Wily Coyote

The coyote figures in many Native American myths as the creator, the fool, the transformer and the prankster. In fact the word “coyote” is an Aztec word which means “trickster.”

Well, they certainly have tricked their way into 49 states, throughout Canada and all the way south to Panama. Coyotes are by far the most successful large carnivore in North America. And since the gray wolf has been extirpated throughout the Eastern U.S., the coyote moved in from the West and now thrives in places it never did before. One even showed up in Central Park in New York City several years ago. And our own Golden Gate Park has resident coyotes. We are talking adaptable and flexible.

Coyotes have greatly extended their range and increased in numbers because they can exploit edge habitat. That is open grass or brush next to wooded areas, plenty of cover and food nearby. Hmm, sounds like the suburbs. Essentially we have modified the wild environment to perfectly suit coyotes, whereas other large predators like mountain lions and wolves have decreased in numbers.

Coyotes usually hunt in pairs and it is true that in urban areas coyotes will take domestic cats and small dogs. They are extremely flexible in their diet and nearly everything is considered food from garbage and carrion to deer and birds. During the late summer and early fall they eat a lot of berries as well.

Coyotes originally evolved in the Great Plains of North America during the Pleistocene era, 1.8 million years ago, relatively recently. They are so closely related to both the gray wolf and the domestic dog that they can hybridize easily with both. There are coy-dogs and coy-wolfs. Rare but it happens.

The breeding season is limited to the early spring when six pups are born. Both male and female help provision the young and occasionally the offspring from the previous years stick around to help as well.

Hate ’em or love ’em, coyotes are here to stay.

Oh. and by the way, they have never been known to actively hunt roadrunners. Beep beep.

California Poppies

Slowly riding my bicycle through Santa Rosa last week, I was struck by the number of California poppies growing in everyone’s garden and even popping up through cracks in the sidewalk. I have seen this exact flower cultivated in the far reaches of our planet; Chile, South Africa, London and even — gasp — North Carolina. The California State Legislature made an excellent choice in 1903 when they unanimously voted the California poppy our state flower.

This poppy is found in every single California county but one. It comes in a range of color types; totally orange, totally yellow, orange with yellow centers, yellow with orange centers. One taxonomist concluded there were over 90 different species but now most botanists agree there is only one California poppy but with several varieties.

And by the way, it is not specifically illegal to pick a California poppy, as every school child will tell you. Actually it is against the law to pick any plant — herb, tree or shrub, not just poppies — that are growing on public and private land. Of course you may pick poppies in your own garden.

In October, 1816 the Russian ship, “Rurik,” sailed into San Francisco Bay. Because the poppy blooms from February all the way to November, it was noticed and collected by the ship’s naturalist and he named it for the physician on board, Johann Frederich Eschscholtz.

Eschscholzia californica is the scientific name. The Mexicans call it copa de oro — the cup of gold — and I am certain each native tribe had their name for this beauty. It grows in Oregon and Washington, to Baja California and east all the way to New Mexico.

To quote John Thomas Howell the author of “Marin Flora,” “No poet has yet sung the full beauty of our poppy. No painter has successfully portrayed the satiny sheen of its lustrous petals. In its abundance, this colorful plant should not be slighted: cherish it and be ever thankful that so rare a flower is common.”

Hemlock

On a recent walk I smelled the distinctive odor of poison hemlock. It smells like corn chips — yes, Fritos — and it got me thinking about ancient Greece.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the three prominent thinkers whose philosophical works underpin much of Western culture. Socrates came first: he was the original hippie. Born around 470 B.C., Socrates chose a life of poverty and voluntary simplicity. He refused to accept money for his work. He felt his independence would be compromised. He wore the same coat in winter and summer. He spent most of his time in the marketplace and out on the streets, teaching and holding class whenever his followers gathered. His well-known admonishment was “know thyself.” He considered that task the greatest challenge a man could have.

Socrates encouraged his mostly young students to criticize the Athenian democracy and its authorities. The “establishment” could finally take it no longer, and as an old man Socrates was indicted for “corruption of the youth.” It was a pretty fuzzy charge. His real sin was being outspoken and critical of the power brokers.

At his trial, the prosecution gave him every opportunity to plea bargain. Socrates refused to go into exile, the usual sentence for dissidents. In fact Socrates rejected all compromises and the judges were forced to condemn him to death. By drinking a cup of poison hemlock tea, he immortalized himself and the plant in one swallow.

Right now, poison hemlock is in full flower throughout California. Nearly every roadside ditch, disturbed field and urban lot below 5,000 feet sports this Mediterranean weed. Hemlock resembles a giant carrot. It even has a long taproot. The stems are hollow and covered with purple spots. All parts of the plant are poisonous but the young leaves and the roots contain the greatest concentration. One mouthful of the root can kill an adult.

I have noticed that the older I get, the more unsettled I am by new ideas and ways of thinking. And I know myself well enough that given the choice of being exiled to North Dakota or drinking poison hemlock… well, Fargo here I come.

Return of the Harbor Porpoises

I spent many days in the 1980s and 90s leading trips off the coast of Northern California whale watching and out to the Farallon Islands. And as we went under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea, I would encourage folks to keep their eyes out for a very small porpoise — the harbor porpoise. Only six feet long at most, they are one of the smallest cetaceans of the 75 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. And as the name indicates they are found in shallow water, usually less than 150 feet. They are confined to the cool waters of the Northern Hemisphere and certainly our local ocean waters are cool and shallow.

Harbor porpoises are not very showy. They usually do not bow ride vessels nor leap out of the water. What you see is a small brown triangular dorsal fin cutting quickly through the waves. Nevertheless, it is always thrilling to see a porpoise. Aristotle first recognized they were air breathing mammals and not fish when he named them “Porcus pisces” which literally means “pig fish.”

In the last several years these porpoises have moved east of the Bridge into San Francisco Bay much to the delight of nature lovers. In times of environmental degradation, it is pleasing to see an animal returning on its own volition to its original habitat. We aren’t exactly sure what changes there are in San Francisco Bay to encourage this. It may be that environmental regulations, which have limited industrial and domestic discharges into the Bay, have created a healthier situation. Or it may be large-scale changes in the ocean environment that have resulted in more biological productivity in the Bay. And it is true that some species of fish such as herring have increased in recent years and these harbor porpoises feed on small schooling fish.

At any rate, these porpoises are easy to see from Fort Baker in Marin County, the Financial District, Treasure Island, Angel Island and especially from the walkway on the Golden Gate Bridge. What a delight.

Argentine Ants

There are about 22,000 species of ants on the Earth. They are found nearly everywhere except in Antarctica, Greenland and a few oceanic islands. There are several organisms that have evolved complicated social organizations; termites, bees, ants and of course human beings. In all of these groups there is a lot of selfless behavior. That is, the individual relinquishes his own needs for the good of the entire group.

If you have teeny weenie ants in your house forming long lines heading toward your sugar bowl, they are most likely Argentine ants. In the 1890s these diminutive critters, only 1/8 inch long, arrived on a boat bringing sugar and coffee from South America to Louisiana. From this founding group the ants have moved relentlessly across the southern part of the United States all the way to California. Their southern range has been limited by the aggression of fire ants, another introduced species.

In their native region Argentine ants form normal sized colonies. When these colonies meet each other they often fight and they certainly don’t cooperate. However, something entirely different has happened in their new promised lands. Here, these ants are so genetically related to one another they have formed mega-colonies. And I do mean mega. The one in coastal California is 560 miles long and ranges from San Diego to San Francisco! The one in the Mediterranean is even larger – over 3,700 miles long. Mind blowing. And they are wreaking havoc on local ecosystems.

In Southern California, Argentine ants have displaced the native ants. Coastal horned lizards thrive on ants. But unfortunately they cannot survive on Argentine ants. Consequently these wonderful charismatic animals are disappearing from the landscape. And that may be only the beginning of the consequences of Argentine ants on the environment.

The Argentine ants now are the largest, most numerous social insects in the world. It obviously pays to cooperate. We should know.