For the Birds

As soon as you walk in the door at the Youth Science Institute (YSI) in Alum Rock park you know this place is for the birds. A collection of birds, some now extinct, from many locales gaze out of glass cases. This is the Holmes Bird Collection, an extensive collection of about three hundred birds collected during the late 1800s.

But these birds are no longer the life of the party. As you walk into the small animal room just to the left of the entrance, eyes will be watching you. Perched high on a ledge up close to the ceiling are some very real hawks and owls.

Almost from the day it opened in 1953, YSI has housed birds of prey. The birds are there because of some misfortune. The Swainsons hawk, for example, has only one wing, the result of an accident some twenty-seven years ago. Only a Great-horned owl has been there longer, thirty years now. These two raptors have been joined by five others–another Great-horned owl, a screech owl, a barred and a barn owl and a Red-tailed hawk. All non-releasable, these birds earn their keep as part of YSI’s exhibits and school programs teaching thousands each year about birds and the food chain that helps maintain the balance of nature.

When these birds are not working–even hawks and owls need days off–they live in aviaries behind the YSI building. Now twelve years old, these plywood structures are melting down. Alum Rock Park is no stranger to moving earth. Several wet winters in the last decade have brought mud cascading down the hillside in back of the building. Mud flowed in and around these aviaries. Moisture has rotted framing and doors.

YSI has permits, renewable each year, from California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to house these birds, which technically are residents of California, not YSI. Over the years the regulations from these two agencies have changed. More space is now mandated in order to house our feathered co-workers.

All of this means one thing for YSI. We must build new aviaries. This we will do over the next year–behind a retaining wall with a concrete foundation that won’t rot away. Marvin Bamburg, an architect who, with his wife Bonnie, a member of the YSI Guild, has been a long-time friend of YSI. He has donated a plan. We have written  grant proposals and are seeking donors to pay for the new structure which has an estimated cost of $100,000 and will house four birds. The YSI Guild has contributed $20,000 to kick off the project. Private donations have started coming in and Philips Electronics is sponsoring a fund-raising dinner for the project.

YSI is seeking friends for these birds that are facing a housing crisis. If you would like to be one, you may call for more information (408) 356-4945. Seats a a very fancy dinner at the Fairmont on December 9 are still available and there are other ways to help too. You may send a donation marked Fly with YSI to YSI, 16260 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose, CA 95127. You can sponsor an aviary (there are four)  or a retaining wall and have your name on it or give it as a gift to someone you love. Or you can simply come visit the birds and tell others about them.

Whatever you do, the birds will benefit.


The Beast

huge machine sitting next to a houseThe “beast” sat in the driveway where normally a Ford would be parked. It towered above the modest house. A giant monster ready to devour all in its path, it was a machine of destruction with a name that is not part of my vocabulary. On a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood, much like the ones many of grew up in, this giant with its claw-like arm and metal treads stood half again as tall as the simple two-story bungalow it sat next to. It menaced the tranquility of the fall morning.

By evening it had consumed its “prey”. The house had vanished. Not a trace remained. The “beast” sat folded down, inert as if sated by the feast of the day. The houses on either side looked vulnerable, their sides now open, exposing the shabby shingles on the on-story to the north and the sagging lean-to addition at the back of the two-story to the south. With their weaknesses now exposed, would they too be sacrificed to this behemoth?

Some years ago, with my mother, I visited the city where she grew up and I was born. We went to find the house she had lived in as a girl–a large house where her widowed mother and grandmother had taken in boarders to keep the family afloat. The address was one that now was buried deep in the heart of the city, not on is outskirts as it had once been. We turned down the street the house had been on. Mother could not find many landmarks. And, of course, the house was gone.

I have turned down familiar roads and found buildings that were there the day before missing–wiped out in a single day. Sometimes whole blocks have disappeared–shabby strip malls or even once-classy shopping centers reduced to rubble.

The world has a system of renewing itself. For eons there have been fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tides, seasons; births, deaths, mutations that have worked to both renew and, at the same time, preserve the earth. We have come to recognize these as part of our history. But we have the power to control our own history too. The question is what should we keep from the past and what can we do without. How do we make these decisions, and who should be the ones to decide?

I will miss the small house that is gone, but not too much and not for very long. It will soon recede and vanish from my memory. I did not grow up there. I think there was a giant eucalyptus once not far from the house? I’m not sure. I hope not too many things go–at least not all at once.


The Root of the Matter

Photo of a Jerusalem cricket next to a quarterOctober 1, the perfect moment to plant garlic for next year, was approaching. Garlic planted in October will yield fat juicy heads by June to last  me another year. Planted earlier, it grows too fast and is zapped by winter storms. Planted later, it grows too slowly and bolts before it’s fully grown.

I loaded my wheelbarrow with rich moist compost, a product of the remains of last year’s garden. A growing new mound, the remnants of this year’s harvest, replaced it. Over the year it will turn from a dry, crackly heap of stems and leaves to dark soft crumbly dough. Garlic loves it.

I scooped up heaping handfuls of this rich stuff, threw it on the bed where the garlic would rest, and prepared to dig it in. But I stopped short. There in the midst of the wheelbarrow lan an insect about two inches long. It was pale and inert, but something about it told me it was not dead. It seemed to move slightly as if it were trying to wake from a long sleep. I have become used to the worms in the compost and have learned that they signal good health in the soil. But this was more than I had bargained for.

Bugs have always seemed foreign to me–so remote from what I know that they seem as if they are from another planet. Yet there is something weird enough about their appearance to make them fascinating to look at –especially when they are just lying there and not doing something unpredictable (and when they are not in my house). I’m not a scientist, unless curiosity counts, but from somewhere in a far off corner of my mind came the name Jerusalem cricket. I decided to find out if I was right.

But what should I do with the critter whose sleep I had so abruptly disrupted? I took it back to what remained of the compost and buried it once again, pleased that I had donned garden gloves before I started the whole project.

Later, I consulted the internet and my field guide on insects. The creature, it seems, is native to our area and is not a pest. It is known in Spanish as niña de la tierra, child of the earth. It does not sting and is not poisonous, although it can bite. Its main diet is roots. So why should I disturb its slumber? In summer when temperatures soar and the land becomes dry, it seeks moist havens where it can sleep, turning pale in the darkness, until the rains of winter arouse it. Roots swell and soil softens. It returns to live the second and last year of its life underground. I woul be no Lady Macbeth and murder this guest as it slept in my compost.

But I do hope the roots my cricket favors are those of weed and not those of garlic. On second thought, maybe I should just plant an extra row or two.

This DJ is a Natural

Photo of Dorothy Johnson holding a hawk as students watchDorothy Johnson, or D.J. as she is known to most, always seems to have a rat on her shoulder, a bird on her wrist, or a snake in her hand. It has always been thus with her, and it no wonder. Her mother and father met on a Sierra Club hike and climbed a mountain in Colorado three months before she was born.

Local wild creatures can consider themselves lucky to have a friend and champion like D.J. who has progressed from collecting butterflies, tadpoles and lizards to raising deer in her backyard, handling an eagle at YSI in the mid ’80s, and nursing an injured bobcat back to life. h she believes are the native wild animals–or being a strident activist on their behalf if she thought it would do any good.

D.J. is soft-spoken, kind and gentle, but she can hold agroup of fifth graders spellbound without raising her voice, or laugh and joke with the most awkward or defiant teenager. Her face shows tension and even underlying anger when she talks about how seriously concerned she is about the problems we are creating for ourselves. She can imagine herself lashing out to support the under dog–which she believes are the native wild animals–or being a strident activist on their behalf if she thought it would do any good.

But it is not her nature to attack, even those whose values she does not share. She is a persuader, an educator, an example to those who will watch. And she is fascinating to watch and to listen to as she carefully climbs a ladder to take the Swainson’s hawk on her gloved hand. Slowly and carefully she glides down and walks outside with the bird where she places it on a perch where it can take the sun.

YSI’s birds have all been injured and could not survive if released into the wild. They, like D.J., have become a bridge to a world most of us are no longer part of–a world of soaring hawks and eagles, of snakes they feed on, of rats and birds that nourish snakes, of seeds and insects that feed rats and birds–a world where interdependency is key.

But D.J. is not just a naturalist and a teacher, she is a scientist with a healthy curiosity and a need to know. Animals that do not or have not survived that come into her world are used to learn more about it. She carefully dissects and preserves skeletons that show how a snake’s jaw works or a bird’s wing is constructed–specimens that are used to teach children.

D.J. is not a romantic idealist. This is not a placid world we have all come into. She knows better than most that it is not easy to survive in the animal kingdom we are part of–neither for man nor beast. And it never has been. But in spite of the obstacles we have, some of which we create for ourselves, D.J. continues by both her actions and her words to help reconcile for us the realities of a world that can be both harsh and beautiful.

D.J. has bee YSI’s animal curator since 1978. You can see her and some of the wildlife she know so well at YSI’s Fifteenth Annual Wildlife Festival at Alum Rock Park, Sunday, October 8 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For a schedule of events visit or call (408) 248-4322.



Slow But Sure

YSI's desere tortoise on the lawn about to eat a dandelionTechnology is here to stay. It has revolutionized the way we do things. Much has been said about both the joys and the sorrows it has visited on the planet, but it is not just a passing fad that will soon disappear.

In 1990 when I first started working at the Youth Science Institute (YSI), there was one computer–a Mac that had been acquired through a generous donation. To support its use, a laser printer, a costly addition, had been purchased and for many years slowly churned out perfectly printed pages. But with seven employees waiting to use this one computer, you sometimes had to take a number and spend days in the queue.

The first day I sat at that computer at YSI, I felt something moving around my feet. I looked down and, to my amazement, found a desert tortoise (seventy years old, I learned) slowly walking over my shoes. This was not an ordinary job, I realized. But I got used to it.

YSI, unlike many businesses, made accommodations for desert tortoises, but like many businesses, also mad accommodations to technology. Little by little, things changed.

Computers took root. They got faster and had more memory and did graphics and come with color monitors and changed as fast as a teenager. And so did YSI. We got more computers as our friends outgrew their old ones and got new ones. They donated them faster than we could use them. We ended up with an assortment of Macs and PCs and strung them together as bes we could with telephone wire into a jerry-rigged network.

But the time came when dissatisfaction set in. The computers and their care were taking more time than they were saving. This mishmash of mismatched machinery was high maintenance. We all had better computers at home than we did at work.

So we did it. We sprang for a real, if not up-to-the-minute, network. Most of the time things work fine, but occasionally something goes wrong. All does not always run smoothly. Usually we are able to figure out why, but sometimes it takes more than a minute.

There was, for example, the time last month when–in the middle of a print job–the printer suddenly stopped. There seemed to be no logical reason. It was obviously plugged in. It had been printing. Everything was running. I checked the breakers. No problem there. I clicked on the icon in the printer folder. No problem there. I tried turning the printer off and on. Still nothing.

Finally, in desperation, I got down on the floor and reached far back under the cabinet to make sure the cord was plugged into the power strip. It was. I could feel it firmly seated in the receptacle. But then as I put my head on the floor to look and make sure I was not being deceived. I found the source of the problem. Sitting on the switch on the power strip was the desert tortoise.

I hope technology is not the only thing that is here to stay.


Which Way Did They Go?

Photo of a tree frog on a leafThe sounds of a summer night are hard to isolate. They blend together in a concert of vibrations variously created, each overlapping and interlacing the other. Sometimes breezes in leaves accompany a concerto of crickets or cicadas; sometimes a full orchestra of insects is punctuated with the call of owls and the percussion of deer hooves on rocky slopes.

Summer sounds are unlike spring’s chorus when there can be no doubt that tree frogs command the spotlight provided by the moon, singing solo and in quartets and choirs. Tree frogs herald spring and announce a new generation. Glistening necklaces of shimmering eggs appear in the pond in the aftermath of their performances. But tree frogs grow silent as summer approaches. Soon tiny tadpoles appear in ponds and puddles. I have watched them grow. Small legs appear alongside tails. Legs grow larger; tails smaller. By mid-summer the pond no longer sports these amphibians. They have taken to land–although not, as their name implies, to the trees.

This year I bid adieu to the frogs when I could no longer find them swimming in the pond and wished them well. Where they disappear to and how they live until spring when they come noisily back to cast quivering beads in every puddle and pool is a mystery to me.

Then early one morning this week, while watering plants in the garden, out of the corner of my eye I saw movement on a leaf. Thinking it was probably a leaf hopper (or grass hopper to those of us raised in the Midwest) I leaned down to take a closer look. There, to my great delight, was a tree frog no bigger than my thumbnail hopping from leaf to leaf, and finally ducking under a shrub. So that’s where they went! Lovely light brown with a black and tan stripe by its eye, I am sure I recognized it as one of the tadpoles I had seen in the pond a month or two ago. Older–yes, but I connected again as if we had seen each other only yesterday.

And so it goes with good friends. There are those I have known in years past whose daily lives have diverged from mine. Sometimes we meet again many years later, and it is as if we had never parted–those I once worked with or students I knew from my days in the classroom. They moved on, or I did, graduated or left  to chart courses unknown. I wished them well, knowing I might never see them again.

Every now and then I hear how those I once knew are faring. But sometimes there is a surprise or two in store. Just occasionally I recognize someone, or they recognize me. Connections are made. I no longer need imagine what happened to them. They are once again real, as real as the frogs–frogs I know well–hopping about in my very real garden.