JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Komchen de Los Pájaros
just outside Dzemul, Yucatán, Mexico

December 12, 2004

PINK FLAMINGOS
The other day I made my first trip to the Gulf of Mexico's beach ten miles north of here. It's been eight or nine years since I've seen the ocean, so you can imagine my pleasure seeing the big waves moving in, smelling and feeling the cool, salty air, and watching the gulls and terns fishing offshore.

The beach is OK for swimming but not to be compared with Cancun. It looks great for beachcombing, however, with more large, ornate seashells than most such beaches. On the beach itself during our late afternoon visit there wasn't another human being.

Before reaching the beach we'd crossed some mudflats where about a thousand American Flamingos foraged for food.

In years passed I've seen flamingos at the big coastal national parks near here, Celestún and Río Lagartos, but there you had to take boatrides to see the birds. I was unprepared when our road -- the same one passing by Komchen and where I jog each morning -- emerged from a mangrove thicket and there stood all those flamingos, many quite nearby. Ana María said that sometimes they come right up to the road's edge.

You hardly know what to think when you see something like that. Imagine, the late-afternoon blue sky shimmering above a broad, silvery expanse of shallow water, and all that vivid, animated pinkness milling about in it.

The flamingos, evenly spaced across the flats maybe twenty feet from one another, slowly glided through the shallow water on legs so long and slender they always seemed about to break. Perched so high above the water, when the birds lowered their heads, their heads were almost upside-down. Then you saw how those huge, banana-shaped beaks were used. Held right-side-up the beaks look comically awkward but when the head is held almost upside-down the beak becomes a perfectly formed scoop that scrapes into the mud and filters out the birds' food, which is algae and small marine life such as snails and bottom-dwelling insect larvae. There's a fine description of flamingo feeding habits at www.seaworld.org/infobooks/Flamingos/fdiet.html.

Flamingos need long necks because their long legs put their bodies so high above the water. The long legs are not used for wading deep water but, rather, for giving the bird's bodies a high-enough position to make it easy to swing the long-necked head through a lot of water, without having to move the body too much. At first glance the flamingo's construction looks too awkward to be real, but, when you study the matter, everything makes sense.

What doesn't make sense is the shear prettiness of flamingos being themselves at dusk. When you come upon a big flock of flamingos in a silvery mudflat at dusk, you know that the Creator has an intention beyond just exercising such mundane matters as evolving life to higher states and transferring energy from one trophic level to another. Also, it brings up the question of why we humans are created so that we regard such things as beautiful

Flamingos prove that the Creator not only has a fine sense of humor, but also a certain flair. Also, they prove that even if the Creator isn't caring much about what happens to us humans on a daily basis, She's at least cared enough about us over time that, when we allow ourselves, we can be really tickled with what we are, where we are.

Sea World provides a very nice flamingo page at www.seaworld.org/infobooks/Flamingos/home.html.

*****

CHACHALACAS AT DAWN
Each morning as I jog along the road leading north to the beach, at a certain moment the chachalacas begin calling. I'm talking about ORTALIS VETULA, a species that looks half turkey and half pheasant. Chachalacas are considered "gallinaceous birds," along with turkeys, grouse, quail and pheasants. You can see pictures and read about our species, called Plain Chachalacas, at www.nhptv.org/natureworks/chach.htm.

Chachalacas are long-tailed, long-necked, brown birds with wingspreads of over two feet, so they are good- sized birds. Usually they flock together in thickets, in small numbers. They like to keep low and usually you hear them much more than see them. Their call is incredibly loud and raucous, even keeping in mind their hefty size.

The sound they make is reminiscent of the screeching a wet balloon makes when it's rubbed hard with your hands. The sound is given rhythmically, with the phrases much repeated.

One interpretation of the call is that there's a high- pitched, squeaky one sounding like the bird is saying "Knock it off! Knock it off! Knock it off!" while another bird calls in a much lower, hoarse voice "Keep it up! Keep it up! Keep it up!" You can imagine what a dozen or so sound like calling all at once.

The most vivid memory I have related to chachalacas is one from back in the 80s when one early morning I was sitting quietly just off a trail in lowland San Luis Potosí, watching for birds. A young Nauahatl Indian woman came along on her way to the market, carrying a small child on her back. Just as they passed me the chachalacas burst into an obstreperous uproar.

"Niño," she whispered, "listen too how pretty the chachalacas sing."

*****

FAMILIAR AND UNFAMILIAR ANIMALS
Not all animals found here are as exotic to North American minds as flamingos and chachalacas. In fact, the first two bird species listed when I arrived here well might have been the last two noted before leaving my recent Mississippi home -- Black and Turkey Vultures. The very same species.

A good number of bird species migrate from North America to or through here to escape the northern winter. Lately I've seen Northern Catbirds, Summer Tanagers, White-eyed Vireos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Yellowthroats and Eastern Kingbirds, all familiar to any serious birder in eastern North America. Of the 537 bird species known to occur in the Yucatan Peninsula, 128 North American species overwinter here regularly each year. Another 54 species just pass through the Yucatan, heading farther south.

Lots of birds here are similar to our North American species, but not the same. A mockingbird looking almost exactly like a US mockingbird hangs about my little house, but it's the Tropical Mockingbird, not the US one. The most common bird at Komchen is a dove looking, sounding and behaving just like an average North American dove, except that it has a white wing bar. It's the White-winged Dove.

Opossums, armadillos, Eastern Cottontails, Gray Foxes, Raccoons, Weasels, Striped Skunks, and White-tailed Deer all occur here, according to the books and the locals I talk to, but so far I've not seen any of them. Hunting is often done here to put food on the table, and hunting seasons are not closely controlled, so that's one reason most of the larger mammals are fairly rare. Each morning when I'm jogging at dawn it's surprising to see how many men pass me on their bicycles, with guns slung over their shoulders.

I don't want to underrate the differences between here and the US. Suffice it to say that at Komchen I can also hope to see Ocelots, Coati, Pacas, and Collared Anteaters...

*****

ALUSHOB AND LLORONAS
I tend to be as forgetful and abstracted here as anyplace else. The workers here already laugh at how frequently I lose my shirt. Well, by mid-morning it's too hot to wear a shirt, so when I hang it someplace, who can predict where that will be, and how hard it will be to find later?

The workers suggest that alushob are playing tricks on me. Alushob are like that, not really demonic in a bad way, yet naughty enough to make life miserable for anyone giving them a chance. You don't want to fool with alushob, or, for that matter, anything from that other world coexisting with our own, in a spooky, mysterious way.

When I lived in Belize, folks had the same attitude about duendes. In fact, from what I've heard so far, there's no difference between alushob and duendes. Maybe they even grade into our elves and gnomes, though Walt Disney has taken the rough edge off these. By the way, "alushob" is a Yucatec Maya word in the plural form, with the singular state accomplished by dropping the "ob."

We also have lloronas here (pronounced yo-RO-nas), and they went by that name in Belize, too. Around here the Maya speak of xtabay, not lloronas, but they're the same thing. LLoronas are women who have suffered some horrible misfortune in the past, so now they wander the Earth crying ("llorona" means "one who cries"). When a man is attracted to the crying, he is instantly seduced, with the most tragic of outcomes. It well might be that LLoronas include among their roots Odysseus's wailing sirens.

Do people really believe in alushob and lloronas? My sense is that a small percentage of people really do, a somewhat larger percentage don't in the least, and the masses will laugh and say they don't, but on a dark night under the right circumstances they may believe in them enough to not roam too far from the house, maybe even to lock the doors and windows and stay inside.

The LLorona is such an important feature of Latin culture that she has her own website, at www.lallorona.com/html/index.html.

*****

DZEMUL'S BULLFIGHTS
The Maya citizens of Dzemul, who call themselves Dzemuleños, are inordinately proud of their yearly city festival, which is taking place now. There's a great deal of church-going, dancing all night, very loud music and exploding rockets. All this takes place nearly a mile from Komchen, yet the noise is still loud for us at 4 AM. The festival's highlight is the bullfighting.

They've been working on the bullfight arena for weeks and you should see how it's put together. Erected in the plaza beside the cathedral, and thus just across the street from where I issue these Newsletters, the arena is of classic, wrap-around amphitheater design, surrounding the fighting area with two and three levels holding bleachers and standing room.

The amazing thing is that the superstructure is constructed mostly of machete-shaped wooden poles and locally sawed slats and boards, and all these are tied together with "grass string" made from fiber from sisal agaves such as those grown locally. Only a very few metal bolts are used in the most critical spots. Walls of green palm-thatch are hung to keep outsiders from watching the fights for free.

Bullfights are presented on five or six evenings, usually with seven bulls fighting each night. The bulls arrive at the arena in boxes in the backs of trucks and are let out one at a time to fight. For all but the last fight of each night, antagonizing the bulls is limited to waving red capes before them, and once the bulls finish their cape-charging they're boxed up again and trucked to another town for more fighting.

However, each night's last fight is more serious. The bull is made combative by sticking dangling darts beneath his back's skin, then at the end of the fight the bull is killed.

*****

BULLFIGHTS & CHRISTMAS
It's interesting to examine people's responses to events such as Dzemul's bullfights. People who in regular life would never hurt any large animal, during these festivals are glad to see bulls tortured and killed.

We humans have evolved so that most of us can flip from one moral framework to another with little effort, and it's easy to understand why. Such flexibility comes in handy when an individual is expected to be a nurturing member of the tribe one day, and the next day a warrior or soldier required to murder as many of "the other" as possible.

The thing is, in today's grossly overpopulated world where nature is on the ropes and political extremism and religious fanaticism are desensitizing us to those unlike ourselves, this kind of moral flip-flopping no longer has a place. The danger of human ignorance and insensitivity is so great to life on Earth and to human civilization that there is only one solution: We must engender a whole new generation of Earth citizens who are profoundly respectful to the sanctity of life in general, and to the true value and beauty of human diversity.

Yet, our society seems bent on doing exactly the opposite of that. The desensitizing effects of Dzemul's publicly sanctioned bull-torturing and killing is nothing compared to the daily doses of violent TV to which US children are subjected. And the painful death of a few bulls is nothing to be compared with the vast acreage of forest ecosystem demolished to provide the wrapping paper that on Christmas morning will litter the floors of millions of US homes.

One reason it's so hard for most people to come to grips with the dark sides of our cherished institutions is that consciously and unconsciously we intimately associate destructive elements of our traditions with the more benign elements we cherish and need.

Thus even if most Dzemuleños someday agree that publicly torturing bulls is unacceptable, it'll be hard for them to give up their bullfights because so many very agreeable activities -- the music, the dancing, the great food -- are associated with the fights.

Similarly, I don't expect us to soon abandon our destructive, self-indulgent, consumption-oriented Christmas behaviors because so much about the rest of Christmas gives us warm, fuzzy feelings. Nor will it be easy to replace trouble-making religious fanaticism with spontaneous, natural, Creator-focused spirituality, because in our minds formal religions have laid claim to the pleasant ritual, the sense of mystery, the traditional church-music and holiday eating and sociality we all care so much about.

Still, one can hope for a day when a critical mass of humanity will begin seeing that it's possible and necessary to enjoy life-confirming, low-impact festivals and holidays while rejecting destructive, unenlightened behaviors. Dzemuleños will keep their yearly festivals with all the music, dancing, eating and visiting they can stand, but they'll give up their bull-torturing. And gringo Christmases will be just as full of "Christmas cheer" as they ever were, maybe even with a touch of spirituality about them, but today's excessive, obsessive commercialization will simply be abolished.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net