Drove down to the Bosque del Apache today to see the birds. Mom and Dad joined us:

Picture of Mom and Dad
picture by Lissa Heineman

The chief attraction is sandhill cranes:

Picture of cranes and geese
picture by Me

It was a pretty cold day, as you can tell by Mom and Dad’s bundleosity in the picture above, but much of the bird-watching at the Bosque del Apache can be done from the comfort of a heated car, a network of dirt roads winding through an artificial wetland created by humans to save birds.

I’m in the midst of reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which plays with the premise that domesticated plants – the apple and tulip, for example – have been engaged for years in a sort of coevolution with us, exploiting our desire for the sweet and pretty to extend the reach of their genomes. In that framework, the sandill crane is pretty interesting. It’s a magnificent bird that we’ve gone to great trouble at the Bosque del Apache and elsewhere to save, pulling it back from near extinction in the 1930s. We’re often less successful saving less attractive creatures from extinction, I think. Pollan’s on to something.

Though there’s an interesting sidebar to be worked out here involving spandrels and the snow goose. I wish I could find a better link on Google to explain spandrels so I don’t have to, but it’s an analogy from a 1979 paper by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. They point to the spandrels in San Marcos Cathedral in Venice, gorgeous painted architectural features created in these weird corner bits left over in the space where two arches meet. It’s hard to visualize, but the Gould-Lewontin point is that there wasn’t a great plan to create these cool spaces, just a clever use of a bit of architectural leftovers. The evolutionary metaphor is that sometimes features are just an evolutionary exploitation of junk, scraps – like jaw bones becoming the bits in the inner ear.

So what does this have to do wiith Pollan, sweet apples, cranes and snow geese? You can use the Pollan theme to explain the cranes – big majestic birds who have evolutionarily exploited our fondness for big majestic birds. We grow corn for them, and build great refuges. But the snow geese? They’re exploiting a spandrel. They’re a pest, vastly overpopulated as they hang in farmer Brown’s field. Coyotes are exploiting spandrels, too. While the wolf has seen its range drop almost to nothing, coyotes have expanded in the presence of European humans’ spread across the Americas. And tumbleweeds. Man, those suckers have found a spandrel. When we cut down the stuff that was in their way, they rolled from the Dakotas all across this great land of ours, exploiting our spandrel.

There’s some work required here to sort out the details, but I think there’s a fun piece in here somewhere if I can think a bit harder about it.

That’s as maybe, of course, because the main deal was that we had a great day today, Lissa, Mom and Dad and I looking at magnificent birds and shivering against the wind.


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