About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Canary in the garbage

The garbage collector gave us a new garbage can. The previous one was too big, so we opted for the smaller and cheaper one.

"That's a dink can", scoffed the redhead on seeing the replacement.

"But small is beautiful", I replied wondering where she came up 'dink can'. "It's a cute little can, just look at it!"

Neighbor Richard suggested we arm our 'dink cans' with "screaming canaries" to keep the bears away. He is convinced the one dollar security alarms deterred the garbage-scrounging bear last year.

Maybe so. Our neighbors had garbage-bear problems, but we didn't. Our cans were armed with "screaming canaries". Presumably the shock effect of the siren is enough to scare the bear. It sure worked on me everytime I forgot it was on. I didn't do a backward roll and chop my jaws in retreat, but I cursed it somewhat affectionately.

The screaming canary is actually a cheapo security alarm with a piezoelectric oscillating siren. It's a low-power-consuming sound alarm like those used in smoke detectors. It sounds like a German roller canary on steroids and methamphetamines. The alarm goes off when you remove the magnet.

Here's how Richard armed the garbage cans.

He mounted the alarm on the lip of the can, and fixed the magnet on the lid. The alarm is fastened to the metal bracket with double-sided tape, and the bracket and magnet are bolted to the can.

Spacing is critical, so he used scrap plexiglass as a spacer to align alarm and magnet. The red color is fingernail polish. (Richard has an artistic streak.) It also locks the nut and bolt together.

The plastic material is a rain shield.

One of these days I'll get around to experimenting on the effects of the alarm on pestiferous wildlife. Meanwhile, we'll keep the faith that they actually work.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Adventures with Robobadger

Robobadger was a marriage of taxidermy and a high tech toy. His first life ended abruptly on state route 287 near Laramie. The next day his ice-packed remains arrived at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. There a taxidermist worked his timeless magic, and a month later Robobadger began his second life on wheels. Robo looked menacing even with a remote-control toy jeep embedded in his solar plexus.

Robobadger became a kind of drill sergeant in Brian Miller's boot camp for Siberian ferrets. Brian was a Smithsonian Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Zoo. Robo, a stuffed great horned owl, and Brian's dog Rosa were joined in a common purpose to scare the bejeepers out of the ferrets. It would also teach us how ferrets develop a healthy fear of predators.

Boot camp also taught the ferrets how to find and dispatch food such as prairie dogs, but that had little to do with Robobadger. Zoo biologists have long known that animals raised in captivity are wusses in the wilderness. Eating a nutritious meat mix isn't the same as dispatching a prairie dog face-to-face in its burrow, or dodging coyotes.

Boot camp at the zoo's Conservation & Research Center was preparation for the Siberian ferrets' experimental release on the high plains of Wyoming and Colorado. The small captive population of black-footed ferrets was too precious to use for an experiment, but the Endangered Species Act makes provision for experimental introductions with related or surrogate species. If captive born black-footed ferrets were to thrive in the promised land of reintroduction they needed serious preparation. The surrogates would lead the way.

Being a reintroduction surrogate is a little like being an astronaut. Both undergo rigorous training in order to explore strange new places, and the goal is survival. The biggest difference is that a veterinarian doesn’t neuter astronauts before the mission. It was necessary with the ferrets, because reproduction on the new frontier was not an activity condoned by the US Government. As you may have guessed, Siberian ferrets are considered aliens in the US.

Boot camp had several phases. Robobadger and the stuffed owl were players in an experiment to see whether predator avoidance was hard-wired in the genes or coached in the school-of-hard-knocks. Their advantage over a live predator was predictability.

Brian also wanted to see how these behaviors developed in young ferrets. To see if there were critical learning periods he designed experiments in slices of developmental time. He ran the experiments on three groups of young Siberian ferrets at two-, three-, and four months of age.

The experiments went like this. On day 1 a young Siberian ferret encountered Robo resting benignly in the corner of the 10 x 10 foot arena. On day 2 the ferret found itself zapped with rubber bands while being pursued relentlessly by a belligerent Robo. Operating the joystick, shooting the rubber band gun and taking data kept Brian and his bevy of assistants quite busy at mission control.

I should explain that the original plan was to fit the ferrets with shock collars used in training dogs, but the Zoo's Animal Care and Use Committee nixed the plan, and Brian settled for a rubber band "six-shooter".

The criterion of success was the time it took for the ferrets to disappear down the burrow to safety. The day after the chase, he put the same ferret back in the arena with Robo sitting quietly in the corner. He again measured the time the ferret took to dive into the burrow and compared that to the time of escape before Robobadger chased the ferret. He repeated the experiment using the stuffed owl.

The results were clear. Two-month-old Siberian ferrets were as helpless as gum drops, but 3- and 4-month-old ferrets had a healthy fear response, and it was faster at four months than at three.

What's more, it took only one aversive experience with Robo or the owl to improve the innate response. In other words, the ferrets had a genetic memory of predators, but a good scare improved the survival response, which was simply to beat a hasty retreat down the burrow.

Following these experiments in captivity, the Siberian ferrets were released into the wild. Alas, the experiments with Robobadger and the owl didn't affect survival in the wild. Even though the young ferrets did the right thing after generations in captivity, they didn't do it well enough when faced with wily coyote.

Brian retired Robobadger and the next year stepped the boot camp up a level. He introduced prairie dogs to a dirt-floored but escape-proof barn, and when they settled down he introduced young Siberian ferrets. It was a pre-release conditioning arena where ferrets could live in natural prairie dog burrows, secure their own food and occasionally deal with Rosa the Labrador's intrusions.

This conditioning did indeed improve the Siberian ferrets' survival. The method was tested next on black-footed ferrets released in Montana, and survival improved from 2% to 20%. The US Fish & Wildlife Service made it mandatory for all captive-raised black-footed ferrets scheduled for release in the wild.

Meanwhile, word of Robobadger spread to Washington and beyond, and then one Sunday morning in 1989 we read about Robobadger in Dave Barry's column in the Washington Post.

Yes, it was amusing, but we were sweating bullets. A colleague of ours had just won the dreaded a Golden Fleece Award in connection with another reintroduction project. If Senator Proxmire found out about Robo Brian and the National Zoo could also be honored with a Golden Fleece Award. It was recognition we were NOT seeking. (Actually our fears were unwarranted, as the research was not federally funded.)

What to do? How about sending Dave Barry an autographed photo of Robo and letter? I suggested. If he likes us, maybe he'll come to our defense if we do get a Golden Fleece.

The deed was done. "Dear Dave, That was a great article you wrote about me . . . etc.
Sincerely, (signed) Robobadger (with pawprint)"

A couple weeks passed and then a book arrive din the mail. It was "How to Claw Your Way to the Top", dedicated by Dave Barry "To Robo, who obviously needs no help from me."

If you have ever seen a badger's claws, you will instantly get Dave's inference.

You can read the full story in Prairie Night. The book is out-of-print, but used copies are still available. Brian is also planning an updated second edition.

[Thanks to Brian for refreshing my memory about some of the details and to Dean Biggins for the photo at the top of the page. Dean is seen in my B&W photo standing to the right of Brian at the edge of the ferret arena.]


Miller, B. 1996. Prairie night. Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution Press

1991. Development of survival skills in captive-raised Siberian
polecats (Mustela eversmanni) I: Locating prey. Miller, B., D. Biggins, C.
Wemmer, R. Powell, L. Hanebury, D. Horn, and A. Vargas. Journal of
Ethology 8: 89-94.

1991. Development of survival skills in captive-raised Siberian
polecats (Mustela eversmanni) II: Predator avoidance. Miller, B., D.
Biggins, C. Wemmer, R. Powell, L. Calvo, T. Wharton. Journal of Ethology 8:

Papers evaluating pre-release experience of black-footed ferret

1998. The effect of rearing methods on survival of reintroduced
black-footed ferrets. Biggins, D.E., Godbey, J.L., Hanebury, L.R., Luce, B..
Marinari, P.E., Machett, M.R., and Vargas, A. Journal of Wildlife
Management 62: 643-653.

1999. Influence of pre-release experience on reintroduced black-footed
ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Biggins, D.E., Vargas, A., Godbey, J.L.,
and Anderson, S.H. Biological Conservation 89: 121-129

Monday, January 28, 2008

Camera trapping workshop

Attention Class!

The Codger is scheduled to give a camera trapping workshop in July at San Francisco State University's beautiful Sierra Nevada Field campus.

For details check out the announcement here.

Here's how it happened. A few months ago a blog reader from the University of Michigan asked me if there were any courses on camera trapping. I had to tell her that didn't know of any regular offerings, though some courses have been sponsored now and then by non-government conservation organizations.

An added impetus came from my daughter. She took the course in Sierra Nevada flora a few years ago and was totally enthused about the SF State field course program. "You should look into it, Codger." I did, and here I am getting ready to teach about the fine art of camera trapping.

In preparation I'm gathering materials, organizing thoughts, and posting some new pieces on equipment. We will use a targeted approach. Rather than place cameras on trails, we'll zero in on specific species based on sightings and sign, and we'll use sound and scent lures and baits. We'll use different set-ups daily to capture the quarry as digitized images.

This should be educational and 'jolly good fun'. If any of you readers have ever thought about trying your hand at camera trapping, check out the link above.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ne me quitte pas

Despite my best intentions, the screech owl flew the coop. I checked the camera trap today. My rude intrusion was just too much.

This picture was taken at 5:17PM on the same day of my owl debacle. There were two photos of the owl. Obviously it was ready to "get the hell out of Dodge". That was it.

Knowing that the owl was gone, I checked out the box. I had been right. The bad smell was from squirrels. There were bones and baby squirrel fur in the box. Something must have bumped off the mother. No barf balls were to be found.

I find it curious that the owls ignore the flash when they are nesting. The camera trap took hundreds of flash photos last spring when a pair of screech owls nested in a tree cavity not far from here. It seems that once committed, they stick it out despite the camera flash.

It's a let down. The owl box (sigh) is close enough to the house for an owl cam, and I was ready to set one up courtesy of neighbor Richard who loaned the equipment.

I'm not giving up. I went to the hardware store this afternoon. It's time to build some more owl boxes.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Fred, the shop steward

Where is Fred now? I wonder with numb fingers and runny nose.

My warm weather friend, the shop steward is gone.

We often crossed paths as he made his rounds or viewed his domain from a jar of screws.

I suspect he's out cold in a box of my books, while I putz around freezing my butt off in the dead of winter.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Big Mama and the runt

Before checking the cams today I took a circuitous route to look for nest cavities of owls. I crossed three steep drainages into new territory, made a new "puma set" with the Furfindr, GPS'd the location, did a little trail maintenance with the chain saw, and followed the tributary down to its confluence with the other two. There I found myself in terra cognita. I climbed the slope to a deer trail and in a few minutes found myself at the familiar "patch cam", the camera trap aimed at the scent patch.

I wasn't expecting anything new, so I checked the data first and found that 32 images were taken during the past two weeks. I clicked through the pictures . . . robins, woodrat, squirrel, spotted and striped skunks, deer, and WOW -- a puma perfectly centered in the frame!

The cat showed up with its cub four days ago (January 19) and visited the site three times that night.

The castoreum and catnip held their interest long enough to get 15 photos between 6:40 and 11:28PM. Here she is rubbing the patch.

Until now I have gotten photos of only one svelte female puma, on two occasions accompanied by a large cub. I haven't encountered her since last summer. The female you see here is different. She's a big mama and she lacks the svelte female's notched ear.

The cub is a runt, definitely smaller than that of the svelte female last year. At this latitude pumas breed year round, so it could have been born later in the season.

All the same, Big Mama looks well fed, and her cub looks bony. Look at the hip bones from this rear angle. Makes you wonder if the kid has worms, or if its mother shares her kills.

Last week a starving immature puma was caught in Bidwell Park about 16 miles down the canyon from here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Magic squirrel mulch

An incense cedar fell across the flume during the last storm. Evidently the tree had been injured when it reached a height of about 40 ft.

The original shoot is the gray stub on the left. It died back from the damage, and eventually became a bird's nest cavity.

Two new shoots replaced it and grew into the two logs you see laying across the flume. These forked shoots were off center, and as they grew they placed an increasing strain on the trunk. This year they strained the trunk to the breaking point. Heavy winds were all it took to snap the trunk.

The trunk was hollow, but squirrels had packed it with cedar bark stuffing. It smelled good, and I started to dig it out like a terrier in a rat hole.

"I wouldn't do that", warned the redhead, "it could have fleas and all kinds of things.

"My God, there's squirrel hair in it! Tail hair!" I exclaimed. "Why this is a multi-generational squirrel nest!"

"Remember when your house had the flea infestation and your parents threw out your bird nest collection?"

"That was different," I answered. "This is self-sanitizing nest material filled with terpenes and secondary compounds. Just smell it. It's wonderful." The redhead backed up a step.

"C'mon!" I pleaded. "It smells just like cedar pencils."

Finding a fallen tree can be a cheap thrill for a biologist, especially one with cabin fever.

As we walked home I hatched a plan.

Three days later I returned to the scene and packed three grocery bags with magic squirrel mulch. It looks great around the camellias. The redhead hasn't noticed yet. When she does, I'm going to tell her, "It's special. You can't buy it at the garden center".

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Camera Trap Protection

"Be advised, Captain Kirk that nowhere in the galaxy are your camera traps safe from tampering." Spock

A new publication on camera trap protection is always of interest because camera traps are never safe from wildlife and people. This paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management touts the use of a plate steel security box.

The authors, who study wildlife traffic in flood underpasses along a busy stretch of state route 58 in the Mohave desert, had the wisdom to contract a local welder to "armor" their 7 Cuddeback Digital Scouting cameras. The welder was not only paid for his services, but was made a coauther, which is nice to see.

The security box was made of 2 mm steel plates with arc welded joints. A sliding front door with windows for the lens, flash and sensor apertures gives access to the camera, and can be padlocked. I am certain that our state highway department, Caltrans would not approve the use of anchor bolts to fasten the cameras to the culvert walls. So epoxy was used to glue rotating camera mounts on the underpass walls. The cost of materials and labor was $90.

Each camera was deployed with a brief note in Spanish and English explaining the purpose and the ownership of the camera.

The cameras took 107 photographs over a period of 170 days, which by my calculations is 0.14 photos per day or 1 photo every 7 days. The culverts were not a hot area for animal traffic. The wildlife "catch" was black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails, desert woodrats, domestic dogs and a domestic cat. The cameras also photographed 4 people in the culverts, and no traps were damaged, moved or apparently touched over the 6 month period.

With the obvious exception of people, none of these species is a threat to cameras, but I suspect this security box would be an excellent deterrent to bears. A black bear could probably break the wall mount, but it would have to use bolt cutters to cut the padlock.

Most people are not interested in exploring highway culverts, but this changes when nature is calling. A culvert is about the only place in the desert that affords potty privacy. Hitchhikers and hobos also appreciate culverts for shade. The researchers found ample evidence of these human activities. In this situation, the written notice probably had the desired effect.

The online hunting and camera trapping forums, such a Pixcontroller and Real Deal Hunting Chat are good places to learn about camera trap theft, reactions to it, and the ingenuity used to counteract it.

It's my impression that poachers and trespassers pose the greatest threat, because they realize the camera has all the evidence needed for conviction. A chainsaw, however, can even defeat the Python lock. (Just cut the tree down.)

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment to find the most effective deterrent to camera trap thieves. But who's going to do it? It's a lot more fun getting pictures of wildlife.


Fiehler, C.M., B.L. Cypher, S. Bremner-Harrison, and D. Pounds. 2007. A theft-resistent adjustable security box for digital cameras. Journal of Wildlife management, 71(6):2077-2080

Friday, January 18, 2008


The plot thickens as the investigation of the fatal San Francisco zoo tiger attack continues. It seems the three young men were drinking, but the two survivors haven't been forthcoming about the details. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, a respected Northern California zoologist, Dr. Richard Tenaza was expelled from the Oakland Zoo last week for questioning the chainlink containment of the tiger enclosure. You may read about it here.

Professor Tenaza has long made use of the bay area's museums and zoos to teach courses in zoology at the University of the Pacific. Instead of welcoming dialogue, zoo officials asked him to leave the zoo. I've known Tenaza for 40+ years, and he is not an uppity guy. It seems the Oakland zoo is suffering from Tiger-escapa-phobia.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Richard called this morning to report he had captured the mouse. It had been doing the usual subtle but annoying mousie things in his basement. . . like crapping on the workbench and pulling insulation from appliances.

"If you don't mind I'll let it go down in the woods below your house. The same place I let the rattlesnake go."

"Not a problem. Come on down."

I opened the garage door, and a few minutes later I heard Richard on his scooter.

The deer mouse was in the Hyatt-Regency trap Richard made last year. This luxury trap of his own design comes with two rooms, one furnished with peanuts and water, the other with a bed of clean linen. The door quietly locks on a magnetic door jamb, and the expanded metal walls are designed deter the most determined escape artists.

It was a lucky mouse and this was its chance to mend its ways.

Point Reyes wren

Not the best pictures, but only half of camera trapping is about taking pictures.

Anyway, this is the kind of picture we would encounter while taking a lab quiz in Natural History of the Vertebrates back in the 60s. You had to know the key characters, of which perhaps one or two were visible.

These two images from Point Reyes National Seashore seem to be of a winter wren. The diagnostic features -- the faint eyebrow and the dark barred flanks give it away. And by the way, I had to check Sibley's guide to give you that information.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Knock knock?

My task today was to move the screech owl box. The stimulus was Owlman's recent post at The Owl Box Blog.

My owl box has been in the same place for two years. If two years pass and an owl doesn't stake its claim the owl pundits advise you to move the box to a new location. A squirrel staked its claim the first year and installed a grass nest with an arched roof.

When we passed the box this morning I threw a rock at it...bonk!

"See? No owl! If there was a screech owl inside, it would be looking out and wondering what the hell is going on." The redhead remained silent, which means she accepted the wisdom of my statement or wasn't listening.

After lunch I climbed the ladder, removed the 2 bunji cords, and clasping the box to my chest started to climb down the ladder. Halfway down I paused to pluck a few gray squirrel hairs from the gnawed entrance.

Yes, I pondered, it was a squirrel, and now it's eviction time.

Noticing that the grass nest was gone, I stuck my nose in the hole and sniffed . . . . the box gave off a sweet fetid odor. Now that's disgusting, I thought. This damn squirrel must be deranged to crap in its nest.

I tipped the box toward the sunlight and looked in the hole . . . and . . . GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!

There was a screech owl inside! It was leaning sideways with one half-opened eye and half-raised ear tufts. It looked like Britney Spears on a bad hair day after a weeklong boogie fest. Of course, the smell wasn't squirrel doodoo. It was the unmistakable stench of an owl's sour barf balls.

"Oh my God. This is an emergency!" I had to get that box back in the tree pronto, and for that I needed the redhead's assistance, immediately.

I stuffed my jacket in the hole, and fetched the redhead, who was about to go to our daughter's house.

"This is an emergency." I pleaded. "If the Fish and Wildife Service finds out I molested the owl, I could go to jail!" The redhead joined me.

We got the box back up, and an hour later I set up a camera trap. It was a rough day.

I hope this owl can forgive and forget.

Patch Update # 4

The lower deer trail is getting regular wildlife traffic now, which is quite a change from last summer and fall when it seemed to be a dead zone.

Thirty photos were taken since my last update on the winter solstice. Three of these were blanks, i.e., the camera fired after the animal moved out of the frame. That's an acceptable success rate of 90%.

Squirrels, a deer mouse and a flock of turkeys walked past the camera. The photos weren't worth showing.

The gray fox spent 3 minutes sniffing about the trail (8 pictures), and the last picture of the series is the alert stance at the top of this page.

Three hours later and just before dawn this fox or its lookalike cocked its leg and pissed on the base of the tree. This was 12 days after the dog marked the same spot, but I suspect it was in response to some outrageously stinky Billingsley's Flat Rock Predator Bait I had dabbed at the base of the tree and a light garnish of dry catnip.

Two days later at 6:26 in the morning the fox indulged in a brief frenzy of neck rubbing on the same spot.

A spotted skunk also visited the site on three different nights and sniffed at the predator lure. Though the neck fur of these little charmers sometimes has a yellowish tint, I have never caught them in the act of "getting it on".

What I want to know is what happened to the bobcat? Now there's a species that plays hard to get.

Friday, January 11, 2008

So long, Sir Edmund

Mountain climbers and explorers are different from most of us, and some are driven by strange demons. Sir Edmund Hillary however stood apart. The humanitarian climber died yesterday in New Zealand.

In 1953 he and Tsering Norgay were the first mountaineers to reach the summit of Mt Everest. Hillary was 33 years old.

He was an extraordinary kind of explorer -- a diplomat who gave back to the hill people he loved.

Listen to a few words and view some footage about the great man here.

Wikipedia reviews his life and times.

Getty Conservation Prize winner Hemanta Mishra, my colleague from Nepal days, wrote last night:

"I am deeply shocked. Yes - but of course I knew him very well. Sir Ed and I worked together in creating the Sagarmatha National Park. I have fond memories of him up in the Everest area. He was instrumental in getting many of Nepal's National Park staff trained in New Zealand e.g. the Late Mingma Sherpa, Ram Prit Yadav, Lakpa Sherpa, Nima Wangchu and many others.

I met him now and then over the years. He visited our home in Kupondole and one of my most cherished photographs is of him and his wife with Alita, Pragya, and Binayak (inside Sushma's belly).

His famous saying "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" -- were words that motived me to translocate the rhinos from Chitwan to Bardia.

Though born in New Zealand - he was a Nepalese in heart and mind, and he did so much for Nepal. We will miss him very much."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

In praise of the tump line

[a villager uses a tump line to lift a load of elephant grass in Chitwan National Park, Nepal]

There is something to be said for simple inventions that work well. Like the tump line.

For me the tump line was a curiousity of remote outposts until 1985 during a trek in the midland hills of Nepal. That was when Mrs Galloway broke a metatarsal bone, and Mrs Joslyn's knees went on strike.

"We will carry them", announced Sherap Jangbo, our Sherpa leader. He wasn't kidding. He consulted with the porters, and the youngest among them stepped forward to "do the needful".

At first the lad tried to fashion a tump line from a used lungi that resembled an oversize dishrag, but then Jangbo handed him a cinch belt from a horse. This ancient piece of leather had snapped the day before, and as a result a retired school teacher from Virginia learned that she had a talent for tumbling. Equally amazing were the repairs to the belt which was about to be used as a tump line.

With mime and broken English our Sherpa informed the ladies how to sit in the sling. We watched dubiously as Mrs Joslyn assumed the take off position and wonderboy squatted. Then the moment of suspense. . . wonderboy slowly straightened his legs. Someone whispered "hernia" and then the tumpline's mechanical advantage became evident. Mrs Joslyn piggybacked up the trail on two adolescent legs in slow motion. For the rest of the trek the two ladies took turns riding the remaining horse with a saddle and wonderboy, who became a celebrity among his fellow porters.

This was the first and last tour I ever guided, but I was much taken with the tump line, and I commend it to any game readers who have hauled logs in a one-handed firewood carrier, and now suffer from one elongated arm, a lateral sigmoid deflection of the spine, a wrenched neck, or other orthopedic quirks.

Our ancestors invented several ways of hauling heavy loads, and probably long before beasts of burden were harnessed to the travois or fitted with panniers. You can balance the load on your head, suspend the load from your head using a head band and tump line, or hang the load from your shoulders using a back pack. You can also suspend two loads from a spring pole on the shoulder or on a yoke. Each method has its own mechanical stresses and energetic costs.

Recently a team of Belgian physiologists shed light on the energetics of hauling loads with tump line. Their subjects were Sherpa, Rai, and Tamang porters who trek weekly from Kathmandu to Namche, a distance of about 100 km. To reach Namche at an elevation of 3500 m requires 8000 m of ascent and 6300 m of descent. The porters are men and women aged 11 to 68 years, and they do it all in 7-9 days, barefoot.

Now get this. Men haul an average load that is 93% of their body weight, and women carry 66% of theirs'. My hat is off to the porter whose load was 183% of his body weight.

The eight porters who were the subjects of the energetics study were most accommodating. Not only did they agree to wear the 3 lb face mask and analyzer that measures oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production, but they packed various loads up to their own body weight at different speeds (0.5 to 1.5 m/sec) on a 51 m flat track. A drillmaster kept them in step at the various assigned velocities.

For the sake of comparison the investigators used control data from previous studies in which Europeans backpacked, and African women head-balanced similar loads at different walking speeds.

The results showed that Nepalese porters were "far more economical energetically than the controls at all loads and more economical than African women at all except the lightest loads." Loads that were lighter than 20% of the porter's body weight had a negligible energetic cost, and were carried "for free", while loads that exceeded 20% gave Nepalese porters an energetic advantage that increases with increasingly larger loads. Consequently, they can carry loads with tump lines that are 30% heavier than the maximum loads African women carry on the heads. Both methods by the way are energetically superior to backpacks.

Two years ago I started to haul firewood with a tump line and canvas sling, and found it far more comfortable than schlepping a log carrier with one or both arms. My Sherpa hauling kit consists of a canvas head band (a homemade swing seat with grommets), and quarter inch cords hooked to a log carrier.

I can haul 60 lb loads, a third of my weight, like a very tired Sherpa porter. I feel more stable with a low hanging load, and find that gripping the head band eases the backward force of the load. When my head feels like it is twisting off, it is quite easy to jerk the load and adjust the headband.

The biggest challenge is lifting the load. Old codgers with bird legs just can't lift 60 pounds from a squat. You need a helper or you should load the wood on an elevated position. The amazing thing is that it isn't a big deal hauling such a load up a hill. You can only walk slowly, but amazingly you soon find your slow-motion stride and don't run out of breath.

I guess I'm a bit of a wuss, since I don't intend to try it barefoot.


Bastiene, G.J., B. Schepens, P.A. Willems, N.C. Heglund. 2005. Energetics of load carrying in Nepalese porters. Science, 308:1755.

Heglund, N.C., P. A. Willems, M. Penta and G. A. Cavagna. 1995. Energy saving gait mechanics with head-supported loads. Nature 375, 52 - 54.

Maloiy, G. M. O., N. C. Heglund, L. M. Prager, G. A. Cavagna and C. R. Taylor. 1986. Energetic cost of carrying loads: have African women discovered an economic way? Nature 319, 668 - 669.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Stalwart pariah dogs -- Part 2

Bishnu Bahadur Lama in 1984

Sauraha, Chitawan National Park, Nepal. March 5, 1984

"Load the capchur gun with ketamine," stammered Hemanta. "We're going to get that bloody yellow dog in the hatisar for leopard bait."

"Hazoor!", replied Bishnu with a wag of his topi-capped head, then hurried off to his task.

It wasn't a death sentence. The dog would be caged within a large box trap. Its captivity would give us a break.

Yellow pie was the leader of the pack, and we were tired of his game. Whenever we walked through the hatisar (the government's elephant camp), he and his pack of snarling curs dashed in and barked with raised hackles and puckered bungholes. They would back off if we reached for a stone, but stones were few and far between, and in desperation we'd throw dirt or weeds which showed how ridiculously harmless we were. Canine attitude adjustment required a stone and good aim.

About an hour later the sentenced dog had the audacity to prance into our project compound wearing a grin. He was smooth-coated, fit and confident -- not one of those mangy half-starved worm-riddled pie dogs that snarls one minute and cowers the next.

Hemanta took the dart gun, stepped out the door and deftly approached. Suddenly yellow pie remembered something, and turned around to retrace his steps. The dull pop of the gun was answered with a single soprano yelp, and the dog dashed toward the hatisar with the dart dangling from his shoulder.

Bishnu and the shikaris ran after the dog in their musical flip flops, while Hemanta cursed them for letting him get away. A few minutes later they were bearing our tormentor's limp body in a sling of muslin. It was a hot afternoon, and the men stashed the dog in the shade of the bungalow.

An hour later Hemanta was again reading the riot act. A shikari had just discovered the dog stumbling toward the hatisar, but instead of catching the escapee, he decided to report it. The chastened man took his medicine well, and then ran through camp cheerfully calling his fellows for assistance.

A few minutes later I watched the smiling shikaris perform a feat almost as remarkable as the Indian rope trick. They had managed to balance the limp dog on a bamboo pole. Not to worry, Sahib, they reported. The kookoor (dog) had gotten only halfway to the hatisar when he conked out again from the ketamine.

From the bungalow's porch I watched them plop yellow pie in the shade. He was again in slumber, but periodically he raised his head and looked about like a bleary-eyed drunk.

A half hour later we had retreated from the afternoon heat. A brain-fever bird called like a broken record as Hemanta dozed in his room, I wrote notes on the porch, and the crapulous yellow pie lay in the shade.

Then a barefoot middle-aged Tharu woman from the hatisar came striding into the compound with the confidence of George C. Patton. Yellow pie struggled to his feet and stumbled toward his mistress with a crooked smile and wagging tail. The lady halted in front of Hemanta's bungalow, and my colleague meekly presented himself.

The moving discourse that followed was in Nepali and lasted 10 minutes. Kookoor (dog) was the only word I understood, but I could read the body language and saw the tears. The lady was turbulent with emotion, and to say she was pissed doesn't do justice to her mood. Her discourse had a terribly humbling effect on me, and it transformed Hemanta in a way I had never seen before. Between her pronouncements he simply mumbled like a parishioner at mass.

When she was finished she marched away with yellow pie at heel.

"Well," I said. "I don't know about you, but I feel like a real turd. So you might as well give me the details."

Hemanta spoke very slowly with long pauses and a frozen grin, as if in shock.

"Well, the kookoor is her dog. She fed it from her own breast, cleaned up its shit, and loves it like one of her children."

"Is that all?" I asked.

"Well, she also used a lot of expletives."

"And that's it?"

"Okay, she said Brahmins like me should be used for leopard bait, and not helpless dogs."

The old office building of the hatisar, His Majesty's Government
of Nepal (under King Birendra), 1984 (building now gone).

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The hills are alive . . .

with the sound of generators. We've been without power for 36 hours now, and down the slope in the town of Chico there was a run on generators. 73,000 folks in the region are still without electricity, so Lowe's can expect good business when its shipment arrives. I just heard that 400,000 people in San Francisco are without power.

There's nothing like a big storm to make you humble. A lot of trees have blown over, some on houses, others across roads, but so far there are no floods or land slips. Some areas of the Sierra Nevada have received 44 inches of snow, and the media are advising snow boarders and skiers to stay the hell out of the mountains.

For us, it's like camping in your house.

I fire up the generator for a couple hours morning, noon, and night. It allows me to feed my internet addition, and the redhead does her chores. No mechanical clocks keep time in this house, so we check the GPS.

We're cooking on the woodstove. 20 minutes to heat a can of soup. There's a fine pot of beans simmering away right now.

But we are lucky to have a neighbor like Richard. He called yesterday to check up, and offered a solution to our lack of water. (The well pump is not on house power.) He knew of a neighbor who is selling a swimming pool pump, one he had built himself. I bought it, and huzzahhh! -- we are flushing toilets and drawing water again.

I didn't know you could suck water from your pool and give your plumbing an enema with a garden hose! Damn, it works!

"Sure", said Richard. "It just puts water pressure back in the system".

I learn something almost everyday from this man. He has all of Allie Fox's inventiveness without the scorn and cynicism.

"Are you sure we can drink this water without getting sick?" asked the redhead.

I assured her it was chlorinated, and that our grandchildren had survived swimming in it all summer".

She said she is going to boil it anyway.

"No problem, babe, just put it on the stove."

Friday, January 4, 2008

Carcass visitors -- conclusion

There was only skin and bone on the 15th day when the bobcat found the remains. It came shortly after noon, and lingered for 7 minutes. Most of the seven photos show it prowling about and sniffing the ground.

The fox was on the scene 6 hours earlier, and seemed to redistribute some patches of skin. Here the cat looks to be in stalking mode. You can see the deer hair and skin in front of it.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Carcass visitors -- days 12-14

Two new dogs showed up 6 hours after the goshawk's brief inspection. By now the hindquarters and viscera had been eaten, leaving only the cannon bones and the front half of the carcass. They fed for a half hour and left, and no one visited the rest of the night.

The next morning (day 12) the gray fox came at 6:25, and spent nearly 50 minutes feeding and caching. Here it has a scrap in its mouth.

Then it drops it on the ground.

In other pictures it looks like it's using its nose to push leaves over the scrap.

It snowed that night.

On day 13 the dogs were back at noon and fed for two hours.

There were no visitors that night, but a little after 7:00 the next morning (day 14) a gray fox visited about ten minutes. It seems to schedule its visits around the dogs' working hours.

At 7:00 that night the dogs returned and fed for another 2 hours. They were adept at peeling the skin from the leg bones, and I suspect they finished the head, except for a few pieces of mandible. They clearly know how to make a living without kibbles.

At 11:30 that night the fox visited again and for the first time in three years I got an image of two foxes together. Makes sense for a monogamous canid. I suspect I've been looking at two different animals all along.

As you can see there was very little left of the carcass, but the show wasn't over yet.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow you'll see who was late for dinner.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Carcass visitors -- day 10

A raptor came the day after Christmas, day 10, at 10:55AM. The wary yellow-eyed bird stayed for a minute and a half, and I got four photos. If it fed, it kept its beak clean.

I thought it was a Cooper's Hawk, but on looking at my Sibley Guide, it seems to be a first-year Northern Goshawk.

The tail bands are not exactly even, as they should be in a Cooper's hawk. The shoulder is spotted, and there's a white brow. All are features of a subadult Northern Goshawk. Plus it seems to be a little large for a Cooper's hawk.

If anyone out there disagrees, or can confirm, let me hear from you. I never argue with birders. (You may need them in the future.)