Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Botswana Notes chapter

5. Hammerhead
What the hammer?
—William Blake (Songs of Experience; The Tiger)
There is a bird in Africa, and only in Africa, called the hammerkopf; that is a German word, meaning “hammer head,” a name based on the bird’s profile. Since 1926, there have been only twenty-three scientific papers published about this species, a number so low that it typically reveals lack of interest in, importance of, or access to, some species, at least in the minds of scientists. That number also reflects what most biologists know well, namely, that our supposed understanding of life on Earth is based on a remarkably small number of organisms, and that the vast majority of known species have rarely been studied beyond their original discovery. And that’s just the ones we know about; based on the rate, and in some cases the ease, of discovery, scientists estimate there are massive numbers of species from bacteria to beetles yet to be found. The hammerkopf thus becomes a symbol of how amazingly ignorant we are of Planet Earth, an ignorance sustained by lack of interest, lack of perceived importance, or lack of access. But like Karen with her lions and fourth grade dreams, I have a personal reason for wanting to see a hammerkopf alive: half a century ago, I was handed a dead one and given a chance to draw its picture.
Lack of interest in the natural world is a relatively modern phenomenon, brought about largely by urbanization and technology. Post-industrial changes in developed nations have diminished our collective concerns for nature by separating us from it, and such separation continues at an accelerating rate during humanity’s so-called Information Age. Admittedly, there are active conservationist movements throughout much of the world, but in 2013, a stroll across almost any college campus provides a glimpse into our future. That kid with ear plugs, his eyes locked on the tiny screen, will run right into you unless you move aside, so don’t expect him to stop by that magnificent linden tree next to the humanities building where he’s headed this morning, read the label, and give even one second’s thought to the origin of that scientific name on the label or the person who described and named Tilia americana back in 1758, or the rich cultural history, going back centuries, associated with this genus—Tilia. And if you tried to talk to him about a hammerkopf, he’d look at you with a blank expression then, maybe, after checking out your clothing and briefcase, ask if it would be on the next exam.
Perhaps if that tree had a hammerkopf nest in it, however, and this young man had to walk around that nest in order to get to class, he might be forced to notice something relatively large, convoluted, and of seemingly inexplicable origin standing between him and his goal, rather like some of the most knotty social and economic problems he’ll face in the next decades, instead of being quite so consumed with whatever is happening at the moment on that little instrument in his hand. If he were on his way to English class, where he knew the assignment for today would be to write, extemporaneously, a highly metaphorical narrative, then the construction of this particular nest, an architectural monstrosity, from commonly found items, would be his ticket to an A+. Or maybe if, instead of seeing a digital image of a hammerkopf on that three inch screen, he’d been handed a dead one, and encouraged to draw its picture, he’d be even more inclined to stop and study that mass of sticks blocking his path to this morning’s calculus quiz. Physical encounters with the real thing affect a mind in ways that computer screens cannot, and the reverse is probably true, too.
In his landmark book, noted biologist E. O. Wilson reminds us that Homo sapiens—the human being—is an extraordinarily social species. Other writers tell us in many different ways that we are also perhaps the most narcissistic of all those organisms that occupy this planet. Information technology promotes that narcissism, pushing it at an accelerating pace to higher and higher levels. If we could actually measure our interest in ourselves, converting that self-fascination into numbers, a graph showing an exponentially increasing narcissism over time would look fairly similar to that showing human population numbers. In other words, we’re shooting upwards faster and faster with no apparent limit in sight. Does this feature of my world make me feel isolated, alone, and abnormal in some way? No, it makes me exceedingly curious about this day’s trip into the Botswana bush, and very privileged, to have spent thousands on the chance that I’ll see a particular kind of bird, a species that lives only in Africa.
Perceived importance is a strictly human trait, one that drives so many of our actions, both individually and socially. It is important to know, for example, how a hammerkopf nest is constructed? The answer depends entirely on the people involved. To the few scientists who actually went to Africa, spent their time and energy trying  to discover the origin of this large, mysterious, phenomenon, such knowledge was obviously important although we don’t know, and can’t discover, why. Was it simple curiosity that sustained them in this work? My guess is: probably. So was it important to them simply to satisfy their curiosity? I hope so. Or did they have access to the birds and nests for some secondary reason, rather like mine, out on a tourist safari watching for lions and elephants but suddenly, as our driver emerges from tangled trees into a floodplain, confronted with this massive ball of vegetation lodged up in a tree? Possibly. Then their study of a hammerkopf nest becomes serendipity, something every scientist knows well.
Sometime during our morning drive, I make a mental note to find out what humanity, actually knows about hammerkopf nests, once I return home half a world away and am able to pull up the past century of scientific reports with a few key strokes. At the time I know only what Joseph Molekoa, our driver-guide, is telling us, and that is plenty: he knows about the inner architecture of these nests, he knows that other birds, including owls and spur-winged geese, also sometimes appropriate them; he knows that both sexes participate in the construction; and, he knows that it often, if not regularly, takes thousands of collecting trips before the nest is complete. I think about that bird-work for a while, watching the nest, taking my pictures, as we negotiate the soggy ground to our Sundowner site and my late afternoon vodka on ice. A pair of crow-sized birds searches six, or eight, or maybe ten, thousand times, through the African vegetation for exactly the right kind and size of sticks, picks them up, carries them to the selected tree, and pokes them in to the growing structure according to some unknown, and perhaps unknowable, set of inherited instructions.
Karen might have her fourth grade dreams and her lions, but I’m saddled with, actually blessed with, that long-ago encounter with George M. Sutton at the University of Oklahoma, the man who handed me the hammerkopf specimen and sat watching, patiently, with a gentle smile, while I drew its picture and made notes of the feather shapes (pointed, on the head). Sutton was a person who knew no bounds when it came to the study of birds, and consequently of all other subjects. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being taught transferable skills, as well as transferable attitudes. For example, in a course entitled “History and Literature of Zoology,” Sutton started his first class with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wind Hover, and in so doing, instantly validated any effort to make similar kinds of associations regardless of what my future colleagues in the Ivory Tower might think about such teaching techniques. Then came that day when Sutton said, in essence, “now you’re going to learn about taxonomy, nomenclature, evolution, and the geographic distribution of various species.” Instead of lecturing, or assigning a section of some textbook on these topics, he handed me a hammerkopf, one that’s he’d borrowed, for that express purpose, from the Field Museum in Chicago.
So I had access to a dead hammerkopf because of a teacher, a museum, and someone long ago who’d shot it and converted it into a “specimen.” My pencil was well-sharpened, 4H, wooden, and yellow, just like the ones John Steinbeck used to write Grapes of Wrath. The paper was plain white, the kind you’d use in a mimeograph machine. The specimen lay on that large, beautifully-finished, oak table in the Bird Range, a WWI-era stables converted to museum research space at the University of Oklahoma. I reached for the bird, held it in my left hand, measured the proportions with my pencil, then marked dots on the page: tip of bill, rictus, depth of bill, placement of the eye, distance from the bill tip to the back of its head. I laid the bird back on the table and began filling in the lines. An hour later, finished with the profile portrait, I made another small drawing—a detailed sketch of some pointed feathers on the head; I made a note about those feathers then wrote more notes below the larger drawing. Later that day I trimmed off one edge of the paper, glued it to another sheet, this one punched for a three-ring binger, and put the page in my Birds of the World notebook. It would be fifty years before I looked at that page again.
At some time during that semester, Sutton obviously examined the picture because he studied everything his students produced, down to the smallest detail. On other pages of this two-inch thick loose-leaf notebook are subtle comments in his tiny script, comments about tiny things only a careful reader would discover. The words themselves were not all that important; I could easily correct small mistakes and misspellings. The fact that he’d caught those little slip-ups told me more about the life of a professional scientist than he could have told me directly. Like all his students, I was allowed to study his paintings, including the unpublished ones, and expected to read his books, especially those in which the paintings were reproduced. Every one of these exquisite watercolors also had notes—small, straight lines of cursive, in pencil—Sutton’s reminders of what he saw and thought at the time he handled a bird. Thus that day, sitting in his Bird Range, hammerkopf on the table in front of my drawing, I did the same:
“bill black
Crown above eye brownish black,
or light chocolate brown (no reddish)
feathers somewhat pointed, smaller
on forehead.
Crest similar color to crown, slightly lighter
Cheek patch & area below eye, distinctly
Lighter, with buff streaks (individual feathers long,
with darker centers and buff edges,)
Throat & lower head, & neck about color of
dark portion of cheek patch.
feathers of cheek, lower crest & back of neck
very loose webbed, neck & throat less so.”
The note directly below the sketch reads
“Scopus umbretta hammerkopf – life size
from specimen on loan from Chicago Mus. Nat. Hist., to GMS.”
The last line of those notes reminds me again what one individual did for the express purpose of giving another person access to a particular kind of animal. Now, half a century after being introduced to an endemic African bird, one that lives only on that continent, I have one regret: at the time I was making that drawing, I was so taken with the privilege of handling the specimen, and so keenly aware of why I’d been given that privilege, that I forgot to write down the information on its foot tag, or even if there was a tag. Now, in the early morning darkness of Lincoln, Nebraska, in an attempt to rectify that mistake made half a century earlier, I join my hypothetical college student by calling on Information Age technology to solve some nagging internal need. I open my computer’s browser, pull up Google®, and type “Field Museum Chicago” into the text window. Exactly fifty seconds later, a second per year, I think, after three more clicks, and the word “Scopus” typed into a dialog box, I get a list of all the hammerkopf specimens in the Field Museum’s research collections. There are exactly fifty such specimens; one specimen per year since I made that sketch. Fifty: seconds, years, specimens. I remind myself that I don’t believe in ghosts, especially ones that live in machines.
With the museum’s spreadsheet right there in front of my eyes, the temptation is simply too great to resist: I wonder if I can figure out which of these specimens was the one I actually handled. By checking collection dates, I immediately narrow the search down to twenty-nine out of the fifty, namely, those collected prior to the time I drew the picture. The latest such specimen, the skin of a male from eastern Kenya, was collected on February 5, 1959. Whomever shot it recorded the weight at the time, 494.6 grams, the color of the iris, brown, and the size of its testes, 3 x 6 mm. Its upper bill, lower bill, and lower leg (tarsus) were all black. The body had “much” fat. This one could not have been the bird I handled; there is too much information about it on record. Such information makes a specimen valuable; a valuable specimen doesn’t get shipped to Oklahoma just so some grad student can draw its picture.
I suggest that whatever you might be thinking, at this very moment, about the relative value of iris color and testes size from a bird shot in eastern Kenya, should be considered a privileged look inside the arcane world of classical biology. That specimen and the notes associated with it are tangible evidence for what the world was like on February 5, 1959. Regardless of what elected officials and the entertainment industry are telling you about what the world is like, or should be like, a specimen—be it bird, insect, or fossil dinosaur—provide irrefutable proof that something lived somewhere when, and that proof can be touched, studied, and confirmed year after year, if necessary. Thus one dead bird has a quality that simply cannot be duplicated by someone designing tiny computers and writing apps to infect the brain of that hypothetical kid we mentioned earlier.
There are three hammerkopf specimens in the Field Museum that have no record of where they were collected. These three are prime suspects for the one I handled. Of those three, two were collected after I drew the picture, so could not have been the one Sutton borrowed. The remaining one, number 378637, has no collection date listed in the database, thus is most likely to be used in teaching. We have no information about its weight, its bill and leg colors, its sex, or the amount of fat in its body. In the database, the subspecies of 378637 is listed as Scopus umbretta umbretta, the trinomial indicating it was likely collected somewhere in southern Africa, instead of west Africa or Madagascar, a conclusion probably based on bill size. In a land mass larger than the combined areas of China, India, western Europe, England, Argentina, and the United States, a single bird died, perhaps, if not probably, as a result of gun shot, ended up being skinned, stuffed with cotton, laid on its back to dry, and delivered by some unknown means, and unknown reason, to Chicago, where is probably still lies in a wooden tray within a tightly-sealed, white, steel cabinet.
In my mind, this bird becomes the one George Sutton borrowed so that I could hold it in my own two hands and draw its picture. I can envision its current resting place, following its return to the Field Museum, because I’ve worked in museum research collections before, opening those same kinds of cases, smelling the chemicals used to keep insects out, and handling other specimens. But in 1963 a man gave me access to a dead hammerkopf, and by doing so he also provided me with a world of knowledge about the distribution of life on Earth and our efforts to understand how life exists on the only planet known to support it. That world of knowledge was not written on the bird’s foot tag, and didn’t even exist in my mind at the time. Instead, it was implanted in my brain as a desire, a desire to learn whatever I could about Scopus umbretta, a desire to be a teacher of the sort that would borrow an unusual specimen “simply” to let some student handle it.
The lack of collection data meant that although the bird was of no scientific value, so could be borrowed for teaching purposes by an established faculty member at some university, it was nevertheless enormously valuable to one individual, a person who would, years later, also be a teacher looking for unusual tricks to combat those infectious little hand-held devices capturing the minds of young humans, turning them—I sometimes imagined—into intellectual zombies. Next to the bed, in our tent-cabin deep in the heart of the Okavango Delta, is a lamp decorated with rows of cowry shells. These marine shells used as currency for millennia, shipped like some hammerkopf specimen for thousands of miles, buried in tombs analogous to those white steel cabinets, have been replaced by real money—printed, minted, and electronically transferred when used to by a souvenir at a tourist safari camp. What once might have purchased a slave or a wife now makes a pattern glued on a lamp beside a tourist’s bed.
But cowry shells are, like number 378637 lying in its wooden tray beside elite specimens, or a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem in the hands of the right person, powerful weapons in my war against all those forces competing for the minds of young Americans. And so I would use that Sutton teaching technique many times over the next forty years, passing out not birds, but shells, to literally thousands of students, asking them to draw pictures and write essays about those specimens, compare their structures to paintings and sculptures seen in an art gallery, then return them to me, like Sutton must have returned that hammerkopf to the Field Museum. Access to dead animals is not so difficult for those of us in the business. It’s the live ones that are a problem.
But access to a live hammerkopf is not such a big problem after all so long as you have a nice place to stay in Botswana, a Land Rover, and Joseph Molekoa as your driver. Seba Camp is the nice place; our tent is, like those at Banoka, a beautifully constructed canvas home with front porch, king-sized bed, electricity, a shower, sink and toilet, clean, fluffy, towels, insect repellant and an emergency air horn, and large pictures of Kalahari aborigines across the headboard. The men in these pictures are smoking something, not typical cigarettes or cigars, but something that looks like a dark twisted root, although one of them has a pipe. The Land Rover is a given. And Joseph is, like Chris Nyame, an expert guide. So when he sees a hammerkopf busy poking in a tire track puddle twenty yards ahead, he stops.
“Hammerkopf,” he says, pointing. I aim the camera, zooming in for the exact photograph I want to see back home in a couple of weeks: the whole bird in profile, or perhaps facing us but with its head turned to the right, and its body reflected in the puddle. I take picture after picture, zooming in, zooming out, cursing the autofocus that seems to believe a grass seed head is more important to me than Scopus umbretta, and in the process demonstrating once again how technology takes control of one’s life, if you let it.
I didn’t expect it to be this easy, nor did I expect a hammerkopf to be quite so disdainful of our presence. From that ornithological homework done fifty years earlier, under the tutelage of George Sutton, I’d come to think of certain species as exotic rarities, things you read about, and see pictures of, maybe in National Geographic, but never, in your entire life, expect to encounter. Yet here we are, sitting patiently, with some kind of feeling that I cannot explain, watching this bird with so little concern for either me or my interest in it. Evidently, in my mind, the species’ taxonomic singularity also implied the probability of ever seeing one, namely, near or at zero. Thus I sit there in the Land Rover, taking pictures like a regular tourist, but mentally I’m the quintessential, off-the-scale, nerd: here, I’m thinking, is a member of a monotypic family, endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. C’mon, bird, now turn just a little more so your reflection makes a nice composition.
The scientific name is Scopus umbretta, but at various times and places, this crow-sized, heron-like, species has been called not only hammerkopf, but also hamerkop, hammer head, umbrette, anvil head, umber bird, tufted umber, and hammer-headed stork. Hamerkop is the Afrikaans name, but the various African language names are far more colorful: Zulus call it uThekwane; Tsongas know it as Mandonzwana; to the Swazi it’s Tsekwane, and in Tswana, the lingua franca of Botswana, it’s Mmamasiloanokê. If we’d had Google when I was a student in the 1960s, I’d have memorized those African tribal names and used them instead of the German, just out of orneriness. And out in the bush with Joseph fifty years later, I’d have used Mmamasiloanokê, assuming I could pronounce it, although given my total ignorance of whatever he speaks on the radio to other driver-guides, I might have insulted him terribly. Yes, in the minds of scientists, that brown bird poking in the tire track puddle twenty yards ahead can indeed bring forth this train of thoughts about language, history, culture, and communication.
The hammerhead belongs to a monotypic family, which means that it is the only member of the bird family Scopidae. In lay terms, that phrase “monotypic family” means that ornithologists were never able to find enough structural similarity between the hammerkopf and other birds to warrant inclusion in an existing family, for example Ardeidae, containing all the world’s herons, or Ciconiidae, which includes species of storks. In other words, this strange beast has no obvious close relatives, at least in an evolutionary sense. Nor, evidently, does it have clearly-defined distant relatives. Some scientists place this family among the herons and storks, in a group named the Order Ciconiiformes; others place it in with the pelicans and their relatives, in the Order Pelicaniformes. Scientists argue over data; that’s what we do; any disagreement over classification of Mmamasiloanokê is as natural to us as conflicting opinions on when human life actually begins during a reproductive event commonly known as “unprotected sex.”
However, molecular techniques have empowered biological scientists in ways never imagined by Darwin. The net result, and not just with hammerkopf classification, is an admission that appearance can easily hide one’s history, although most of us knew that already from reading fiction that had nothing whatsoever to do with birds, or any other non-human living creatures. But the scientific literature tells me that the molecular wizards have yet to answer the ornithological question about Scopus umbretta: are its closest relatives herons, or storks, or even pelicans? All it would take is a cotton swab inside the mouth of that one out there in the tire track puddle, swabs just like ones taken from alleged criminals, or innocent men protesting their convictions, swabs sent to some lab that we all assume does its work correctly. Back would come the results: a long list of letters that spell “hammerkopf genetic makeup.” We would compare that list with similar ones from herons, storks, and pelicans. The answer would be clear: the hammerkopf is really a __________.
“What is it?” is still the most persistent of all questions about nature. We believe we can answer that question correctly with DNA, the very genes some creature carries deep inside its cells, the evidence of its ancestors. Ancestors make us who we are, and that assertion applies not only to African birds but every other living organism, including those getting their massage from a Land Rover seat. But the DNA answer deludes us, no less than one correct multiple choice test answer deludes both a teacher and a student, into thinking we’ve solved a puzzle. The puzzle we seem to have solved with this molecular answer is similar to ones presumably solved by some college kid walking across campus locked into his smart phone, ignoring landscape vegetation and bird calls. There is no context to a strand of chemical compounds: no rain puddle, no thirty or forty digital images of a single bird, no massive nest, no museum specimen locked away in Chicago, no biologist looking for a drawing he made half a century ago, and no pointed feathers on the head.
What’s the “take home” from an African hammerkopf in a tire track rain puddle? The answer is simple if you’re an ornithology student, but my hope is to make that answer simple for everyone and every species—large, small, plant, animal, fungus—added to the list, and here it is: as is the case with most of what we see in nature, the specific leads to the general; like in a novel, the life and times of one becomes the experience of us all. The fact that Scopus umbretta occurs only in sub-Saharan Africa immediately makes you wonder what else is restricted to this continent that’s so often embroiled in indescribable violence yet retains a kind of beauty that must be seen to be understood.
©John Janovy, Jr.

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