There’s an Isle, a green Isle, set in the sea…

If you guessed Jean Blewett wrote this poem for Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day you are right. But the first line is also a good fit to New Zealand’s green islands.

Before Maoris and Europeans arrived in the past thousand years, the two islands were covered with lush vegetation up to the tree line on the highest mountains.  Like the deep, fertile soils of the American Mid-West, New Zealand was too valuable to be left to nature. After the trees were felled, the rich volcanic sod created prime grazing land, and I have never seen a higher density of contented cattle and sheep. Virgin forest survives in the north only in tiny patches and on mountainous outcrops that discouraged farming and logging.  But one of those gems remains 30 minutes from Hamilton.

Called Maungatautari, it was owned by a Maori Queen whose opposition to land sale was respected after her death in 1927. But by then the patch was no longer primeval forest land; it had become invaded through stealth or deliberate introduction by non-native plants and varmints—goats, deer, possums, stoats, rats, mice, feral cats and dogs. New Zealand never had a native mammal because it separated from the southern supercontinent (Gondwana) 85 million years ago, before they evolved. With few predators, the country was a haven for birds, and many of them lost the power of flight. The giant moas disappeared rapidly into Maori cooking pots, and four-footed beasts hunted down the rest or robbed their nests. A few refugees hung on in remote offshore islands.

Maungatautara forest sanctuary
Maungatautara pest-proof fence

Then some unsung hero of conservation had the bold idea of creating an ‘island’ sanctuary for native species on the mainland. It inspired a community-driven project to encircle Maungatautari with a fence deep enough to discourage burrowers, strong enough to keep out marauders, and tall enough to deter climbers, including possums reaching a ‘live’ wire at the top. The fence encloses 3,400 hectares (over 8,000 acres) and stretches for 47 km (30 miles). Completed in 2004, it was paid for by public subscription and grants and is maintained by a bevy of volunteers working the equivalent of 37 full-time staff.

Maungatautari foundation plaque

They probably had many discouraging moments and encountered plenty of doubters, as there always will be with pioneering endeavors, but their efforts are already paying off. Foreign predators and pests have been completely eliminated from within the enclosure, except for mice. The numbers of native vertebrate species have increased four-fold through a reintroduction program. There are kokopu (native fish), kaka (parrot), takahe (endangered species of rail), hihi (stichbird), karariki (parakeet), tieke (saddleback).  The tuatara (the world’s oldest lizard) and the weta (the largest insect) are there. The Maungatautari forest sanctuary is an experiment in recreating a natural forest, a laboratory for education, and an inspiring example of a community achievement.

Pippa’s introduction to kaka parrots
mamaku tree fern

When you leave farmland behind to enter the sanctuary through double gates the forest gathers around you. The vegetation is luxuriant and the high canopy shields your skin from damaging ultra-violet rays pouring down through the ozone hole at that latitude. Boles of giant rimu trees are crowded with lianas ascending to the crown as thick as a man’s arm. Giant tree ferns look like relics from the Carboniferous Period (they are), creating spectacular patterns against the blueness at breaks in the canopy. Only the sound of trickling streams or the raucous call of a parrot breaks the silence of this natural cathedral.

brown kiwi
brown kiwi

But come at night and you will hear more—shy creatures going about their business. The brown kiwis are whistling a happy tune again after a century of absence. A warden who trained his dog to find nests discovered they had already started breeding again in 2007. The first chick was named Huatahi, meaning ‘first of the new fruits.’

The next time I visit the sanctuary I hope to hear the flightless kakapo which has been on the verge of extinction. I am told its nocturnal call will make my hair stand on end as I wait for the iconic bird in the darkness of that amazing forest. How appropriate that the kakapo is a symbol for conservation in New Zealand and Sirocco, an abandoned chick raised by hand, has over 30,000 likes on his Facebook page. He is a green parrot for a green movement on a green isle.

Next Post: Warmingsburg


NZAirThis post is scheduled to go online while I am flying over the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to Los Angeles.  It is a journey of 10,500 kilometers (6,500 miles) and about 12 hours. That’s a long flight, although short of the record held by Qantas for the route from Sydney to Dallas, a distance of 13,880 km (8,500 miles) which takes 15 h 25 min by a Boeing 747-400.

Until fairly recently it was hard to imagine an airplane conveying more than 500 people so far in a single hop. Although marvels of engineering, modern aircraft are still nothing like as breathtaking as the tiny fliers created by nature.

A few weeks after I leave Auckland, thousands of bar-tailed godwits will be taking off from New Zealand for their breeding grounds near the Arctic Circle. They will stop once around the Yellow Sea to refuel on seafood for putting on fat for the second leg of the journey. Soon after their family duties in Alaska are over they will complete the circle by returning to New Zealand. No other creature migrates as far or faster or without stopping than godwits on their flight south.

These are wading birds weighing a little over 500 g (1 lb). You may see them probing mudflats on stilt-like legs with long bills that look as if they were dipped in black ink. Like long distance aircraft, including 747’s, godwits have large wings for their bulk.

During a long flight their brain shuts down one side at a time to ‘sleep,’ rather like a co-pilot taking turns at the controls of a jet to give the captain a break. And like a long-haul jet they pile fuel onboard with voracious appetites before setting off. Half their body weight is burned off on the trans-Pacific route, so they arrive at their destination with ‘tanks’ almost empty. Flying economy is critical for a bird that can’t stop to feed while crossing the Pacific, but at altitudes of 3-4 km they find favorable winds to save energy.

It is just as important for birds to avoid getting lost as for aircraft. Godwits fix their course from the sun, analyzing polarized light on cloudy days, and navigating by the stars at night. Crossing from northern to southern skies doesn’t confuse them. We might fly round in circles without our instruments.

whimbrel migration
The whimbrel Hope fitted with a telemeter by Virginia ornthologists. Courtesy Fletcher Smith.

The migration routes and stopping places of godwits have been mapped by fitting them with feather-weight satellite telemeters on their backs. One of them, a female code-named E7, was tracked for nearly 30,000 km over six months. After waiting for a tailwind E7 departed Alaska on August 30 and arrived in New Zealand only 8 days later having traveled 11,700 km (7,270 miles) at average speeds of 50-60 km/ hour. She stayed there with 100,000 others throughout the warm southern spring and summer.

The same bird began her return journey to Alaska on March 17 of the following year. She arrived in China 7 days later after flying 10,300 km (6,400 miles). Six weeks later she was on her way again and arrived in Alaska on May 8 after a 6 day flight of 6,500 km (4,040 miles). Instead of collapsing with exhaustion and jet-lag as we might after a long journey, godwits are soon busy dating because raising a family in the short breeding season mustn’t be delayed.

While I waited in Auckland for my flight I was musing which of us was the more economical traveler, energy-wise.  Would it be the small bundle of fat and feathers or a passenger squeezed between others in a fuselage? I made some rough calculations on the back of an envelope (quite literally), to confirm my suspicions.

Birds and airplanes burn different types of fuel but their calorific values can be compared. Assuming the same as human adipose tissue, godwit fat has an energy value of 30 MJ/ kg. This is not so very different to jet fuel at 46 MJ/ kg.

If E7 lost half her weight on her longest journey by burning most of her fat, say 300 g, she would have consumed 9,000 KJ.

A Boeing 747 burning 70,000 kg of jet fuel on my route to L.A. consumes 3,220,000,000 KJ.  This is a rate of 20 liters or 5 gallons per mile, but much more at take-off.

This titanic energy looks more moderate when you divide it by the number of passengers onboard which is, conservatively, 500. Then it drops to 6,440,000 KJ per person. Although this still seems enormous, jets are in fact more economical with fuel for transporting a passenger than an automobile over the same distance (unless the car is fully-occupied when they are about the same).

But it still isn’t a fair comparison because an average passenger like myself weighs 70 kg (~160 lb), equivalent to about 150 birds. So, last of all, I divided energy by body weight to find—

godwits consume 460 J (1,900 cal) per kilogram per kilometer traveled,

whereas I burn 9,000 J (157,000 cal) for the same weight and distance.

We travel by airplane only 5% as efficiently as godwits. I never expected to outdo a bird that has perfected its flying machine over eons of natural selection. Feathers motored by muscles will always beat alloy propelled by aviation fuel, but what we lose in economy we gain in speed. Icarus take note.

Next Post: Warmingsburg

Dog Smart


“I used to think my human was smart, but I now realize he only looks that way.

I know I shouldn’t be anthropomorphic about one I’m particularly fond of.”


Did you ever suspect that dogs often turn out looking like their owners—or the other way round?

…the portly owner of a British bulldog…the old lady with a blue rinse and a coiffed poodle in her arms…the greasy-haired young man in a leather jacket leading a pair of snarling pitbull terriers… Yes they are caricatures, but we have all seen them. And now there’s research to prove an association.

Lance Workman has been collaborating with the British Kennel Club to find out if there is any correlation between dogs and their owners for what psychologists call the “big five” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and anxiety. After analyzing questionnaires returned by 1,000 pedigree dog owners Workman concluded, “We go for dogs that are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner like us.” The breed predicted its owner’s personality: owners of working dogs were more extroverted, hound owners more emotionally stable, gun dog owners more affable, and toy dog owners were “an open and imaginative bunch.”

It makes sense if our dogs resemble us in some ways because either we chose the dog or it chose us. People domesticated them thousands of years ago because they are smart animals that can share a slice of our emotional lives. We sometimes overestimate them, treating our pets like cute little hairy people. I don’t think it’s wrong to hold that attitude because they are more likely to be the lucky ones showered with love and care from their owners. It is when we underestimate their intelligence and emotions that they are more likely to be treated shabbily. I used to visit an old farmer from New York who contradicted me when I explained the rich emotional life I have with our golden retriever. “It’s only a dog,” he’d say. But I still believe I am nearer the truth because I live closer to the animal.

Of course they have a wide range of abilities and personalities: smart ↔ dumb, placid↔aggressive, et cetera.  Dogs bred for working or hunting are generally at or near the top of the scale, except for poodles (no airheads). We like to be praised for owning a smart dog, as if it reflects on our own brains. It’s safer not to mix compliments like, “For a dumb breed he’s a magnificent specimen,” to a chow chow owner.

Some animal behaviorists used to deny that dogs have much emotional life. That seems ludicrously false to dog owners and is now contradicted by modern research (Ádám Miklósi, Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition). The controversy now centers on what emotions they can express. Love of their owner, joy at greeting a friendly face, and fear of punishment are all transparent emotions which they never conceal as we sometimes do. Expressions of love almost overwhelm some dogs, like the black lab greeting the soldier returning after six months deployment. If we say that a dog only loves when it is rewarded, is that so very different to the bonding of human hearts by more subtle rewards?

Perhaps the fame of Pavlov’s experiments gave some people the impression that dogs are little more than furry automatons. But we too learn automatic responses to coupled stimuli, including salivation to the sound of a dinner gong like the conditioned reflex in his dogs. Dog training and learning, and a good deal of human education, is owing to associations made between a voluntary behavior and a reward or punishment. The stock example is giving your pet a treat for returning a ball, which psychologists call ‘operant conditioning’.  That’s how working dogs, Grace and other smart dogs are trained to look so brilliant.

A really big brain isn’t needed to express the basic emotions like love, joy, and fear, but it helps build a larger repertoire. I carried out a simple experiment on my three-year-old golden retriever to test her learning ability, but she educated me.

dog intelligence
“Be patient, I’ll figure it out”

Taking advantage of her high motivation for food, I prepared three empty crème brûlée dishes. I wiped the insides with her favorite treat, peanut butter, so she couldn’t tell which concealed the reward. I turned each dish upside down, and stuck a US postage stamp on the one containing the blob of peanut butter. Then I lifted each in turn to show her where it was, and finally switched their positions in her plain sight. The experiment was repeated over and over ending up with different positions.

When I gave the release command she knew there was a reward at stake. We would have gone immediately to the dish labeled with the stamp, but she nosed each dish in turn again and again. Finally she came to the right answer. It is possible that despite my efforts the dish hiding the treat had a stronger odor than controls, but I think her strategy was to check her olfactory bulb first and hippocampus second.

Dogs trust their noses and ears more than their short-term memories which are not as sharp as ours. This is certainly a carry-over over from wolf ancestors, but dogs have a unique stock of behavior and an emotional intelligence that has been molded by domestication. Over the generations the two have been apart, gene expression in the hypothalamus has diverged which might explain differences in emotions and hormonal and autonomic responses.

Of the more complex emotions I’m sure dogs can express jealousy because ours proves it every time we walk together. She protests by jumping and barking when a neighbor’s dog pays me too much attention. Charles Darwin, a dog-lover, had no doubt “that a dog feels shame” (The Descent of Man, 1871). And when dog owners were polled recently, half of them believed their dogs can express grief and guilt. Judging by the viral video of Denver the dog who stole kitty cat treats guilt is written all over his expressive face video. But animal behaviorists look for other explanations, although none are as entertaining as guilt.

There is no doubt that dogs really care what we think of them, and they are amazingly sensitive to our body language. John Bradshaw, who studies dog behavior in Bristol, England, says that “at present, then, there has to be considerable doubt about whether dogs can actually experience an emotion similar to our guilt”. Perhaps we do misinterpret a low wagging tail and avoidance of eye contact, which may be conditioned by their anxiety to please us.

So they may be reacting to our behavior instead of an internal feeling. It is imponderable how much self-awareness a dog has, but perhaps not a great deal. They live very much in the present and we can confuse them by punishment after the fact.

If dogs have weak powers of reasoning and learn mainly by trial and error that doesn’t make them stupid. They have impressive powers of recall and skill retention. Theirs is a different kind of intelligence, and if we make much of the confusion we cause each other by sending misleading signals between the sexes we ought to admit greater misunderstanding of our pets.

Our golden was right. Her expectations of me were too high, because her owner is both smart and stupid. But he is trying to do better.

Next Post: Wings