Monday, April 19, 2010

Mexico Part 1: How Frigatebirds Are Sort Of Like Mexican Cops

We had a wonderful time in Mexico, spending a week just North of Puerto Vallarta, exploring the coast further North and the mountains inland as well.

I’ve always believed that a great family vacation is one where not only do you enjoy quality time together as a family in a beautiful place, but also see and learn new things. IMG_4541A vacation where you, as a parent, can nurture and expand your child’s horizons, by introducing then to new places, ideas and cultures. Maybe your child learns about a new region, and a bit about its local plant and animal life. Maybe he learns a new skill from you, such as snorkeling or surfing or horseback-riding. Or maybe, just maybe, they learn valuable insights from you in communicating and dealing with new people in new cultures in new languages- important life lessons: conversing with a local rancher about the weather, haggling for a best price in a local market, or maybe… bribing a local law enforcement official.

Yes, that’s right- I bribed a Mexican cop in front of my kids. The twins were asleep, but Bird Whisperer saw the whole thing, which led to a discussion of ethics, pragmatism and differences in culture. But we’ll come back to our bribery story later in the post.

Tangent: Bribing a Mexican cop in front of your kid is awkward in the same way I imagine getting caught by your kid having sex* is awkward. You’re not doing anything all that bad, but you’d just as soon not do it with them looking. And when you explain it to them, and they understand what you were doing, I imagine they have kind an “Eew-Ick” reaction at some level.

*To be clear, I mean having sex with your spouse/your child’s other parent. If you get caught by your kid having sex with someone other than your spouse/your child’s other parent, then, uh, I don’t have a tangent for you- you’re on your own.

Nested Tangent: To be clear, this hasn’t (yet) happened to us- we haven’t been “caught” by our kids. And now that I think of it, I never “caught” my parents either, so I’ve never been presented firsthand with the “Eew-Ick” awkwardness mentioned above. Which, when you think about it, is really strange. Why are we all “Eew-Ick” about the thought of our parents getting it on?* Really, when you get down to it, if there’s one couple in the entire world about whose getting it on we should be wildly enthusiastic, it should be our own parents, whose getting it on produced us, right?

*Again, with each other.

OK, is this post going to be about anything at all besides bribery and sex? Yes it is. It’s going to be about birds.

The trip down was uneventful, but like any long trip involving airports, airplanes, rental cars and small children, we were tired when we arrived at the resort late afternoon. IMG_4589 So we kicked back by the pool for a while. The Trifecta jumped in the water, while AW and I ordered cold drinks and kicked back. As we lay by the pool, I noticed many things different from where we’d left earlier in the day: warm breeze, swaying palms, and the crash of the surf a few dozen yards away. But mostly what I noticed right away was the wild whistling and squawking in the trees above- the calls of Grackles.

Grackles are one of about a dozen species of bird across 4 genera. Unless you’ve spent much time down in South America, the grackles you’ve likely seen all belong to just one of those genera: Quiscalus. The Common Grackle, Quiscalus quiscula, is a fairly common bird across the Eastern US. They assemble in large flocks and are agricultural pests, often feeding in cornfields.

But the grackles at the resort- and everywhere we went around Puerto Vallarta- were a different species: IMG_4686 the Great-Tailed Grackle, Qusicalus mexicanus. Q. mexicanus is bigger, blacker and longer-tailed than the Common Grackle, and looks not so much like a blackbird as a crow, a resemblance to which we’ll return in a moment. GT Grackles are native to Central America. But they’ve adapted well to human development, including urban, suburban and agricultural areas, and over the last century have been expanding their range Northward in the Western US.

Extra Detail: Apparently this migration is occurring with multiple populations, or subspecies, from 3 different areas of Mexico. Just last week, I saw GT Grackles in both Las Vegas and St. George. In Utah I have yet to spot any North of St. George.

Their calls are loud and raucous, yet melodic at the same time, and completely unlike those of any bird in Northern Utah. Like crows, they’re comfortable around people and frequently target leftovers or unattended picnics. When I see GT Grackles, they always strike me as Crows Who Have Learned To Sing. (Not a great clip, but I always seemed to miss the great songs…)

Male GTGs are territorial, and engage in displays of strutting and feather-fluffing to ward off competing males and impress females. And what’s really cool, is that instead of just whiling away my vacation drinking umbrella drinks and bribing cops, I worked hard to document this behavior for your benefit, and am pleased to present you with this highly-scientific, documentary-quality, Mutual-of-Omaha-Wild-Kingdom-esque video of said display:

GTGs sort of look like crows, except a bit skinnier and longer-tailed (kind of like a Magpie) and they’ve adapted well to human settlement and have made a name for themselves as big-time agricultural pests. Just like crows. So they’re probably pretty closely-related to crows, right? Wrong. They’re not even corvids, and they haven’t shared a common ancestor with crows in something like 50 million years.

Tangent: Think about how weird that is. That’s longer-ago than when we last shared a common ancestor with New World monkeys. Now imagine this: New World monkeys convergently evolved larger ape-like, and eventually hominid-like forms over the last 40 million years. Eventually one branch evolved into a humanoid-ish species that looked pretty much just like a human, except maybe it wasn’t quite as bright and maybe had longer legs or something, and when modern humans first reached the New World maybe 12,000+ years ago, the place was full of these New World human-dopplegangers. Crazy, huh? But’s that’s pretty much exactly what happened with crows and grackles!

Grackles belong to a completely different family, Icteridae. The Icterids- sometimes called “New World Blackbirds” are a family of about 100 species native to the New World, and though we haven’t looked at them as a family, we’ve come across several of their members before. Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Redwing Blackbirds are both Icterids, as is my all-time favorite Great Basin songster- and first bird I ever blogged about- the Western Meadowlark. So are New World Orioles (such as the Baltimore Oriole). And this leads to probably the most interesting thing about the Icterids- the family is filled with examples of convergent evolution when compared with Old World species. Grackles are like crows. New World Orioles are like Old World Orioles. Meadowlarks are kind of like Old World Larks. Brown-Headed Cowbirds look rather corvid-ish, but have convergently evolved the same brood-parasitic behaviors as Old World Cuckoos. In the absence of these Old World species, the Icterids radiated and evolved to fill similar niches in the New World. It makes you wonder- if all the birds in the world went extinct except the Icterids, 5 or 10 million years from now would the world be filled with Icterid hawks, finches and starlings and owls?

Just outside the resort, along a sandy walking/running path connecting to the nearby town (Bucerias) I spotted this interesting nest, belonging to- or at least constructed by a Hornero. The Horneros, or “oven birds" are 1 of 200+ species of the Family Furnariidae.

Oven nest Oven birds make these distinctive hanging nests of mud, grass and twigs. Some species incorporate thorns, and others with the fecal matter of dogs, cats or other birds, presumably to deter intruders. Inside the nest are 2 chambers, designed to protect the chicks (typically 3 or 4) from intruders. The nest opening generally is positioned to face away from the prevailing wind.

The nests can only be built in the rainy season, when mud is available, but not when it’s too rainy, or the thing won’t hold together.

Mystery ovenbird So which oven bird species does this nest belong to? Beats me. I lacked a good guide, and though I spotted this fellow nearby (pic right) multiple times, even if it is his/her nest now, it’s likely as not the builder him/herself. Once baked by the sun, oven bird nests last several years, but the oven birds themselves use it just one season, after which it gets used by all sorts of birds*.

*Much like Magpie nests here in Utah.

MFrigate There were interesting birds everywhere we went, but whenever we were on or near the shore, my gaze was repeatedly drawn upward to this guy: the Magnificent Frigatebird*, Fregata magnificens. All day long they ride the sea breeze, hovering for hours up above, with their up-to 7 foot wingspans and deeply-forked tails. Frigatebirds can barely walk, and don’t swim, but they can remain aloft for over a week straight, and have the highest wingspan-to-weight ratio of any bird.

*What a wonderful common species name. I hope that should someday some advanced alien race come to Earth and name all the species here, they name us the Magnificent Ape.

Watching them is fascinating. Their forked tails are generally closed, but occasionally they’ll open them a bit, increasing drag, and falling back from their position with the wind, then closing them, they’ll edge forward again. They fly the sea breeze like a surfer on a standing wave. (Forked tail opens at around 0:35)

Tangent: Speaking of looking up… although the days were clear and sunny, the nights were cloudy, except for the for the first. That night after dinner Bird Whisperer and I walked down to the beach and looked up- way up. All of our regular Southern sky constellations- Orion, Gemini, Auriga, etc., were there, but they were all shifted up about 25 degrees- the difference in latitude between Salt Lake and Puerto Vallarta. Mars was almost exactly directly overhead.

They feed primarily on fish, which they snatch out of the water with their beaks, but they never dive. Their feathers lack oil*, and they don’t sit/bob in the water either.

*In this respect they’re similar to the Anhinga, to whom they’re closely-related, and which we saw last year down in Costa Rica. The Anhinga though does swim, and its lack of oiled feathers helps it to remain deep down longer.

Cormorant Another superlative: Frigate birds care for their young for over a year- possibly the longest time for any bird. This means that they can’t reproduce every year. Though devoted parents, they’re serial monogamists; after the chicks have fully and finally fledged, they seek out new mates. Male Frigatebirds court by establishing a nest-spot and then inflating/displaying a bright-red throat-pouch, called a gullar sac.

Touching, eh? OK, here’s the not-so-touching part: Boobie PelicanFrigatebirds don’t just fish- they’re regular kleptoparasites. A good portion of their diet (10% - 50%, depending on the source) is obtained from other seabirds, such as pelicans, gulls and boobies, whom they harass and assault until they drop their catch, which the Frigatebird catches in mid-air. Or even (EEW-ICK WARNING AHEAD) harassing these other seabirds until they regurgitate their recent catches, which – yes, ICK- the Frigatebird also catches in mid-air.

Kleptoparasitism isn’t the majority of their diet; most of the time they’re just like other seabirds, fishing “honestly” for a living. But at some point in the past an enterprising Frigatebird figured out it could pick up a meal quick the parasitic way, and the behavior caught on. Which brings us back to… Mexican cops.

Tangent: Whenever I think about “bad” bird behavior, I wonder whether the behavior is instinctive or learned, as there are examples of both among other birds. The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s brood-parasitic behavior must be instinctive; she never even saw her own mother*. But Western Scrub-Jays don’t start hiding their seed-caches from other Scrub-Jays until they themselves have robbed the caches of other Scrub-Jays; they have to learn the behavior. So which is it with Frigatebirds? And, more to the point, which is it with Mexican cops?

*Actually, as I rethink this, I may be reading it wrong. Perhaps the Brown-headed Cowbird thinks she is the same species of whatever nest in which she herself was hatched- Warbler, Finch, whatever. But such a species self-identification clearly doesn’t carry over to mating (she mates with other Cowbirds, not Finches or Warblers) and we know that she “sneaks” her egg into the target nest. But then again, maybe she thinks all eggs are “snuck” in and that’s just how Finches and Warblers get born…

The intersection was a confusing one, and that’s no doubt why the 2 motorcycle cops had it staked out. 2 stoplights, so close together that a visitor used to the giant multi-lane intersections of American roadways might think it just 1 intersection with 2 lights, which, entered when yellow, was clear to pass through. But in fact it was-confusingly- 2 distinct stoplights, which I realized only as I entered the 2nd intersection, and in my peripheral vision caught sight of 2 uniformed, helmeted men on motorcycles, one pointing at me.

I haven’t been pulled over by a cop in close to decade. Black VulturesI remember the butterflies –in-the-stomach feeling when the lights appear in the rear-view: is my registration up-to-date? Do I have my proof of insurance? Have I paid my library fines? But this time there was, strangely, no anxiety- just curiosity. On all of my Mexican road-trips I’ve wondered what would happen if/when I was pulled over. I’d heard all the stories. Could I bribe him? How much? How would the topic be broached?

The cop spoke clear, slow Spanish, and was- throughout the interaction- the hands-down friendliest police officer I’ve ever dealt with. He wasn’t remotely interested in seeing a license or any other paperwork. I played dumb, asking if I’d been driving too fast. He patiently explained that I’d run a red light, whereupon I explained that I thought it a single intersection and he patiently corrected me. I apologized and asked- following the advice in The People’s Guide to Mexico- if this was something I could take care of right away. That was all the prompting he needed.

He explained that if we went to the station the fine would be 1,000 pesos*, but that if we agreed upon a fine between the two of us, the amount could be less. Mystery IbisHe asked me for an amount, and I offered $US20. He sighed and said he was thinking more of 500 pesos. I hemmed and hawed and we discussed various amounts of pesos and dollars, and I gradually, deliberately, dumbed-down my Spanish and pretended to be having more trouble with language and conversion rates than I actually was, as the longer we talked, the lower the price seemed to get. Finally I smiled apologetically and said, (in Spanish), “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish well…” to which he responded- in English- “That’s OK, we can speak English!” Got me.

*I doubt it would have been that much, but I had the Watcher Family with me, wasn’t interested in a detour to a (probably corrupt) local station and was happy to pay a reasonable amount to be on our way.

Finally we settled on 360 pesos (US$30), but I made a show of fumbling for the amount and counting, and after I came up with 300 pesos, he said “That’s fine.” He told me not to hand the cash, but to insert it into a folded piece of cardboard, which I did. He smiled, shook my hand and said, “Thank you. You are a good negotiator! Be good!” And so ended my first experience in bribery and began my explanation/discussion of cultures and ethics with Bird Whisperer…

Tangent: I’m not a fan of bribery or corruption, but I have to confess- it was the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had being pulled over*. American cops- whether or not they ticket you- have an oh-so-serious demeanor; every encounter is filled with a weird, ultra-serious, sense of authoritative dread. But my discussion- and haggling- with the Mexican cop was, oddly, quite pleasant. I got off for a measly $26- far less than I’d get off for any moving violation in the US, and without any points on my license, or impact to my insurance.

*With a notable exception. In the mid-1990’s I was pulled over by the Park County, Colorado Sherriff’s Dept doing 20 MPH over the limit on US 285. I told him why I was speeding- the truth, and a good reason- and he let me off.

Certainly he was lining his pocket. Mystery MX Ave ID But tales abound of US cops carrying ticket “quotas” or at least expectations, when on traffic patrols, and really, excepting a level of indirection, is there a substantive difference? Which in turn brings up the whole issue of fines as a form of punishment. What is a fine? Is it a punishment? Then fine- take the money. But if the “taking” party –even indirectly- receives the fine, isn’t it a conflict of interest? Yes, one can contest a fine, but the judge is also a government employee, compensated through government-obtained revenues which of course include… fines.

One possible solution might be to donate all such fines to a worthy cause- a pool that goes to approved charities for example. But still there’d be a motivation- besides punishment- to levy fines. Maybe the best solution would be this: charge fines, collect the money, convert it to cash, and… destroy it. Really. Given current levels of debt, deficit, entitlements, and the changing population demographics of the coming decades, it’s almost inconceivable that at some point we won’t experience significant inflation. Regularly removing currency- fines- from the system would act as a small, but persistent counterweight to inflation.

OK, that may be the dumbest idea I’ve ever had. But I still think fines are ultimately always corrupting.

Our official encounter was the sole blemish in an otherwise logistically-flawless trip. A trip that included travel not just around town, but up into the jungles and mountains beyond.

Next Up: Peas, Palms and Pines


Anonymous said...

Loved the pic of the "New World Monkeys". Hilarious! And I have also wondered about that aspect of evolution in which a species diverges for millions of years but their ancestors seem to arrive at a common destination anyway. Is there some pre-destined evolutionary path that all species are headed?

So, how did you explain the bribery and did he understand? Or will this incident re-emerge with a phone call from the principal asking why he was trying to bribe a teacher when caught misbehaving? Ha Ha - just kidding!

mtb w

Marissa Buschow said...

BIRD POST! my favorite!
GT Grackles are actually the dominant grackle species in the Dallas area. I'm convinced they're the source of cinematic sci-fi sound effects.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I hadn't had been pulled over in ten years. Until I moved back to Utah. Two tickets in less than a year. And based on the amounts of the fines and locations of the officers, it had far less to do with public safety than municipal revenue.

As for birds, I was hiking on Antelope Island yesterday, and I'll be damned if I didn't see pelicans. Am I making this up, or are there pelicans on the Great Salt Lake?

Watcher said...

SBJ- there sure are pelicans up around Antelope/GSL. Different species though- ours are American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos; the PV Pelicans are Brown Pelicans, P. occidentalis.

I considered blogging about pelicans this trip, but figured I might get around to them locally on a future GSL-related post.

KanyonKris said...

Confession: I had not heard of Grackles before today.

The bribe: Your kids got a bonus culture lesson.

Parents having sex: logically you are correct, but it still seems weird to be OK with your parents getting it on. A small scene in "dances With Wolves" shows a Native American couple getting frisky under the bearskin in the family teepee. I had never considered how intimate relations were conducted if you only have one room, but it totally makes sense.

Christopher Taylor said...

Icterids bug me. Or rather, the nomenclature of icterids bugs me. I mean, a sizeable, clearly recognisable group of birds, on one of the major English-speaking continents, and there's no bloody decent vernacular name for them as a whole? "New World blackbirds"? Only a few of them are primarily black. "New World orioles"? They're not an oriole - give them a name of their own, for heaven's sake - and besides, the 'orioles' are again only one small subgroup. Even 'icterid' is pretty lousy - icterus means 'yellow', and again only refers to a subset.

Sally said...

In Arizona we had something called "boat-tailed" grackles; I wonder if they're a different species. (Yes, I'll rouse myself and look it up sometime.)

Your creative solution to inflation is interesting, except for the fact that small municipalities rely on this as a significant source of income. Indirect bribery... interesting! Our local PD seems to have a lot of new "toys" lately.

20 mph over on 285? Hope it was one of the South Park stretches and not the Platte Canyon/Kenosha Pass one!

Watcher said...

Christopher- Yes, they are another common New World thing with a lame name. My personal pet peeve: “Douglas Fir”, Pseuotsuga, which is of course neither Fir* nor Tsuga (Hemlock).

*Back like 50 or 60 years ago Donald Peattie made an attempt to rename it the “Douglas tree”, but it never took hold.

Sally- So supposedly the Boat-tailed Grackle, Q. major, is now just thought to be a subspecies of GT Grackle. But maybe it’ll change again. And the whole issue of municipalities and taxes should make for a good tangent sometime…

Yes, it was in South Park. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but way back when, my first winter in CO, I was driving alone late at night along 285 through South Park, probably 70-75MPH. It was a full moon, and though the road was bone-dry, the landscape was snow-covered. Out of curiosity, I killed my headlights for about 20 seconds, and I could drive just fine, bright as day. (Of course my night-vision was a lot better ~ 20 years ago…)

Anonymous said...

The grackles are making their reappearance in northern Arizona, and no matter how many times I hear them, their vocalizations always come as a shock. They're like cold water, fingernails on chalkboard, and wasabi all rolled into one. They're the ornithological equivalent of Howler monkeys.

Congratulations on your mutually satisfying encounter with the policeman. Can I rent you next time I drive to Mexico?


Unknown said...

Another great post, as always. Parental sex should be very cool with us on a genetic level: since you have no genetically closer relatives than your siblings, your genes should be very happy to see your parents making more of them!

On the fines: conflict or confluence of interest? In classical Athens, there were no criminal suits, only civil prosecutions, and if you took it upon yourself to prosecute, then you kept the fine—so there was an incentive for you as a citizen to police your comrades. Conversely, if you got less than a fifth of the jury to vote your way, you got fined, as a measure of protection against frivolous prosecution.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this just takes me back to Mexico! I went on a hike south of PV and saw wild parrots (?) in the jungle, and completely and utterly fell in love with the frigates, who couldn't? Was sad to see the beach goers feeding them french fries however. Much better in Barra de Navidad...they don't eat junk there. Wonderful blog...I will keep reading.