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Of Aphis and Ants, the end of the anthropocene

Marta had been awoken as usual by their antennae softly stroking her on the inner wrist. They seemed to wait until they were sure she was awake before crawling up her arm. They stroked her arm again just inside the elbow. She suspected they were administering a local anaesthetic.  She waited with the usual sense of dread for the tiny pin pricks as they probed. There were always just three of them.  Were they the same three ants every day? She couldn't tell. They were on the large size for ants, but ants they were, although their proboscides was more mosquito like than  that of any ant.  It was over in a few minutes. They waddled off with the bags inside their legs full of her blood. They disappeared under the door.  There was no keeping them out. They could fire off acid to dissolve any lock, any door, and leave humans a pulpy heap if they resisted or tried to fight back.
They always made Marta think of the ants on the rose bushes she observed as a child, herding and milking aphids…
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Eastern Rosella

I usually see eastern rosellas, Platycercus eximius, on the outskirts of town, in rapid flight so that one does not easily catch sight of their georgous yellow, blue, green, and red plumage.
The call of the eastern rosella, a sharp piercing three syllable whistle on an ascending scale, I find quite disconcerting. Somehow, that a parakeet should whistle seems incongruous to me. They also exhibit metallic and piping notes at rest and soft chattering or babbling while feeding.
The eastern rosella, according to the ornithologist WRB Oliver, was imported to New Zealand in 1910 when a small shipment that had been refused entry by the Customs Department was released off Otago Heads from the ship that brought them. Other populations became established around Auckland in the 1920s and Wellington in the 1960s and are now the most common and widespread parakeet throughout the North Island. These flocks are also assumed to have originated from escaped caged birds but until some research is done,…

Turkeys and the domestic contract between animals and farmers

I suppose one should be forgiven for thinking about turkeys at Thanksgiving or Christmas but I wonder how many realise how much the wild turkey is part of our rural landscape, so much so that Americans now come out here to the Bay of Plenty to hunt them. When I first came to the Bay of Plenty, I was much taken by the mobs of wild turkeys wandering about the district. I was especially interested in those wandering about my neighbours’ farms but soon learned that the turkeys were not so wild that my neighbour’s did not have a propriety interest in them. Turkeys were introduced to New Zealand around the 1890s. In those days, until around the 1950s, most farms raised a few pigs and had a mob of turkeys along with “chooks” and ducks to give a greater self-sufficiency than is apparent on most farms today. The turkeys were half domesticated and half wild in that the mobs were allowed to roam free but were occasionally fed maize. The chore of rounding up the mob to feed them usually fell to the …

Elegy for an old ewe

Elegy Out of the morning light she appeared, suddenly there On the side of the road, white and clean shorn, she looked Me straight in the eye, and for a chill moment, unhinged me, She scared the living daylights out of me, as I drove by.
Just an old ewe, chewing her cud, yellow eyes bold and glassy, defiant, Head held high, strutting her stuff, there on the side of the road. “Cheeky bitch”, I could hear some farmer, this farmer, say Before setting the dogs on her, and for nothing more, for no good reason Other than for escaping from a paddock bare of grass. “It had been a hard winter!” but it was always a hard winter For an old ewe wanting to make milk to feed her lambs, Twins I knew, tucked carefully away somewhere Behind a bush out of a bitter cold spring wind In that paddock bare of grass, of dead and dying lambs and ewes. “Farming here in this green New Zealand land is just a matter of controlled starvation.”
What can one say about an old ewe, fit for dog tucker. That she had seen it all, worried …

A Murder of Rooks

From Southland to Northland, Regional Councils around the country are once again putting out the call for sightings of rooks, Corvis frugilegus, in their efforts to exterminate them.
The rook is a minor agricultural pest, on a par with the yellowhammer, so how did this bird become a target for extermination rather than control? How did this bird become an unwanted organism under the Biosecurity Act?
The rook is a black, hoarse–voiced bird about the size of a magpie which was brought to New Zealand from Britain between 1862 and 1874 to help control agricultural pests. Unlike many other European birds introduced at the same time, rooks spread very slowly at first. Even as late as 1970, they were largely confined to parts of the Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu, southern Wairarapa and Canterbury.
In the 1971 rooks were declared an agricultural pest in the Hawke’s Bay, largely because of the damage done to emerging crops.  Something like 35,000 thousand were shot, probably about half the population. Co…

Life after death - William Donald (Bill) Hamilton, 1936-2000.

“I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un–fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.”

In Memory of Bill Hamilton Obituary: William Donald Hamilton (1936-2000) (Nature 404: 828, 2000). Robert Trivers W. D. Hamilton was one of the greatest evolutionary theorists since Darwin. Certainly, where social theory based on natural selection is …

The Dandelion Clock

The children, his grand-children, were playing in the paddock at the back of the house where their ponies were kept. They were picking dandelion seed heads and blowing the beautifully formed parachuted seeds away.  James smiled and drew heavily on his cigar. Sol had undoubtedly taught them, or taught his daughters who had passed it on. It was a game he and Sol had played as children, blowing the seeds all away, each puff counting an hour. A silly inconsequential game, but just the sort of idiosyncratic thing his old friend Sol loved.
James was sitting on the back porch smoking his weekly cigar, waiting for the weekend guests to arrive. Sol was also coming for the weekend, Jane had told him just this morning.  So what, he wondered, had enticed him this time? He was a regular dinner party guest at their New York apartment overlooking the Park, where Jane had developed an enviable reputation as a New York hostess,  but he almost never came to their country retreat, preferring his own cabi…