Domestic Cats

Michael Ellis

The hermit thrush was near exhaustion when it landed in a Bishop pine on the Inverness Ridge. It was a young male and this was his first migration. Two days earlier he had left a protected area in Oregon when the night sky had finally cleared. A star map was genetically fixed in the birds brain and he instinctively knew which direction to fly. But the temperature had dropped during the early morning, only a few degrees above, there wasn’t much body fat left on this bird. Suffering from hypothermia he barely survived the night. But now he was safe, weakened but at least alive on the wintering grounds in mellow Marin.

The thrush was raised high in a Sitka spruce in south east Alaska. He was one of four chicks. The insect population was lower than usual this past summer and his parents could only manage to support him and one sibling, the other two hatchlings died of starvation. As the days decreased in length his internal alarm clock went off. It was time to fly south for the winter.

The little girl was so delighted to be in their new house in the country. After living in a city her entire eight year old life, she was finally surrounded by nature. Trees, birds, and squirrels were just outside her window. And one night as they were coming home late from a party, they had even glimpsed a fox in their headlights. Her father thought it would be neat to get a dog, a cat and maybe even some chickens. So they did.

When the first rays of the winter sun hit the thrush, he let out a soft whistle. That took so much energy he didn’t do it again. He flew down on the forest floor and started searching for food under the leaves and pine needles. After eating a half-frozen sow bug, a sluggish millipede, two rather puny earthworms, he was just about to swallow a spider when a dark shape leaped toward him. He immediately flew up but it was too late. He was caught in the jaws of a cat.

The thrush’s heart was racing, every muscle in his little body was straining against the predator. Death was near. He went limp and the powerful grip of the cat was relaxed. The thrush waited a moment and then sprung out of the mouth, free but only not for long. He was immediately batted down to the ground. The force of the blow broke his left wing, flight was now impossible. The teeth of the cat entered his body, he felt his ribs being crushed. That was the thrush’s last awareness.

Nobody ever wanted to be the first one downstairs in the morning. On the kitchen floor there was often a grisly scene. Regurgitated mouse intestines, feathers matted with blood and one time there was a frightened baby brush rabbit cowering behind the sink. The person had to deal with the mess.

The little girl was first in the kitchen this morning. Her cat proudly deposited the wet lump of the little bird at her feet. She picked it up, it was unconscious but its tiny heart was still beating. She cupped the bird in her hand and held it as it took its last breath and it died as she watched.

She was still crying when her father came down. He didn’t hold his daughter and share her pain; he didn’t acknowledge her empathy and sorrow for the dead bird. Instead he used words. “Don’t cry, it’s natural. Cats always kill birds. It’s survival of the fittest and the bird lost. Let’s have some breakfast, you’ll feel better.”


Most wild bird populations are decreasing due to habitat destruction by humans. Birds and other wild animals are having a tough time making it these days. House cats are not native to North America. They were probably first domesticated in the Near East from a wild cat called Felis sylvestris. Bobcats, foxes and weasels are the dominant native predators in our area.

The five million house cats in England kill 20 million song birds every year. Let me repeat that, 20 million birds every single year are killed by cats in a nation of alleged bird lovers. In addition to killing birds, cats also terrorize and kill field mice, moles, shrews, wood rats, gophers, lizards, snakes, bats, and even butterflies. These animals are an integral part of the environment.

Well-fed house cats kill as many animals as other cats. Cats make great indoor pets and can bring comfort to the elderly and infirm. Cats are not evil or cruel, they are useful around farms and cities for killing Norway rats and house mice (introduced pests from Europe). All cats should be neutered. If you insist on letting your cat outdoors then it should always wear a bell, preferably a five pound one. If you profess to care for the wild things on our planet and you let your cat run free, you are a hypocrite.

Campaign Songs

Michael Ellis

“As a man must speak, so a bird must sing,To complete a full life story.He sings to survive, to mate, to thrive,To defend his territory. by Joel Peters

Dare I compare the shrill, squeaky voice of Ross Perot to the liquid notes of a meadowlark? Or the senseless, unfinished chatter of George Bush to the rich melody of a Swainson’s thrush? Or the harsh, guttural grunts of Bill Clinton to a bubbling winter wren? I shouldn’t, but I will anyway.During the final stages of the Presidential campaign I was struck by the power of language to excite, anger and depress me. Each candidate was warbling his song, trying to sway the masses with his sound bites. I kept imagining all three men as birds, perched on fence posts yakking away in the open field of the media. A song, according to ornithologists, is usually sung by a male under the influence of testosterone. So far, so good. It consists of a series of sounds that can be repeated note for note. The song is used to define and control a territory (or an electorate). Some of the recent political songs were “The economy is not that bad.” “Are ya with me?” “It’s time for a change.”

There are other sounds emitted by birds known as calls. These are used “to rally a flock for collective action, to hold a flock together, to intimidate and drive away enemies or competitors.” Well, this sounds like a political campaign to me. But unfortunately this political/biological analogy breaks down. Because songs are not only used to secure territories but also to attract mates. And we all know that the recent crop of Presidential candidates all support traditional family values. They are members of intact family units and would never croon to attract another mate outside the family circle. Would you, Bill? At least not under the intense scrutiny of the media. Male birds on the other hand regularly mate with more than one female. Birds spend a tremendous amount of time and energy singing. One red-eyed vireo sang 22,197 songs in the course of one day! And one tropical manakin spent 86% of his waking time singing. These are amazing statistics but even more amazing is that some researcher actually counted these songs. Singing is clearly very important for survival. By spending this much energy, male birds demonstrate their vigor and fitness to other males and to females. I sing therefore I am good. I campaign through the night therefore I am Presidential.

Now there are a few female birds that sing, mockingbirds, Yellow-headed grosbeaks, song sparrows, and northern orioles. And if you inject female white-crowned sparrows with testosterone, they’ll sing. Are you listening Diane, Barbara and Lynne? The bottom line in birds and politicians is the same. You gotta deliver after you sing. Male birds that do manage to drive off other males and attract a female, must then mate with her, help incubate the eggs, and feed the young. Successful candidates after defeating their opponent must now deliver on all those promises to the populace. Governor Clinton, rest your singing


Michael Ellis
Oct. 31, 1995

Hollywood has never let facts get in the way of entertainment, especially when it comes to portraying animals in the movies. The litany of distorted and exaggerated creatures is long: The Birds, The Frogs, The Fly, The Killer Bees, King Kong, Them (about giant ants), Jaws, Willard the Rat, and Piranha Piranha. I recently read that there is a new crop of movies on the way about that perennial favorite — vampire bats. Most modern people have enough trouble relating to nature without film makers exploiting this discomfort for profit.

As a biologist I am always concerned with movies that contain some factual information, that is mixed with fantasy. People tend to accept these movies as total truth. I am still dealing with the effects of Bruce the Great White Shark when I take people to the tidepools.

But I have to admit I’m rather critical movie viewer. I am the kind of guy that noticed there was a full moon every night for five days in a row in the movie, Moonstruck. I am not sure what planet they filmed it on, but it couldn’t have been the Earth. Our moon only appears full for about 2 days.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to see Arachnophobia. This is the current movie out about spiders. It shouldn’t be confused with Iraq-nophobia. This is, of course, the real drama now playing in the Middle East.

If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a brief synopsis. Some scientists travel to a remote mountain in South America and discover a new species of spider. This large tarantula-like critter is particularly venomous and kills one of the members of the expedition. The spider is accidentally boarded up in the guy’s coffin and travels with him back to his small hometown in coastal California. At the funeral home this giant male spider escapes and mates with one of the local house spiders. This tiny female lays a gigantic egg sac that hatches into thousands of babies. These swarm over the town and begin killing the citizens.

The hero is a newly-arrived doctor escaping with his family from the stress of the big city. He happens to suffer from an irrational fear of spiders — arachnophobia. The Doc sort of overcomes his phobia and figures out what is happening. He kills the spiders, rescues the town, and then moves his family back to San Francisco, where he only has to fear getting mugged.

First some basic biology. It is unlikely that a South American spider that has been evolving for millions of years on a remote mountaintop could bop on up to California, breed with a local and produce offspring. By definition a species is a organism that is reproductively isolated from other organisms. In other words a species can only “do it” with others of its exact same kind.

To check on some other biological aspects of Arachnophobia I recently caught up with Jack Fraser, the President of the Northern California Spider Society. Jack has a doctorate in spiders from UC Berkeley. Unfortunately he couldn’t get a job in his field and so now he’s a computer programmer for the Phone Company. He’s been the president of the Society for nearly 10 years.

Every spider scene in the movie was full of huge cobwebs. Apparrently you can buy cobwebs in a spray can. Must have been a big budget item in this movie. Only one problem with this — according to Jack, tarantulas don’t make webs.

In the movie the spider victims had desiccated bodies, the fluid sucked right out of them. But tarantulas don’t feed that way. It is too bad the director didn’t talk to Jack, it could have been a real horror movie. “If a tarantula had really eaten, the victim would have been a huge messed up ball. Tarantulas chew up part of their prey, spit it back out on the animal, let the digestive juices work and then suck off what they can.”

All right, so Jack and I are both picky. The movie wasn’t that bad. If you really had arachnophobia you wouldn’t go to see it in the first place. But spiders already have a bad enough reputation, especially since they are so beneficial. An English biologist once estimated there were 2 1/4 million spiders in an acre of Sussex grassland. All of them catching and feeding on bugs. Can you imagine the number of flying insects eaten everyday by spiders? The earth would be unliveable for us without them. I’ll take spiders over flies anyday.


Michael Ellis
Dec 13, 1990

Many of our religious holidays revolve around astronomical events. Chanukah and Christmas, while steeped in the Judeo- Christian mythology, are simply celebrations of the winter solstice. It is fitting that our most significant holidays applaud the end of increasing darkness.

Since the summer solstice on June 21st the sun’s path across the sky has slowly shifted. In midsummer the sun travels almost directly overhead, giving us daylight for 15 hours or so. By the autumn equinox (“equal nights”) on September 21st the sun’s path has moved far enough south to give us exactly 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. By December the days are short and the nights long.
This year at exactly 3:28 AM PST on December 21st the sun reaches its lowest point in its journey across the sky. At this exact moment the sun appears to stand still, the literal meaning of the word “solstice.” After this point the sun begins its apparent northward motion again. The days now begin to increase and the lengthening nights are no more!

This shortest day of the year has always been significant to agrarian humans. Among many native populations there have always been mid-winter celebrations. The most influential on our modern rites are the festivals of the Romans, the rituals of the Druids and, of course, the dogma of the Christians.

Saturnalia was a traditional Roman winter celebration. It usually took place on December 17 and lasted for seven days. The name is from the root of “serere”, to sow and the celebration was connected to crop fertility for the coming year. People exchanged gifts especially candles. The candles were to insure the return of the sun’s power after the solstice. It was a time of equality between men–slaves danced with masters and the poor and the rich mingled. An early law made it clear: “No discourse shall either be composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, conducing to mirth and jollity.” Amen.

A few days after Saturnalia was the Roman festival of the Kalends. During this event houses were decorated with lights and wreaths of laurel. Gifts were exchanged and large banquets were made. Even the poor laid abundant food upon the table. There was a general feeling of generosity and kindness toward one another.

The Celts through their priestly class the Druids gave us many of our winter rites regarding plants. The mistletoe was regarded as “holy light”. Imagine a cold bleak winter, no leaves on any tree, apparent death throughout the land and growing on the oak was the mistletoe. Alive, vibrant, green and with fruit, it is no wonder mistletoe was associated with fertility. Our current custom of kissing under the mistletoe is quite innocent compared to what the Druids did with the mistletoe to insure crop fertility.

The lighting of the traditional Yule log also has its roots in the Druid past. The log is thought to embody the vegetation- spirit. The fire from this log symbolically represents sunlight, the light that is so essential for plants and man to survive. The word, Yule, is derived from the ancient word that means wheel. The wheel of the sun rotating through the sky, through the year.

During the last 2000 years missionaries have turned many of the native rituals into Christian ones. The Church has blended pagan customs with a spiritual core to give us the most human and lovable of all the Christian festivals.

How appropriate that during this dark time we celebrate the birth of a child. We put all of our hopes into this being, a humble infant that great Kings came to worship but for whom the world had no room at the inn. We huddle with other humans–members of our family or the community–to eat, drink, sing and be merry. We rejoice in the midst of this long bleak night by surrounding ourselves with greenery, gifts, food, and fire. We love all mankind for a moment. We try to forget war, poverty and injustice. We give and we hope for the children.

Honey Bees


While riding my bike the other day I drove through the middle of
a swirling tornado of honeybees. Ever alert I quickly shut my
mouth, squinted my eyes, hunched over and plunged on through. I
emerged safe and unstung.

Honeybees periodically swarm. This enables the colony to divide
and increase. Swarming is often associated with overcrowding
coupled with warm weather. In Sonoma there are many untended wild
colonies. These colonies are located in attics, in walls of
abandoned buildings and in tree cavities. I have noticed several
hives in the base of old bay laurel trees. These trees often have
rotten centers that provide a perfect home for the bees.

A honeybee colony consists of one queen, a few drones, and
thousands of workers. The queen is basically an egg-laying
machine. All day long as she is fed and attended by nurse bees,
she continually pumps little oval eggs into special brood cells.
In her prime she may lay 2000 per day!

The queen lays two types of eggs- fertilized and unfertilized.
The fertile ones develop into the worker bees. These females are
the bedrock of the hive. They do all of the work—gathering
pollen and nectar, raising the young, guarding the hive,
scouting and tending the queen.

The infertile eggs develop into the drones. These stinger less
males are useful only for mating; they lack the ability to gather
pollen and nectar and don’t participate in nest maintenance. They
are larger than the workers and tend to eat a lot of honey. No
doubt you have had a roommate or husband like that.

As the colony grows, it becomes crowded and the workers cannot
maintain the optimal hive temperature. The queen may falter in
her egg-laying ability. To insure the survival of the hive,
workers secrete chemicals called pheromones that transmit a
colony-wide message—RAISE A NEW QUEEN NOW.

The workers construct several extra-large brood cells and the
queen deposits a fertilized egg in each one. After four days the
eggs hatch into white worm-like larvae. These larvae are given
preferential treatment. A distinctive food called royal jelly,
secreted by special glands in the workers, is fed to the
developing young. This entree contains high levels of hormones
that cause the larvae to evolve into sexually mature queens
rather than infertile workers. The larvae then spin a cocoon and
enter the pupa stage. The first queen to emerge is the winner.
With her unbarbed stinger she kills all the other queens by
repeatedly stinging them in their cells. If two or more queens
emerge concurrently a battle will ensue.

Now there are two queens in the hive–the new one and the old
one. Two females sharing a kitchen is an untenable situation.
The old queen flies out of the hive with thousands of workers
leaving the virgin queen with the house, the yard and half the

Prior to leaving with the old queen the workers fuel up on honey.
By eating honey, bees become mellow. Smoke also stimulates bees
to ingest honey and become congenial. Beekeepers have exploited
this trait by blowing smoke on bees, making them easier to rob.
So when I rode through the swarm of honey-satiated bees I was
actually in little danger of being stung. Small consolation.

The swarm will temporarily settle on a tree or branch. Special
bees (girl scouts) look for the best nesting location. When the
scouts return they advertise sites by means of an elaborate
“dance.” This “dance” is also used to communicate sources of
nectar and pollen. Discovered in the 1930’s by Karl von Frisch,
it demonstrated that honeybees use a symbolic language that is
second only to humans in complexity. When the majority of scouts
are reporting the identical location, the entire colony led by
the queen move into it.

Back at the original hive the young queen soon takes a nuptial
flight. She flies out and mates with one lucky drone. From this
coupling she will store enough sperm for several years of egg
laying. Ob-la-dee ob-la-da hive goes on.