Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Relative Birthday Abundance

Tundra (or Whistler) swans; Heron Hope; Locustville, VA; December 2010

As an enthusiastic amateur naturalist living in New York City, I grew fond of the hearty, adaptive species that populated the boroughs' streets, parks, and waterfronts: pigeons and gulls, rats and red-tailed hawks, starlings and squirrels. When I felt out of step with my urban friends and neighbors, as I occasionally did, I found that watching the animals helped. Chittering around the base of a corner garbage can, the sparrows and starlings chastised me for moping. The herring gull's shrill shout over the East River exhorted me to shake off my self-conscious alienation. All of these species were part of my urban wildlife support network. Watching them reminded me to get on with the business of grateful L-I-V-I-N', no matter where I might be. Now that I live in San Francisco, a town with greater biodiversity than NYC, I'm happy to have Steller's jays, Brewer's blackbirds, and ravens keeping me company, too.

Today, however, my girlfriend and I are visiting my parents on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Dumped on by the latest "snowpocalypse," we've been locked in for most of our visit. Not that I mind. Yesterday morning, I trudged through the snow drifts around my home ground, eyes squinted in the dazzling winter light. In the space of an hour, I saw thousands of snow geese rise noisily from a partially exposed barley field; turkey vultures sweep across the sky, scenting for an unfortunate victim of the biting weather; a woodcock flush from a hedge; coyote tracks that skirted a small cemetery; mouse tracks that emerged from under a snow-covered plow and lightly skipped across the snowfall's surface to a patch of open grass; a yellow-rumped warbler and a Carolina wren vying for position atop a perch; two tundra (or whistling) swans flying low overhead; Canada geese and green-winged teal gathered in the open water of the estuary; a cottontail peer from a tangle of grasses. It occurred to me, as I contemplated such abundance and diversity, that my urban wildlife support network, whatever its personal value, is but a shadow of what I witnessed this December morning.

Sunset; Heron Hope; Locustville, VA; December 2010

Last year, at this time, I wrote, "32 years on this Earth, and still I feel like I am opening my eyes for the first time." Now 33, that statement is no less true. Given my stubborn optimism, I presume that it will be true at 43, 53, or 83 (should I survive so long). Still, I wish that I could open my eyes to greater species diversity in the cities that I call home. We humans are an increasingly urban species, and we must take care not to forget about the world's collapsing biodiversity. It isn't just the country folks that benefit from it; we all do, whether we appreciate that fact or not.

All the same, I'm looking forward to hearing the belated birthday croaks from the ravens above the Inner Sunset.

Happy 2011, friends. May it be a rich, sweet, and happy year!

Snow Geese; Heron Hope; Locustville, VA; December 2010

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2010

Friday, December 03, 2010

Red Wolf ESPP Prints Released!

Christopher Reiger
"Constellation (Canis rufus)"
Pen and sumi ink, gouache, and watercolor on Arches paper
15 x 12 inches

My 2010 drawing "Constellation (Canis rufus)" has been made into a limited edition print for the Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP). The drawing features the red wolf (Canis rufus), a critically endangered wolf species.

I wrote the following description of the red wolf and its plight for the ESPP website:
"The Red Wolf (Canis rufus) is a medium-sized North American canid, generally larger than a coyote but smaller than the gray wolf. As the common name suggests, red wolves often have reddish fur on and around their ears, neck, and legs. Like other wolves, the Red Wolf is a social species that lives in packs, groups typically comprised of a mated pair and their offspring (of multiple generations). Red Wolves are crepuscular predators, most active at dusk and at dawn. They prey on white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, and rodents, but are also known to scavenge.

The Red Wolf once occupied a range that extended over the forests, swamps, and coastal plains of the southern and eastern areas of the United States, as far west as Texas and as far north as New York. As with most non-domesticated canines, however, the Red Wolf was vilified as a dangerous competitor of man (and, erroneously, a "man-eater"). These entrenched, negative attitudes gave rise to aggressive predator control campaigns; wolves were poisoned, shot, and trapped. This persecution was compounded by habitat loss and disease, taking a terrible toll on red wolf populations. By 1980, the species was extinct in the wild.

Today, though, there is good news. Thanks to several focused preservation and reintroduction programs, and especially to the efforts of the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) and the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), in conjunction with programs like that at Mill Mountain Zoo, the Red Wolf is staging a small, isolated recovery. There are now approximately 100 wolves living wild in eastern North Carolina and up to 250 individuals in zoo-based captive breeding programs."
As per the ESPP model, this is a limited edition of 100 prints, the number determined by the featured animal's current wild population. The print measures 8 x 10 inches, and costs a mere $50.00. ALL proceeds from sale of the prints will be donated to the Port Defiance Zoo & Aquarium Red Wolf Recovery Program.

As I explain in the ESPP artist notes, my fascination with taxonomy increased my interest in researching this particular species:
"Ecology, wildlife biology, and natural history are subjects that I'm passionate about, and I'm especially intrigued by taxonomy, the classification of different species. The ever-evolving field's binomial nomenclature is chock-a-block with curious etymological backstories and, more importantly, taxonomists are endlessly debating species classification. Names change, species become subspecies (and vice versa), and protected animals become unprotected animals on what seems to be a month-to-month basis! The red wolf is no exception. It's an honor to produce an artwork that may, in some small way, help save a keystone predator from extinction and genetic isolation; I must admit, however, that I also planned to use the print as an excuse to learn more about the particulars of the red wolf taxonomic debate.

Some wildlife biologists insist that the red wolf's scientific name is Canis lupus rufus and that the animal is a subspecies of gray wolf (Canis lupus). Another camp, one that the US Fish & Wildlife Service concurs with, believes the wolf to be a species distinct from the gray wolf. It is their classification, Canis rufus, that I use in the species description above. Frankly, both groups make valid arguments; the different verdicts depend on whether the red wolf is classified according to the biological classification rule (i.e., if Wolf A can make viable pups with Wolf B, the two wolves belong to the same species) or the phenotypic/phylogenetic approach to classification, based on distinct physiological or genetic characteristics. Because the phenotypic/phylogenetic approach leads to a great many more species, it remains a source of contention within wildlife biologist communities and complicates conservation politics, for better and for worse.

Of primary importance, though, are the animals. Whether red wolves are ultimately deemed their own species or a subspecies of gray wolf, they're on the brink of extinction. There is ample cause for hope, however, and you can make that hope a little more concrete by purchasing a print!"
Visit the ESPP site to learn more and, during this holiday season, please consider helping the species by buying a print as a gift.