The Casual Blog

Tag: bluebirds

Caring for bluebirds, and ending the war on drugs

Tulips in Fletcher Park

Humans are often strange, and sometimes really horrifying.  For the last 17 years, Sally has maintained and monitored a group of bluebird houses on a local golf course.  She’s learned and taught me about the bluebirds, including the threats they’ve faced from habitat loss and the wooden houses that have helped them recover in recent decades.  

Each spring, bluebird pairs build nests in the houses, lay eggs, tend the nestlings, and teach them to fly and find food.  In each house, they have two and sometimes three broods.

Earlier this week Sally visited the golf course to check on the recent eggs and nestlings, and found that 9 of the 20 bluebird houses had been vandalized.  Someone had opened the doors, pulled out the nests, and flung them on the ground.  There were three chicks still alive and a few eggs unbroken.  Sally replaced what was left of the nests, resituating the survivors and the unbroken eggs, in hopes that the parents could manage to reconstruct and nurse the young.

Back home, Sally cried for a long time, and asked, who would do such a thing?  My first thought was, a person who would circle a golf course destroying bird homes and killing baby birds must be severely mentally disturbed.  

But on reflection, I realized, it could as easily be an ordinary novelty-seeking adolescent who, like many other humans, doesn’t view the birds’ lives as having value.  Viewing them as having no role in the human world and far inferior, he might have seen no reason not to torture and kill them for fun.

Most people, I think, have some empathy for other animals, even when they view them as inferior.  As with racism and other failures of compassion, there are varying degrees of blindness. Perhaps the person who killed the baby birds was having a difficult personal crisis, and later realized with sadness and shame what he had done.  I hope so.  It’s disturbing to think it could be otherwise.  

On a more cheering note, we learned this week that the Biden administration has set a September deadline for ending the US’s Afghanistan war.  As a few (including me) recognized at the start 20 years ago, this was a war with almost no chance of a good outcome.  Has it taught us anything about the limitations of militarism?  It’s possible, but the idea that we can resolve our problems with war is still deep in our bones. 

We’re still fighting the war on drugs, at great human cost.  The Times reported this week that opioid fatalities were significantly up since the start of the pandemic.  With more than a third of states legalizing marijuana, there could be a growing realization that the entire prohibition regime has been a massive disaster.  

People could be starting to realize that criminalizing drugs seeds criminal enterprises, and jailing people for ordinary human pleasure-seeking mainly benefits organized crime and the prison-industrial complex.  Hundreds of thousands of deaths from overdoses are a product of this disastrous system, along with millions of people arrested and incarcerated.  But current mainstream journalism (including the Times) still usually presents recreational drugs as an enemy that must be defeated, by medical treatment if not by law.    

One strong voice dissenting from this mainstream view is Professor Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.  Hart’s research has focused on the use of street drugs, and debunked some of the strong myths about such use.  In an interview in the TImes this week, he explained that most people that use illegal drugs enjoy them responsibly and do not become zombie addicts.  His research suggests that the small minority with addiction and related problems start with additional psychiatric conditions, and that these should be treated medically as individual human problems.  

If Hart is anywhere close to right, the war on drugs, which has lasted far longer and cost even more than the war in Afghanistan, should be ended.  As with the end of alcohol prohibition, the problems of substance abuse won’t disappear, but they can be managed.  And the far bigger problems of organized crime and organized state violence against millions of ordinary people would get a lot smaller.

Fireworks, new bluebirds, right-wing NC Republicans, and bees at work

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Sally fixed chilled cucumber soup and two salads for our July 4th dinner, with homemade coffee ice cream for dessert. From our condo on the twelfth floor we had a good view of the fireworks show at Red Hat Amphitheater. Fireworks shows vary, but I’ve never seen one I really didn’t like, and this was no exception. OK, it could have been faster and bigger, but there were interesting shapes and sparkling colors, and lots of noise. This may be my favorite ritual in the American civil religion.
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Earlier that day, Sally took me along when she monitored the bluebird houses at Lochmere Golf Club. She’d promised that there should be some new eggs and nestlings, and there were! We were pleased to see the new arrivals.
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Speaking of country clubs, the News & Observer reported this week that Carolina Country Club, Raleigh’s old line club, finally admitted its first black member. This was front page news, and I was glad to hear it. CCC maintained the color barrier for way too long. Now that the curse has been broken, I hope they will implement a policy of true non-discrimination going forward.

In my lifetime, we’ve made so much progress on the race issue, for which I am happy and grateful. For all my disappointments with President Obama, every day I feel proud and a little amazed that we have a black president. I can go for weeks or months without observing anything like the racial prejudice that was pervasive when I was a boy.

But we’re still not done. Republican measures to limit the voting power of blacks in NC and elsewhere by imposing ID requirements are moving forward. This is just shameful. With this movement in process, the Supreme Court was surely wrong in striking down part of the Voting Rights Act. There’s still a ways to go to build a color-blind society.
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Our North Carolina Republican legislators have gone on a right-wing tear this session. Some of their activities make sense from the point of view of bettering the lot of the wealthy or pandering to the ignorant, but some are inexplicable in ordinary moral or practical terms.

Does any rational person, no matter how selfish or cynical, think it makes sense to get more people carrying concealed firearms into more public spaces? Would a person with a shred of decency change the law to protect agriculture operations that abuse farm animals and criminalize the behavior of those who seek to expose the abuse? Would a normal caring parent or employer find it sane to reduce school funding and increase class size? Would any responsible leader or citizen turn down federal funds meant to help the unemployed or ailing? Does any moderately educated person school think that North Carolina has the right to establish its own state religion? In establishing the highest priorities, does anyone think Is outlawing Sharia law makes the top-thousand list?

And while we’re outlawing Sharia law, why not work in a slew of anti-abortion measures? This actually happened this week without fanfare and without the usual legislative formalities, presumably to minimize the chance of organized opposition. I’ve never found the abortion issue as easy as some of my friends, but the state Senate’s work this week under cover of darkness is really disturbing from a process point of view, and looks like a huge mistake. In the aftermath of this latest fiasco, my liberal friends were looking glum, and worrying at the damage this is doing both to the humans affected (such as women with unwanted pregnancies and poor people) and to the image of our state.
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This onslaught really doesn’t seem like the result of a theory of government. To the extent it has a direction, it seems aimed less at accomplishing any policy objective than at making liberals screaming mad. Once a liberal value gets identified, it is attacked with extreme prejudice.

To a certain extent, the NC right-wingers seem to be reproducing the values battles identified by national-level right-wingers. What else could be going on? I heard an NPR interview with Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and college professor, who said the problem with building a green movement was that a movement needed an enemy. In a sense, all of us are conflicted on environmental issues, since we all like cars and electricity. We can’t be our own enemy and still feel motivated to get into the streets. His solution was to declare the oil companies the enemy. This would, he thought, allow a green movement to cohere.
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So maybe that’s what our NC right-wingers are up to: building their group cohesion by identifying liberals as the enemy and trying to cut out their hearts (metaphorically speaking). It’s hard for a liberal to find a silver lining at the moment, but I’ll still take a swing. I don’t think this is the direction a majority of the state, or even a majority of Republicans, want to go. And by forcing minorities, low-income people, women, immigrants, and the reality-based community to see their common interest, the wing-nut legislators are increasing the chances that their “public service” will not last past the next election.
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In the meantime, President Obama has seized the initiative on climate change by ordering rules on power plant reductions for CO2 and other measures. Longtime readers of the Casual Blog will know that this is a big issue for me that I think should be a big issue for everyone. At issue are mass extinctions and dislocations on a scale previously unknown in human history. The significance is much greater than putting a man on the moon, and we ought to mobilize with a level of commitment on a scale comparable to the Apollo project. I hope this is the start.
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And while we’re on the subject of things to feel good about and continue working on, let us not forget, the long fight for gay rights has made real progress. The Supreme Court, a highly conservative institution (even if not all of its justices are conservative), struck down the Defense of Marriage Act! A majority recognized this as a human rights issue. It seems the tide has turned.
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Well, that’s it, I’m climbing off my soap box. I got out to Raulston Arboretum on Saturday and found a lot of bees hard at work. I took along my tripod and used a Nikkor 18-55 mm lens in aperture priority mode. Along with a variety of bees and flowers, I was struck by the sculptural qualities of some of the blooms. My favorites are above and below.
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Helping bluebirds, and some good and not-so-good internet experiences

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Since 2004, Sally has tended a group of bluebird houses in Cary on the Lochmere golf course, near where we used to live.  She keeps fourteen houses in good working order and keeps track of the numbers of eggs and numbers of hatchlings, then passes the data along to the North Carolina Bluebird Society.  Bluebird rely on human-built boxes for breeding spaces, and Sally likes helping them.  It’s the breeding season, and this week she invited me to come along after work to see the activity.

She already had secured a golf cart when I arrived.  It was a sunny, mild afternoon, and there were plenty of golfers out on the course.  She started with hole number 1, where Sally opened the door, pulled out the nest of pine straw, and found several dark gray nestlings, which snuggled together quietly.  Their mama was not at home, but at the next house, the mama bird shot out as we got close to the house and nearly hit my face.  

At the third house there were both bluebird and chickadee eggs. We saw several others populated by hatchlings and eggs that must have been close to hatching. In one, where there had been eggs the week before, there were none.  Sally said a snake had probably got them.  It seemed sad, though not, I guess, for the snake.  Anyhow it was most pleasant to see the birds and birds-to-be with my dear one, and learn more about their lives.
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We have tickets for a trip to Cozumel next week for several days of scuba diving, and this week we met with our group at Down Under Surf and Scuba to get briefed on drift diving and other procedures.  Back home, we began our preparations — checking over the gear, refreshing on protocols, and paging through our sea creature identification books.  My underwater strobe wasn’t working properly, so I’ll need to get that over to the dive shop for a consult.  

Cozumel is English-language friendly, but even so I’ve been inspired to try to advance my Spanish.  In addition to Rosetta Stone, I’ve been working on verb conjugation at a very helpful web site that generates drills for every tense. I’ve been focusing on the preterite and the imperfect, and improving.

I’ve also been sampling lessons at Livemocha.  This service invites native speakers of one language, like Spanish, to help those interested in learning their language, like me, and they may also get help in another language, like English, from someone like me. I’ve gotten useful written feedback from folks in Columbia and Mexico, and have tried to give others some helpful tips on English.

The idea of the internet connecting language students is exciting. At the same time, it’s a little unsettling. Livemocha allows for “friending” requests, and I’ve gotten a few of these, but so far I haven’t accepted. I’m not quite clear on what the responsibilities, and risks, might be. I’m more or less constantly overcommitted already, and I would be sorry to disappoint my as yet unknown “friends” in, say, Columbia. And I would be particularly sorry if they turned out to be violent sociopaths of some sort.

Speaking of internet risks, I had an odd experience this week. I finished The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, by Bruce Hood, which I’d purchased from Amazon in the Kindle edition to read on my tablet device. The next day, I got an email from Amazon asking me how I liked The Self Illusion. !!! I hadn’t realized that Amazon had invited itself quite so intimately into my reading life. Of course, I didn’t read whatever they required me to click on (does anybody?), so it’s possible that I in some hyper legal sense agreed to let them monitor my reading. But really! That’s just icky!