Michael Ellis

Step outside after the sun sets and you will be greeted by a pair of remarkable celestial bookends. To the west, high in the sky is a brilliant shining object. Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love and Beauty, is certainly living up to her name on these delicious summer evenings. Now turn east and cast your eyes to the other bright object. This is Jupiter. If you look close by you will see a reddish colored star. This is Antares which is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpio.

Jupiter was named for the Roman God of Everything. He is Numero Uno, the Big Cheese. Over 90% of the entire mass of the solar system, excluding the sun, is in this leviathan. Yet Jupiter could float in water; it is made entirely of gas. With a composition nearly the same as that of the sun mostly helium and hydrogenit’s considered a failed star. Its nuclear furnace just didn’t have enough mass to get totally fired up but it still emits more energy than it receives.

Unlike the white reflective clouds of Venus, Jupiter’s clouds are a symphony of colors. Astronomers have been observing prominent features for years. They’ve seen colored bands on Jupiter’s surface. These are clouds of ammonia and sulfur moving at different velocities. Jupiter’s foremost feature is the Great Red Spot. This planetary pimple was first observed over 300 years ago and is thought to be a gigantic atmospheric disturbance twice the size of the earth.

Galileo first discovered the largest moons of Jupiter in 1633. Those observations and others he made and wrote about lent credence to the theory that the Sun was the center of the known universe not the Earth. This was antithetical to the teaching of the church and Galileo was censured and confined to house arrest for the rest of his life for his beliefs.

With a good pair of binoculars and a steady hand you can often see four Galilean moons. The motion of the innermost moon, Io, is so rapid that you can detect its movement in a single night. At last count there were 63 Jovian moons, some of them only a couple of miles across.

By the way the Catholic Church finally got around to apologizing to Galileo in 1992.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Scrub Jays

Michael Ellis

I was driving through the tiny town of Sutter, California and there just outside the High School announcing the upcoming Football schedule was a large rendition of the school mascot -the Blue Jay. AHGGGGGG. There are jays in California and there are jays that have blue feathers however there are NO Blue Jays in this state. You must travel far to the east and cross the great geographic barrier of the Rocky Mountains before you come to the habitat of the Cyanocitta cristata, literally the blue chatterer with a crest. Good name for this ubiquitous bird of the Eastern United States.

But there it was 6 feet high apparently drawn by the artist straight out of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America. Go Blue Jays!!!! Jays belong to the Corvid Family of birds and we have quite a few members of this group in California- crows, ravens, Clark’s nutcrackers, black-billed and yellow-billed magpies, pinyon jays, gray jays, Steller Jays and scrub jays. These last two are ones commonly called blue jays by the ornithologically challenged.

Steller Jays are named not for the stars but for George Wilhelm Steller a German biologist who accompanied the Danish sea Captain Vitus Bering who was sailing for the Russian Czar, Peter the Great exploring far northern North America in 1741. These birds like the forest and seem to hang out where there are large conifers. They have a prominent crest and a dark, cobalt blue body. The female does a fantastic job of imitating the scream of a red-tailed hawk.

Scrub jays, as the name suggests frequent open land- the chaparral, scrub oaks and forest edges. They do not have a crest; they are blue on the back and grayish white below. Both birds like their eastern counterpart have adapted well to suburbia. So in conclusion if it is a jay with a crest, it is a steller jay, without one is a scrub jay but neither one is a blue jay.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis

For years people would ask me if I had ever been to Hawaii. They were always amazed when I said no. I have been to plenty of tropical islands but I was saving America’s tropics. I knew that I would always be able to travel there. As one of the states I know it was unlikely to experience civil unrest like the Galapagos or the Seychelles.

I also had read much a bout the human and natural history. And like many places in the world the original inhabitants – human, animal and plant- had suffered greatly.

So for the first time recently I traveled to Maui. Most people consider Hawaii to be a paradise and I guess in many senses it is. But alas sometimes it is a disadvantage to be a naturalist. I knew how much was lost. I knew that in 18?? a barrel full of mosquito larvae was intentionally released by an irate whaling captain. These insects carried avian malaria and within a very short time, many of the native birds up to 3000′ in elevation were wiped completely off the face of the earth. Pigs brought by the colonizing Polynesians had thoroughly altered the botanical landscape by eating almost every plant.

Those species not driven to extinction by pigs where further decreased as a result of the introduction of exotic plants from the four corners of the tropical world.

A litany of environmental ills affect the islands today. I saw Australian pines, rainbow eucalyptus, Indian myna birds, cardinals, English sparrows, Indian mongooses, cattle egrets, lantanas, hibiscus, house geckos, bullfrogs- all species from other parts of the world. Few modern Haw have any clue bout the overwhelming abundance of non-native species.

How ironic that the Maui flower is the Bird of Paradise. A plant native to the jungles os Southeast Asia.

This is Michael Ellis with a perspective.

The Hadza

The Hadza
Michael Ellis

On the shores of Lake Eyasi in the Great Rift Valley of Tanzania, four of the major languages groups of Africa intersect. The Bantu, Nilotic Cushitic and the Khoisan. The latter is the famous click language of the so called Bushman of the kalihari.
Most Americans know this tongue from the movie The Gods Must be Crazy.
This may be the most ancient language still spoken on Earth.

The Hadza is a small tribe of 400 individuals who speak this language and still maintain the traditional ways of gathering resources. They are often referred to as the last Stone Age tribe in Tanzania. I had the immense pleasure recently to accompany four of the men on a morning hunt for game.

Almost every animal is considered food. Since the area we were in was developed the game was mostly small animals. Vervet monkeys and baboons are first choice but mice, hares, hyrax, and any bird will do, but no reptiles are eaten. The women and children stayed behind. They would forage later in the afternoon for the roots, berries and small animals that actually sustained the tribe. Like most primitive cultures the burden of food gathering is mostly on the women. Meat is an uncertain and limited treat.

I was amazed at the hunters’ skill in finding a group of vervets. These little primates knew the Hadza by sight. In game parks they freely leap about but here they kept perfectly still, high in the palm fronds. Not moving one bit saved most of them. One black faced vervet monkey was killed with a bow and arrow. I enjoy watching these monkeys so it was difficult to witness one of my closer relatives killed.

We walked quickly back to the women where a fire was built by friction. The small monkey was barely cooked and then every part eaten by the entire tribe of a dozen people. No food is wasted here.

Every person on earth is related to the Hadza. Not only by the direct genetic connection to our kin in Africa but by their daily method of survival. All humans were once hunter/ gatherers. To see these ancient skills practiced was an honor.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Grass Eaters

Grass Eaters

Michael Ellis

In eastern and southern Africa dwell baboons. I have had the pleasure of spending hours watching large troops go about their daily activities. This includes fighting, mating, playing, resting, grooming, and much of their time is spent finding something to eat. Everything is considered edible by baboons unless proven otherwise. But most of their diet ends up being various kinds of grass, not only the flowers and the seeds but they consume the stems, leaves and even dig up and munch the underground parts. This ability to utilize grass has helped baboons become the second most successful and widespread primate on the Planet.
Number one, of course, is Homo sapiens. And we too are major gobblers of grass. What?! you say?? “I don’t eat grass; that’s in the yard.” Oh yes you do and a lot of it. The Poaceae is probably the single most essential plant family to the proliferation and continued existence of our human family.  Every day we consume grain from one or more of the various species of grass.
The grass that originated here in the Western Hemisphere is corn. It has been cultivated by ancient peoples like the Aztec and Incas for so long that the ancestral plant no longer exists in the wild. In elementary school we learned about that famous valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates River where wheat, another grass, was first grown and in large quantity. This surplus of food allowed the first known civilizations and therefore culture to arise.
Other important grasses include rye, oats, sorghum, sugar cane, barley, and millet. We ferment grains into alcohol or distill them into sugar laden products or mill them into flour to bake breads. 
But by far the most crucial grass to the welfare of most modern humans is rice. Nearly three billion people subsist on a daily portion of this grain. Originally found in tropical Asia rice has spread to every corner of the globe and is the most widespread source of nutrition.
So yes just like our baboon cousins we do eat grass. In fact I think I’ll have a bagel right now.  

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.