when he is asleep.
    In Canada, we don’t know much about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vacation time. But that's just because we’re Canadians – among the world’s tightest people when it comes to sharing information, and our governments like it that way.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Tobacco to the Rescue

   Tobacco, that comforting but deadly plant that has sickened and killed so many people over five centuries, is being used to grow an experimental serum for treating Ebola.
   The serum has been given to two American aid workers being treated for Ebola in Atlanta, Georgia. They contracted the deadly virus while caring for Ebola patients in Liberia and were flown home in an effort to save their lives.
   The serum is produced by injecting a compound of antibodies into genetically modified tobacco plants. The plants then build proteins that are extracted and purified into a serum.
   It is not known yet whether the serum is completely effective in treating the virus, which kills roughly sixty per cent of people who contract it. More research will determine whether the tobacco-produced serum is a miracle drug against Ebola.
   Tobacco also might play a role in saving the environment. It is being tested as a biofuel for aircraft. Boeing and South African Airways and a company specializing in new aviation fuels are producing fuel from tobacco seed oil. Eventually they hope to be able to use entire tobacco plants to produce the fuel.
   Aviation biofuels are said to reduce carbon emissions by fifty to eighty per cent. Tobacco biofuel is nicotine free.

   All this is more evidence that tobacco is one of planet’s most intriguing plants. More on the fascinating history of the plant can be found in Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America’s Tobacco Industry (Dundurn 2012).
   Also here's a link to some questions and answers about the Ebola serum: