Cats, Coyotes and the Sixth Mass Extinction

This could seriously use a rewrite but I’ll post it as is for now . . . . When coyotes wiped out all the cats outdoors—strays and pets let outside alike—the number of bird species we’d see about tripled. You could even hear it in the variety of songs, even the motherfuckers with the vocal range of a smoke alarm who start their incessant idiot one note song about dawn. Anyway, the now long endemic local coyote population was a sad thing for the cats, but great for the local bird population. The rat and mouse population exploded without all the cats, but that brought in the owls (two or three different species) who were more effective at rodent extermination than the cats. Without the rodents and stray cat kittens, though, the hawk population has dropped, and they no longer land on our railing and stare into our living room, wondering if we have any small animals or babies in there.

I love cats, though. We’ve had I don’t know how many. But I can’t help seeing them as the perfect hunting machines that they are, as perfectly evolved as sharks are for hunting, and, like sharks, they’ve varied little over their millions of years from their fundamental design. There might not be any other mammal as perfectly designed for hunting as are cats. And they do it so easily. They can kill a dozen birds a night and have no idea the whole point was to eat the thing. Alas for housecats, the social structure and improvisational hunting skills of the coyote means housecats are easy meat, and coyotes don’t waste time playing with their catch, they eat them. But make a cat bigger than a coyote and it’s no contest. Coyotes don’t eat cougars, but are a regular feature on a cougar’s palate. Revenge. The natural world is kind of fucked and heartless when you think about it.

Cats are one of the drivers of the sixth mass extinction. Not the undomesticated species of wildcats, but felis catus, the house cat. We multiplied the population of one of the world’s most effective small hunters by hundreds of millions (worldwide there are over 200 million pet cats and about a half billion strays), and dropped them in places where often native cats never existed and they’ve decimated bird, small mammal and reptile populations often to the point of extinction. It’s not an even fight, and coyotes here in Southern California are about the only sure fire way to limit bird predation. Where coyotes go, bird populations follow. Cats, like rats, come with people and where they go species loss follows. Every time you see a new residential neighborhood in an undeveloped spot you have to figure that most of native birds in the area will be wiped out by cats in very short order. Sadly, the vast majority of birds killed by cats are never eaten. Eating a bird is a learned behavior, hunting is a built in skill. So coyotes are just sort of resetting the balance, wiping out introduced predators and letting the bird populations recover. A very rare reversal of the Sixth Mass Extinction.

La Brea tar pits

We’re so used to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles we don’t even realize just how incredibly cool and bizarre it is that such a place is right there on the Miracle Mile. One of my favorite places and museums. Saw a pigeon trapped in one of the little pools of tar there once. A thin veneer of water laid on top of the tar, and the pigeon had just walked on in as a pigeon will. It sat there, doomed, illustrating how the thing worked. That was at least twenty years ago, and it’s bones were long ago sucked down into the tar and eventually, in an instant of geologic time, will fossilize into a beautifully preserved skeleton of a pigeon. Still, I felt really sorry for the little thing.

Ciconia maltha from the La Brea Pits. Not a pigeon.

Crows

This is wild. Crows in this study could tell that recordings of people speaking Japanese (the language of the researchers) was different from recordings of people speaking Dutch. We can’t do that listening to birds. Unless we were a highly trained specialist, we couldn’t distinguish between mockingbird songs in one part of the country from mockingbird songs in another part of the country, though each song has a ‘dialect” that makes them mutually unintelligible. All the mockingbird would know is that another mockingbird is yelling at it. It has to learn to sing in the local dialect (meaning mockingbirds have learned cultures, actually.) But when a crow hears recordings of humans speaking different languages, it can tell that we are not speaking the same language, and it reacts to them differently. They were used to Japanese. They were wary of the recording in Dutch. What were they hearing? Japanese isn’t tonal like Chinese, so it’s not that the crows can tell that one is melodic and the other not. Can they detect the different phonemes (the vowel and consonant sounds) the languages use? Can they distinguish stresses, like what part of a sentence rises or drops? Can they detect the specific rhythms or sound patterns of grammar? How is it that a goddam bird can tell if a person is speaking Dutch or speaking Japanese while we with our enormous brains can’t tell if a recording of a mockingbird screaming at five in the morning is in Southern California Mockingbirdese or Danish Mockingbirdese? I can write about the concept of a crow distinguishing human languages, but damn if I can imagine what it is they actually hear in our human sounds.

Mockingbirds

Listening to these mockingbirds improv reminds me of a factoid I read today in Daniel Tammet’s Embracing the Wide Sky that in order for male songbirds to sing some of the incredibly complex songs which change constantly, up to one per cent of the neurons in their song center are replaced by new neurons every single day, which adds up pretty quickly. That’s what those mockingbird brains are doing, rebuilding themselves continuously. Not adding brain cells to what is there already, but replacing them. It’s as if in order to speak we had to replace 100% of the neurons in our language center every 100 days. That is, all the grammar we’ve hardwired into our brain is replaced by entirely new brain cells with all new intricately laced connections between them four times a year. It’s not quite that simple (some of the neurons in the mockingbird’s song center will be replaced more often than others and others are more permanent), but still, our grammar and vocabulary would completely and fundamentally change over a period of a hundred days. Not all at once, but a little everyday so that you’d be speaking a completely different language in April from what you were speaking on January 1. I’m writing this in English now and a hundred days from now I’d be writing this in Armenian, and next year in Sioux. Plus I’d wake you up at five in the morning screaming outside your window.

Owls

I could hear a pair of great horned owls calling to each other just now, first the female’s somewhat higher pitch, sort of like that of a mourning dove. Then the male’s deeper, louder response. They alternated like that for several minutes. Each call was five or six notes in a monotone, breathy and eerie, and by day would be buried under the cacophony of mockingbirds, but in the weird silence of our neighborhood tonight, like a country town and not just a couple miles from Hollywood and downtown, I could hear them plainly even though the windows are shut. I snuck outside to see if I could glimpse a silhouette, but nothing, just the haunting notes back and forth. Soon only the female called, the male having stolen away in silence. Then she too stopped, and there was almost complete silence but for the steady hum of traffic on the freeway in the distance.