The Great Butterfly Diaspora

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If your desk is anything like mine, every now and then news comes across it of the evil times that have befallen our beloved monarch butterflies. Their numbers are plummeting. Mexicans are chopping down the trees they roost in during the winter. Rampant de-prairieization is doing away with the milkweed they eat. Pesticides are dropping them like gassed French soldiers at Verdun. Soon we’ll be living in a drab, butterfly-free world.

Well, maybe, but a few weeks ago I was chatting with a buddy from Tonga and came to a different conclusion. My buddy and his wife had come to America to restock their supply of junk food, which they can afford to do because he used to work for an airline and they fly for free. Between resupply trips, his wife idles away her days munching Doritos and volunteering at a Tongalese butterfly sanctuary.

It isn’t just Tonga that has our monarchs. It’s Hawaii, too. And dozens of other Pacific Islands all the way right up to the Asian mainland and south to Australia.

A butterfly sanctuary in Tonga? I imagined glamorous, iridescent butterflies, wings dappling in the tropical sun.

“Not so,” my rather large buddy said. “They’re monarchs.”

Monarchs, I thought. A false cognate some local species got tagged with because they reminded a homesick 19th-century sailor of the butterflies in Nantucket.

“They’re not like American monarchs,” my buddy said. “They are American monarchs. Danaus plexippus. They’re the same species.” He seemed to know a lot about butterflies.

The speculation is that their caterpillars got to Tonga by weaving themselves up in cocoons and hitching rides on sailing ships back around the time of the Civil War, but nobody really knows.

It isn’t just Tonga that has our monarchs. It’s Hawaii, too. And dozens of other Pacific Islands all the way through Taiwan and Borneo and Sumatra right up to the Asian mainland and south to Australia. They’re not just in the Pacific, either. Monarchs have made it to the far side of the Indian Ocean where they’re happily flitting around Mauritius and Reunion Island over near Madagascar. Which puts them just about as far from America as you can get without a spaceship. In New Zealand there are so many monarch butterflies that the country has set up the New Zealand Monarch Trust to do heaven-knows-what with them. I’m guessing they want to protect their monarchs, this being New Zealand, but maybe not. To a New Zealander, a monarch butterfly might well be something they need protecting from, along the lines of the Australian possums chomping their way through the kiwis. Meanwhile the monarchs really are chomping through the milkweed.

Nobody even has an opinion as to how monarchs might have gotten to Morocco, but they’re there, too.

It turns out that the critically endangered milkweed stock that’s being driven to extinction by our unsustainable corporate farming practices over here is doing quite well in the Pacific, thank you very much. There are something like a hundred species of milkweed dotted out across the islands, species that include scary sounding, 30-foot trees made out of nothing but milkweed.

Nobody even has an opinion as to how monarchs might have gotten to Morocco, but they’re there, too. Every summer, while our less adventurous, homebound butterflies are flapping their way up from Mexico, their genetic brethren in Africa are flapping their way across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain and Portugal. Some even flap their way to England. I cannot report on where the ones in the Azores and Canary Islands flap to because the news has not reached me.

Since monarchs already live in Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, and all three Guianas, that pretty much wraps it up for the continents, except Antarctica, but who knows? There probably aren’t enough butterfly scientists down there to have taken an adequate census. As invasive species go, monarch butterflies are top of the line.




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Swedish Ice Balls

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As anybody who’s suffered through the I am Curious movies waiting for sex to happen, or Wild Strawberries waiting for the damn thing to just end already, already knows, Swedes have an unwholesome tolerance for tedium. Nowhere is this more manifest than in their willingness to put up with magisterial bureaucrats determined to protect them from the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And I’m not just talking cradle-to-grave socialized living, here. I’m talking fire codes. Sweden must be the only place in the world to require fire extinguishers in igloos.

Being ice, the hotel returns each summer to the river from which it was quarried, and flows away.

Not that my hometown wouldn’t pull such a trick, if anybody could figure out how to build an igloo in Portland. But nobody seems to have done so, at least not that I’ve heard about. So it’s the Swedes who’re left to carry the ball. And carry it they do, because they’ve got a really persuasive igloo up above the Arctic Circle in Lapland. It’s a Swedish-modern sort of igloo they call the Ice Hotel; as the name suggests, the place is made out of ice.

And remade every year, because, being ice, the hotel returns each summer to the river from which it was quarried, and flows away. Every winter, it’s rebuilt room by room, ice-block by ice-block; and there, chiseled into the walls of the long hotel corridors, are niches with fire extinguishers.

Fire extinguishers! The entire building is made out of frozen water. The walls. The ceilings. The floors. The crystals in the crystal chandeliers, the bed my wife and I shared, the elegantly curved staircase leading to the eight-foot high platform beneath the bed. No need to put ice in your drinks, because the glasses in the ice bar are ice, along with the bar itself, and the stools you sit on at the bar. You couldn’t set this place on fire with a flamethrower. But if I’m remembering right what the football coach who taught eighth-grade general science told us, with enough heat — I’m thinking a thermonuclear flamethrower — might be able to ignite the metal in the fire extinguishers.

There you have it. The only flammable objects in the entire Ice Hotel are the fire extinguishers – except, of course, that by the time you got them hot enough to catch fire they wouldn’t, because they’d be at the bottom of a river of melted walls and ceilings and floors and chandeliers and beds and staircases and platforms and bar stools and liquor glasses and the bar the glasses used to sit on.




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Born That Way

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Paul Harvey and the Penguins of Patagonia

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A few weeks ago, Dee Boersma, professor of penguins from the University of Washington, announced that she’d figured out why baby penguins at a place called Punta Tombo in Argentina are dying at a greater rate than they used to.

I’m a sucker for charismatic megafauna, especially when penguins are involved, and that got my attention. The conscientious way penguins stand guard outside their burrows shows them to be better parents than I ever was. Heck, it makes them better parents than Bill Cosby. They swim longer distances in the ocean than Diana Nyad and they’re cuter than Sally Fields and Holly Hunter added together.

Professor Boersma has spent a lot of her career trying to figure out why so many of their babies are dying. Finally, after a decade of effort, she gathered her conclusions, rechecked her facts, and courageously identified climate change as the culprit. It turns out that it rains more in Patagonia than it used to, penguin chicks get wet, and, without their waterproof adult feathers, they shiver themselves to death.

Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you.

Since Punta Tombo is the biggest-deal penguin colony in Argentina and climate change is an even bigger deal everywhere else, the news reverberated around the world and back again, like the boom from Mount Krakatoa. Within hours, it had rung church bells as far away as the New York Times,the Los Angeles Times, the Voice of America, the Voice of Russia, the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, Good Morning America, Bird-Watching Daily, and, undoubtedly, any number of other sanctuaries of learning that I’m not invited into.

As charismatic as penguins are, you may not have thought you’d have to care about their chicks in Patagonia, but you should. Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you. And it’s not just rain that’s about to happen. Nowadays, penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to. Nobody exactly says this, but the implication hangs in the air like an ash cloud over the Sunda Islands that it has something to do with overfishing in the South Atlantic.

I have no doubt that Ms Boersma knows penguins, that she has accounted for every dead chick with the greatest of care, that she is telling the truth about what she observed, and that she is the leading expert on penguins in general and the penguins of Punta Tombo in particular.

In fact, she is such an expert that she has achieved one of the few immortal indicators of expertness that it is in humans’ poor power to give. The beat-up old trailer she lived in for 30 years while she counted dead penguin chicks isn’t at Punta Tombo anymore. Like Abraham Lincoln’s stove-pipe hat, it now belongs to the ages and is safely lodged in a museum. Which goes to show just how expert she really is. Still, there may be more to this dying-penguin business than we’ve been told. I was at Punta Tombo ten days before the news about the baby penguins got loose and, well, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is a rest to this story.

In the first place, for whatever reason it is that penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with overfishing. These are Magellanic penguins, mostly; what Magellanic penguins eat is krill; and nobody fishes for krill.

As far as anybody knows, even Japanese sushi fishermen don’t fish for krill. But, since the Japanese do sometimes fish for minke, fin, and humpback whales . . . and minke, fin, and humpback whales eat lots of krill . . . every whale that winds up in a Japanese meat market for scientific purposes is one less whale out there depleting the krill supply. A lot of fish eat krill, too, and if the seas are as overfished as we’ve been told, you’d think there’d be so much extra krill floating around the South Atlantic that penguins could just lap it up from the shore. My guess is that the fact they can’t has more to do with the population dynamics of penguins than with anything we humans have done.

And the penguins at Punta Tombo have a pretty dynamic population. If Ms. Boersma’s count is anywhere near correct, something like a million of them spend the summer jostling together on two miles of beach. Penguins are everywhere at Punta Tombo. They stand in ranks, crowded together shoulder to shoulder like spectators at the Rose Parade. Penguins nestle under every bush, and there are lots of bushes. Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

Penguins shade themselves beneath the boardwalks that would keep them separate from tourists, except for the other penguins that hop up onto the boardwalks and stroll along, causing knots of humans to stand politely aside and wait for them to pass. At Punta Tombo, penguins have the right-of-way. Sometimes the penguins don’t pass but mill around conducting penguin business while tourists wait for their turn to use the boardwalks, and tour guides fidget about schedules.

Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

All along the beach penguins plop into the ocean. Shoals of penguins already in the ocean porpoise through the waves and then pop back onshore, when they can find a vacant place to pop onto. For sheer crowdedness, Punta Tombo is the Daytona Beach of the penguin world, and, since every female penguin lays two eggs, the colony becomes a lot more crowded as the eggs begin to hatch. If all the chicks survived, that would come to two million penguins’ worth of food the colony would go through during chick-raising season. Even with chicks dying, it’s hard to imagine there could be a krill left within hundreds of miles of the place. But there was in the past. Things aren’t what they used to be. Ms. Boersma is pretty clear on that point.

What the articles about dead-penguin-chicks-as-leading-indicators-of-bad-things-about-to-happen-to-you don’t delve into too deeply when they tell us that things aren’t what they used to be, is that things really aren’t what they used to be. Despite all the penguins at Punta Tombo, 50 or 60 years ago the place was a working ranch and there weren’t any penguins at all. Somewhere along the way the ranch turned into a nature reserve, penguins started popping out of the water, digging holes, building nests, raising families, ambling along boardwalks, swimming out to sea, inviting more penguins to come join them — and, in a twinkling of geological time, what used to be a ranch had changed into the largest penguin colony in Argentina.

Which suggests to me that, even if every single chick from this year’s hatching gets rained to death, there will still be a million more penguins at Punta Tombo than there were when I was in kindergarten and the only thing I knew about penguins was when Miss Ridley showed us pictures of them. This must mean something. Maybe, even, about the weather.




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They Shoot Owls, Don’t They?

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Some years ago, I wrote a piece in these pages about the infamous spotted owl. Under the misguided Endangered Species Act of 1990, the spotted owl was declared "endangered" (meaning, of course, "endangered by man"). As a result, the logging industry in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California was severely curtailed to “save” the bird. Tens of thousands of jobs were killed off, rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide spiked in the logging communities where formerly productive and proud loggers were reduced to living off the dole. Communities died.

But it turned out that the primary reason the spotted owl was dying was that another owl — the barred owl! — was moving in and taking over the wimpy spotted owl’s niche.

In short, it was natural biological evolution at work. As I noted then, 90% of all species that ever existed on this planet went extinct before hominids ever existed.

You would have expected hearings on this. You would have expected Congress investigate the bureaucrats who made a cold-blooded decision to terminate the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of victims. You would have expected that Congress would then grill the biologists who decided that it was the timber industry and not ordinary evolution that was to blame for the spotted owl’s plight. You would have expected panels of economists to testify about the cost to society of this stupid mistake.

But government almost never investigates its own mistakes and frauds. It prefers to investigate mistakes and frauds by private industry.

Indeed, when government makes a policy mistake, not only doesn’t it investigate itself, it just keeps pushing the policy further. A recent dispatch illustrates this with complete clarity.

The AP reports that even after shutting down much of the logging industry, the spotted owl continues its die-off. Its population in the Continental US has fallen by 40% in 25 years. The more aggressive barred owl just keeps taking over.

So the Obama administration, led by hardcore environmentalist Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, has taken the next “scientific” step.

It has ordered the shooting of barred owls!

Yes, in the name of wildlife preservation, the Interior Department will start slaughtering wildlife! I mean, Kafka couldn’t have dreamt up this daffiness.

So the hard-ass, kick-ass barred owls are facing execution for daring to win the evolutionary race with the sensitive, limp-taloned spotted owls. No doubt Darwin is spinning in his grave.

Since these damned rodent-munchers are spread over 24 million acres of forest, we are talking about a hell of a lot of shooting.

What is even more absurd is that this administration — which intends to gun down the gangsta owl — is totally anti-gun.

Maybe Obama and Salazar could contact the Mexican drug lords whom Ken Holder's Justice Department helped to arm, and have them do the killings. It might be enough for Salazar to spread the rumor that the barred owls are importing drugs, thus challenging the hoodlums in their own ecological niche.

Just a thought.




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