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Lower Los Angeles River Reminder – Early Start! : Sat. 27 August, 7am – Noon

August 25, 2016

Saturday, 27 August: Lower Los Angeles River. EARLY START! 7 AM. The lower portion of the LA River has become an early fall hotspot for southbound migrants:  Sandpipers, Phalaropes, Ibis,  Tern … in the river channel; various  passerines in adjacent parks. Baird’s and Pectoral Sandpipers seen in the past week! The river is wide, so bring your spotting scope and 10X binoculars if you have them, water, snacks and dress for variable weather. We have had showers in September. Sunscreen recommended. Family guide: 1-2 miles walking on pavement and grass, ending about 11-11:30am.

Try to arrive early. We start walking at 7:00, not just gathering.

Birders perched on the bank of the LA River. C. Almdale 2012

Birders perched on the bank of the LA River (C. Almdale 9/10/11)

Car Pooling: If you are interested in a carpool ride or have a seat available please contact Lu 310.395.6235, by Thursday morning if possible so we can try to match you up. (If no answer, please leave a message.)

Lunch: For those who wish, we will have lunch at our last birding stop, DeForest Park in Long Beach no later than noon.

Greater Yellowlegs and the diminutive Least Sandpiper (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Greater Yellowlegs and the diminutive Least Sandpiper
(J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Directions to LA River meeting spot if you want to drive yourself or perhaps start early: from Santa Monica, take Fwy #10 east to Fwy#405, south on #405 22 miles to Long Beach Fwy #710. South on #710 1.5 mi. to eastbound Willow St. exit. Cross Fwy & Los Angeles River to first stoplight at Golden Ave. Left on Golden, then immediate left onto 26th Way, then 2 blocks to end. Park near intersection of 26th Way and DeForest Ave. Go through gate up to bike path on east bank of river. Meet at 7 am. Allow 45 minutes from Santa Monica. We will meet Dick Barth who birds this area frequently, on the riverbank.  [Jean Garrett]

Leaders: Lu Plauzoles (310-395-6235) with Dick Barth.

Prior Reports:  September 2015, September 2014, August 2013,  September 2012,  September 2011,  October 2010

Google Map to Meeting Site

Quick, let’s raise awareness…

August 14, 2016

…for the Snowy Plover. What a magnificent opportunity Steve Lopez has given us. On the front page of the California section (Sun. Aug. 14,’16) he dedicates his column on the conflict at Sand City near Monterey where plovers are threatened by adjacent big-time development. This is a good opportunity to post on your Facebook, instagram, twitter and say “thank you, Steve Lopez”. steve.lopez@latimes.com

Western Snowy Plovers on Santa Monica Beach. L.Plauzoles 2014

Western Snowy Plovers on Santa Monica Beach. L.Plauzoles 2014

While he talks about scurrying little plovers at Sand City, I was surveying the Santa Monica site where the City had erected a fence for the past 13 years…and there wasn’t a single plover in sight! However, I found fresh dog tracks and tire tracks…Your post will help educate a few more people, and hopefully they will respect the beach as habitat at least for the rest of this summer.

Sandgrouse or Quail?: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study II

August 21, 2016

This Week’s Lesson – Sandgrouse or Quail?

This week’s topic comes from Exodus and Numbers, books two and four of the Pentateuch, when the Israelites, fearing starvation in the barren Sinai desert wastes, pine for the “fleshpots of Egypt,” and Yahweh promises to bring them manna and flesh to eat. [I’ll use Yahweh**, the commonly accepted name for the deity, as it’s the closest transliteration of the Hebrew YHVH, spelled without vowels, written in these passages.]

Climb Mt. Sinai (Rough Guides)

Climbing Mt. Sinai (Rough Guides)

The Lord [יְהוָ֖ה – Yahweh] spoke to Moses and said: “I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Say to them, “Between dusk and dark you will have flesh to eat and in the morning bread in plenty.”.…That evening a flock of quails (שְׂלָו – selav) flew in and settled all over the camp…
Exod. 16.11-13
New English Bible

Then a wind from the Lord sprang up; it drove quails (שְׂלָו – selav) in from the west, and they were flying all round the camp for the distance of a day’s journey, three feet above the ground. The people were busy gathering quails all that day, all night, and all next day, and even the man who got least gathered ten homers. [10 homers = 890 gallons!] They spread them out to dry all about the camp. But the meat was scarcely between their teeth, and they had not so much as bitten it, when the Lord’s anger broke out against the people and he struck them with a deadly plague.        Num. 11.31-33 New English Bible

 

Cartoon

Cartoon by Jeff Larson

The careful reader of these two passages, with their surrounding passages, will notice that in Exodus the quail and manna are simply sustenance as promised by Yahweh, whereas in Numbers, the quail are a punishment for the Israelite’s complaints about having only manna to eat; many of the people sicken and die from eating the quail. I’ll set aside this inconsistency and address our birder’s issues: what kind of birds are these, where did they come from, and what are they doing in the Sinai desert? Are numbers as enormous as described possible?

Sinai Peninsula satellite iew from southeast (New World Encyclopedia)

Sinai Peninsula satellite view from southeast (New World Encyclopedia)

Descriptions of birds given by non-birders are notoriously insufficient and inaccurate, as are what they think is the bird’s name. What birder has not been asked to identify a bird based on a verbal description which fits either hundreds of species (“It was dark and small…”), or no species at all? (“…with long legs and a green crest.”) One learns to be skeptical and to closely question in order to gather useful information. When I first read the above passages, the sandgrouse came immediately to mind. It’s not a quail, but an inexperienced, unconcerned or naked-eye observer might think it a quail, and binoculars were certainly lacking in the ancient Middle East.

Crowned Sandgrouse wetting their breast feathers (HotpostBirding.com)

Crowned Sandgrouse soaking their breast feathers
(HotspotBirding.com)

Sandgrouse are an interesting family of sixteen species, grouped into two genera. [Video] They are currently classified in their own order, Pterocliformes (notable wing), but they were previously placed in the order of Pigeons (Columbiformes) to whom they are remarkably similar. Sandgrouse habitats are typically described as “inhospitable,” “barren,” or “sere,” and includes wastes, plains, savanna and thorn scrub from western and southern Africa to India and Manchuria. [In a hot and unbelievably barren waste in South Africa, I once nearly stepped on a beautifully camouflaged sandgrouse, whom I did not see until it flushed from its nest and eggs, a foot from my feet.] Because they typically nest far from any water, they must swiftly fly (60 mph is common) long distances for water and carry it back to their nestlings. A unique adaptation enables them to do this: breast feathers which absorb water like a sponge and retain it well enough to allow their returning it to their young, who lap the moisture from their breast.

Birders know the most certain way to spot sandgrouse is to hide by a desert waterhole. Sandgrouse, usually in groups, visit waterholes in the morning and especially in the evening, first drinking, then wading into water to saturate their breast feathers, then flying back home. It seems that sandgrouse might be the answer to our question:  they resemble a grouse (or quail), they live only in desert-like habitats, and they invariably come to waterholes in the evening.

Crowned Sandgrouse flock at pool in Israel (Eyal Bartov)

Crowned Sandgrouse flock at pool in Israel (Eyal Bartov)

There are three species currently living in the Sinai desert and adjacent regions: Spotted (Pterocles senegallus), Black-bellied (P. orientalis), and Crowned (P. coronatus); the  Pin-tailed (P. alchata) Sandgrouse lives nearby in Arabia and Mesopotamia.

However, one problem remains. Because they are non-migratory permanent residents in their respective ranges (except for altitudinal migration of the Tibetan Sandgrouse), sandgrouse don’t congregate in large flocks as do many birds during migration, and their arid, barren homes can not support large resident concentrations of them. Perhaps sandgrouse is not the bird after all.

The Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix, (also called European or Eurasian Quail) has been very well-known for a very long time in the old world. Egyptian hieroglyphics from 5000 BC picture them. Their northern breeding range runs from western Morocco, throughout Europe to the Baltic States, across Russia and the Middle East to Lake Baikal and India. The western Eurasian breeders winter in Egypt and down the Nile River to Sub-Saharan Africa, while central Asian breeders winter in India. Some far-western birds migrate past Gibraltar, but most avoid that enormous barrier to European avian migration, the Mediterranean Sea, by flying around the east end: through Egypt, the Sinai, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and onward to Europe and western Asia. Northbound flocks can be in the hundreds; southbound groups are usually much smaller.

Common or European Quail (Jan Svetik)

Common or European Quail (Ján Svetlík)

All other quail species are non-migratory residents and are poor flyers: fast and noisy on take-off but not adapted for sustained flight, and typically fly short and low. The Common Quail, adapted to migration, is longer-winged than other quail, and while able to fly swiftly, they also fly quite low, often nearly hugging the ground. Even today, many thousands of them are netted annually during migration in Sinai and other parts of Egypt; such annual netting used to number into the millions, but the population became dangerously reduced during 1970-1990.

Sinai net-hunting is like that elsewhere in Europe; nets are strung along valleys and mountain ridges where birds fly very close to the ground to conserve energy. It’s near-certain that for as long as humans have lived in this area, migrating Common Quail have provided a tasty and bountiful springtime repast. Flying, for quail, is thirsty work, and they try to find water before night falls, when they either go to roost or continue their migration in the dark. The mirror-like shine of desert water pools, visible for miles during daylight, become invisible ink blots at night, so stopping near sundown is best. Common Quail can and do migrate during the day and/or at night, but they also need to periodically stop, rest, drink and eat.

Common Quail netted in Gaza

Common Quail netted in Gaza (Middle East Eye) [1]

We can safely conclude that the Common Quail is almost certainly the bird that reportedly helped sustain Israelites in the desert, just as they could help sustain anyone in this region during the quail’s migration, even today[1]. Their primary migration route does traverse the Sinai, they typically come to water pools in the evening, and the Bible even got the name right. This could occur only during migrations: northward from mid-February to mid-April, and, to a lesser extent, southward in September-October, when flocks are far smaller and more scattered. For all practical purposes, outside of migration, quail are absent. They don’t breed south of Palestine, nearly the entire population (previously millions, now hundreds of thousands) of birds migrate between Europe and Africa, and are present in Sinai only during migration.  The numbers described – 890 gallons of quail per gatherer – seem greatly exaggerated; sources I reviewed described flocks in the hundreds, certainly not thousands or larger. Only one question remains.

Sinai Exodus routes and mountains (AllFaith.com)

The solid red line (on this map) denotes their route from Egypt to Mount Sinai as presented in the Torah. According to the Torah, Mount Sinai can only be located at Jebel Musa, its traditionally accepted location. (All Faith.com)

The passage in Numbers 11.31-33 says that large numbers of people died almost immediately after eating the quail as a punishment for their greed. I can think of four possibilities to explain this. First, people who have not eaten meat for a long time can have a bad reaction to it. Second, sun-dried quail flesh may not be free of contamination. Third, birds, like people, can build up high levels of metabolites in their muscles during periods of sustained exertion. (Lactic acid buildup during anaerobic exercise creates that “burn” in your muscles.) Perhaps such metabolites could poison hungry, involuntary vegetarians who greedily gobble down their food (possibly sun-dried or insufficiently cooked). Fourth, many people today believe that quail migrating around the east end of the Mediterranean can accumulate toxins by eating hemlock or other poisonous plants. The term coternism (from Coturnix for “quail”) describes those who have been poisoned from eating quail. Aristotle, Philo, Galen and other ancients commented on such quail poisoning.

It has been reported that Common Quail are poisonous only during migration, and only those that fly around the eastern end of the Mediterranean; not those following other routes or while on their breeding or wintering grounds. Various food plants have been blamed: hellbore, henbane, hemlock, woundwart. Whatever the toxin, it appears to be stable, as cases have been reported of people poisoned by four-month-old pickled quail, and by potatoes fried in quail fat. Some quail eaters practicing such “dietary roulette” needed to have their stomachs pumped.

Probable Midian territories during Exodus era (New World Encyclopedia)

Probable Midian territories during Exodus era
(New World Encyclopedia)

In Exodus 2-4, Moses is described as fleeing Egypt to live for years in the “land of Midian,”, where he married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midian priest, and spent time minding Jethro’s flocks of sheep, a task which took him into the wilderness, including the vicinity of Mt. Horeb. Such an occupation would quickly teach anyone how to find water and food both for himself and his sheep, and Moses would have become quite familiar with local water holes and the periodic passage of flocks of quail, knowledge that would come in handy if one found themselves leading a crowd of foreigners through this region. As usual, biblical scholars cannot agree on the location of “Midian,” “Mt. Horeb,” “Mt. Sinai,” whether Mt. Horeb is also Mt. Sinai or not, or if the mountain has two peaks – one called Sinai, the other Horeb – the route of the Exodus, the number of people, the length of time, and just about every other detail in this entire story.

But whether these events in Exodus and Numbers actually occurred as described is, frankly, irrelevant for the purposes of this essay. We’re simply looking at what birds are mentioned, and what was written about them. The facts pertaining to Common Quail behavior as described in these passages (exaggerations excepted), actually did, and still do, occur. The events could have happened to anyone traveling through the Sinai Peninsula during quail migration season(s), and the mere fact that the description was written down in Exodus (whenever and by whomever it was written), means that they had previously occurred to some people, and were probably common knowledge. Such local knowledge concerning water and food would be essential to merchants, caravan leaders, shepherds, and anyone traveling through such a difficult and barren region.

Next installment: Jungle Fowl in Judea!
[Chuck Almdale]

** NOTE on YHVH [יְהוָ֖ה] [Yahweh]: When Moses asks – in Exodus 3:13-14 – the deity for his name so he can tell the Israelites who is sending him, YHVH is the answer. This is usually translated as “I AM.” The longer passage is “YHVH [I AM]; that is who I am. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.” The Hebrew form YHVH is actually third person – “He is” – but as the deity is depicted as explaining his own name in the first person, the explanation becomes “I am.” [New English Bible, footnote Ex. 3:12] This explanation is expanded in Ex. 3:14-15 to “I will be what I will be.” Since this was written, scholars and theologians have argued about this name, its meaning(s) and implications. It should be noted that “I AM” – in numerous languages – is widely used in Hindu and Buddhist religions as a mantra and an object of meditation; many consider it to be the briefest, truest expression of the mystical presence of the deity – or nirvana – within each human consciousness. As such, it is also being examined in the recently developing field of Neurotheology.

Note: The link to an article on Grouse netting in Gaza is placed below, rather than embedded in the text, because I decided to not leave our website permanently linked to that site.
[1] http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/common-quail-feeds-poor-gaza-594657522

Additional Sources:
1. Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 4. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. (1997) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Pg 55.
2. HBW Vol. 2. (1994) Pg. 509
3. New English Bible with the Apocrypha, Oxford Study Edition (NEB), Sandmel, Samuel General Editor, (1976) Oxford University Press, New York.
4. Birds of Europe. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D., Grant, P.J. (1999) Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Link to Part I – What About That Dove?

Full Sturgeon Moon Update – August 18, 2:26 AM PDT

August 17, 2016
tags:
by

Here’s another update from SMBAS Blog on that large, disc-like, shining object which has frequently and mysteriously appeared in our nighttime sky this year (some call it the moon).

Sturgeon fishing in days of old (google images)

Sturgeon fishing in days of old (google images)

Aug. 18, 2:26 a.m. PDT — Full Sturgeon Moon, when this large fish of the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water, such as Lake Champlain, is most readily caught.  Other variations include the Green Corn Moon or Grain Moon. No supermoon this year: the moon arrives at perigee — its closest approach to Earth — on Aug. 22, 9:22 AM PDT. Sturgeon, by the way, are very ancient and very cool fish. Hiawatha, that pestiferous egomaniac, called him the “King of Fishes,” but his treatment of Nahma the sturgeon was unsuitably disloyal.

August Moon Names from other cultures Courtesy of Keith Cooley):
Chinese: Harvest Moon; Celtic: Dispute Moon; English Medieval: Corn Moon

A monthly lunation cycle (Antonio Cidadfo, apod.NASA.gov)

A dizzying monthly lunation cycle
(Antonio Cidadfo, apod.NASA.gov)

The annual performance of the Perseid meteor shower was on the 12th-13th, but you probably missed it.

Speaking of moons, you must certainly know that Jupiter has a new man-made moon, Juno. Appropriately named for the wife of Jupiter, king of the Roman pantheon of gods (Hera and Zeus are the equivalent Greek goddess and god), Juno will make it’s first close pass around Jupiter on August 27. The successful orbit insertion on July 4 sent it into the first of two planned 53-day-long loops around Jupiter, but on this close loop around the gas giant, it will have all instruments turned on as it passes more closely than human instruments have ever been. Juno will loop down over the planet’s north pole and back up over the south pole, entering and exiting through the “doughnut hole” of Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field, 20,000 times stronger than the earth’s. Scientists hope that the 1-cm-thick casing of titanium will protect the electronics from the field’s radiation, which over the 14-month course of the mission is estimated to be equivalent to 20 million dental X-rays, but they won’t know until after this pass the accuracy of their calculations. The whole thing may get fried.

Back to earth’s moon (cue crackle of space static):
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a page for each full moon. One tip for September: Best days for harvesting belowground crops are 19th, 20th. 28th or 29th. Now you know, so you have no excuse.

The next significant full moon will occur on Sept. 16, 12:05 p.m. PDT.   Keep an eye on this spot for additional late-breaking news on this unprecedented event.

The moon name information comes to you courtesy of: http://www.space.com/31699-full-moon-names-2016-explained.html
written by Joe Rao.   Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer’s Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12, Westchester, N.Y.

But that’s waaay too long to type in, and besides, you don’t need to go there because SMBAS has done the work for you!
[Chuck Almdale]

What About That Dove? – Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study I

August 14, 2016

This Week’s Lesson – What About That Dove?

Whatever one may think of the bible, it was unarguably written long ago by humans not significantly different than us, who wrote about what they knew and what they imagined, just as we do today. Any mention of a bird means – at a minimum – the writers had noticed them, however little they might have to say about them, or however accurate it might be. In this series, we begin with what the bible says about birds, to which we add what we’ve learned over the centuries since then, to see if we can uncover anything new and interesting. Each essay begins with a citation; we start in the beginning, with Genesis, the first book of the bible.

Cartoon by Charles Addams

Cartoon by Charles Addams

“After forty days Noah opened the trap-door that he had made in the ark, and released a raven to see whether the water had subsided, but the bird continued flying to and fro until the water on the earth had dried up. ”
Genesis 8:6-7
New English Bible

Little is said about this raven [עֹרֵב – oreb], not even whether it ever returned. One suspects it didn’t. Ravens usually have their own agenda. The raven in question was almost certainly the Common Raven (Corvus corax), the same species we find today across North America and Eurasia. We’ll revisit ravens in general, and this citation in particular, in a later episode and move on to the more useful – to Noah, and to humanity by extension – dove.


“Noah waited for seven days, and then he released a dove (יוֹנִים – yonah)
from the ark to see whether the water on the earth had subsided further. But the dove could find no place to settle, and so she came back to him in the ark, because there was water over the whole surface of the earth. Noah stretched out his hand, caught her and took her into the ark. He waited another seven days and again released the dove from the ark.  She came back to him towards evening with a newly plucked olive leaf in her beak…He waited yet another seven days and released the dove, but she never came back.”   Genesis 8:8-12 New English Bible

 

Why would Noah choose to send out a dove, of all birds, and what kind of dove was it?  Ornithologists currently recognize 330 species of pigeons and doves grouped into 45 genera, so deciding which dove it was could be daunting. [All 330 species were presumably on the ark, along with the rest of the 10,000+ avian species.] Our story describes Noah’s ark as eventually coming to rest on Mt. Ararat, 16,945 feet high, 14,000-15,000 feet above the surrounding Armenian plain of eastern Turkey. We’ll assume the writer was an ordinary human who used his own experience to fill in details of his story; we’ll also assume that a bird noted was a bird familiar to the writer, and were then extant in the general region of the Middle East. In that region two dove or pigeon species predominate: the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), also known as park pigeon, homing pigeon, or carrier pigeon, and the European (or Common) Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia turtur). Biblical Hebrew uses two words for these two species: tor (תֹּר), translated as dove or turtledove, and yonah (יוֹנִים), usually translated as pigeon, but also as dove. Occasionally these words occur together, as when Leviticus 5:7 suggests using “two turtle doves or two young pigeons” as sin-offerings. Our cited passage states yonah, so Noah’s “dove” could be of either species.

European Turtle-Dove (Wikipedia)

European Turtle-Dove (Wikipedia)

Of the seventeen species in the Streptopelia genus, the European Turtle-Dove is the most widespread and common, found from the Azores Islands in the west, across northern Africa, Europe, the Mid-East and western Asia to Iran and far-western China. They are widely domesticated by humans, used as food and as caged companions. The “turtle” part of their name – as may also the Hebrew “tor” – refers to their cooing call, which sounds to human ears like the word “turtle.” This widespread impression is recognized in their name in many languages: French – Tourterelle des bois, Dutch – Tortelduif, German – Turteltaube, Swedish – Turturduva, and in the scientific species name, turtur. However, many people refer to this much-admired bird as simply “Turtle“, as did the British when the King James version of the bible was published in 1611. In recent years, and in regions which do not host turtle-doves, bible readers are often mystified by the following passage:

“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land…”     Song of Solomon 2:11-12 King James Version

Since when does one ever hear a turtle say anything? One doesn’t, and recent translations and updated versions have re-translated the Hebrew tor in this passage from “turtle” to “turtle-dove.”

Why send out a Dove?  All pigeons and doves build nests of twigs. Not very well, I should add. They may be so loosely constructed that one can see the eggs through the bottom of the nest. After a mated pair locate a suitable nest site, frequently a fork in a tree limb, they (sometimes only one) fly off to find twigs to bring back; these may be dead and broken, but living twigs may be preferred for their flexibility. One of the pair may stay to guard the site and suitably arrange returned twigs until the nest is complete. All pigeons and doves are strong and swift flyers, able to quickly cover a lot of area without needing to land. Many species can also find their way home through vast featureless areas.

Rock Pigeon at Malibu Lagoon (Jim Kenney 2-19-10)

Rock Pigeon at Malibu Lagoon
(Jim Kenney 2-19-10)

The Rock Pigeon, whom the Israelites called yonah, has been domesticated for millennia for food, feathers, fun, and not least for its ability to reliably carry messages to its home roost from any distance or direction, despite adverse conditions of weather and light. Historians report that the use of “carrier pigeons” probably began in ancient Persia, and dates to at least 1000 BCE. Phoenician merchants at sea used the pigeon post to send messages home; the Greeks used them to announce results of the Olympic games. Such an instinctive “homing” pigeon, one who seeks and gathers twigs with which to build its nest, would be the perfect animal to recruit for the task of finding and returning living vegetable matter, to indicate the end of a flood and the reemergence of land and vegetation. It could fly for hours, cover a huge area, and reliably return, bringing a live twig if it could find one, or a dead twig if that’s all it could find. Genesis says (in translation) that Noah sent out a “dove,” but in all likelihood, it was not the European Turtle-Dove but the Rock Pigeon, whose biblical Hebrew name yonah, used in this passage, is translated as either pigeon or dove.

Rock Pigeons on cliff in Israel (Igor Svobodin)

Rock Pigeons on cliff in Israel (Igor Svobodin)

The Rock Pigeon nests on barren cliffs, often in arid, confusingly-configured regions, and often had to travel wide and far to find food, water, and nesting material. This constellation of characteristics suggests that they may be the reason the species evolved such a remarkable homing ability.

The selection of the Rock Pigeon for this role in this story, demonstrates that the writer was aware of four things: First, the mere fact of this species’ existence; Second, the bird’s ability to fly fast and far; Third, its natural desire to seek and

Peace dove with Olive Branch (Google)

Peace dove with Olive Branch (Google)

bring back twigs for the purpose of nest-building; Fourth, its remarkable ability to recall the location of its home roost in the vastness of an unfamiliar and potentially featureless region. The earliest use of the Rock Pigeon as “carrier” pigeon is probably unrecorded, but here we see a suggestion that it was known, at the time of this story, in the Middle East. Because of this biblical passage, doves are now symbols of peace (or the forgiveness of an angry deity) and the olive branch is a symbolic peace-offering.

Linguistic confusion between pigeon and dove remains common today. There is no set rule as to which is which. Typically, larger birds are pigeons, smaller birds are doves. Each of the 45 genera in Columbiformes – with one exception – consists (in English) entirely of pigeons or entirely of doves, never a mixture. The sole exception is the genus Columba (which includes our Rock Pigeon) comprising 36 species, of which three are called “dove,” the rest are “pigeons.” The continuing drive for English avian nomenclatural consistency, including the goal of calling all species in the Columba genus by the name of “pigeon” brought, in 2003, the change from Rock Dove to Rock Pigeon. By it’s size it should be called a pigeon. All it’s closest relatives are called pigeons. The bible (except Noah) calls it a pigeon, park statues everywhere call it a pigeon, messenger services call it a pigeon. But speakers of English long branded it a dove, and, in biblical translation ever since, it has remained a dove.

Carrier Pigeon hauling a canary (Weird Universe)

Carrier Pigeon carries a canary (WeirdUniverse)

The native range of Rock Pigeon is obscured by domestication. For millennia they have accompanied humans, and the descendants of escaped and released birds number into the many millions, if not billions, world-wide. They do not migrate. Their original range probably extended from the mountains of Morocco in the west to the eastern Indian Himalayas. They nest on ledges and in holes of rocky cliffs, hence the name Rock Pigeon. They have survived and spread exceedingly well throughout the modern world because humans have considerately constructed ledge-filled artificial cliffs for them, which we call buildings and bridges, and freely fed them sumptuous feasts, which we call trash.

Rock Pigeons on man-made cliffs (Chuck Bragg 9-25-11)

Rock Pigeons relaxing on man-made cliffs (Chuck Bragg 9-25-11)

Incidentally, Genesis 8:12 misrepresents this faithful and vigorous bird when saying it did not return to the ark. Very little will keep a Rock Pigeon from returning to its home roost. They do not often become lost. Only accidents, predation, or (unlikely) a new mate would keep it away from its home, its nest, and its mate. As all animals except our pigeon (or dove) were supposedly still parked on the ark at this time, there would be no predators or potential mates to keep it away. The disappearance of our pigeon is almost certainly a metaphor, a case of the biblical writer taking literary license to send a signal to the alert reader. After its scouring, the damp, new earth has received our pigeon – and all her living creatures by extension, including wayward humans – back into her fruitful arms.

Addendum on Noah and the Flood
The biblical story of Noah and the flood is greatly predated by the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. First discovered in Nineveh in 1853 and translated in 1870, the epic – considered by many scholars to be the first written work of literature in the world – dates to about 2100 BCE and relates the adventures of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk in southeastern Mesopotamia. It was a popular story of that age

Mesopotamia & location of Uruk, city of Gilgamesh (nkerns.com)

Mesopotamia & location of Uruk, city of Gilgamesh (nkerns.com)

and region, and parts of it have been found in excavations of other ancient cities. The description of the flood occurs near the epic’s end when Gilgamesh travels far to the northwest to find Utnapishtim, the then-immortal survivor of an ancient

Deluge Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic in Akkadian script (Wikipedia)

Deluge Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic in Akkadian script (Wikipedia)

flood. In Utnapishtim’s narration, the rains lasted six days and nights; the boat then grounded on Mt. Nisir, a hatch was opened and the mountain could be seen; the boat rested for 6 days and nights; Utnapishtim then released a dove, which returned; a sparrow was released which also returned; a raven was released which found food, flew around and did not return. Utnapishtim then left the boat and made a sacrifice on the mountaintop. It is illuminating to compare these details to those found in Genesis 6-9.

This story is now near-universally accepted by biblical scholars as the origin of the flood story found in Genesis, but before its complete translation in 1870, no one knew that the story of Noah’s flood was not original with Genesis, but was based on a far earlier story.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, translation and introduction by N.K. Sandars, 1964, Penguin Books, Baltimore. Pgs 7-16, 105-110.

Next Week’s Lesson: Sandgrouse or Quail?

[Chuck Almdale]
[This is the first in a series]

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