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Sandhill Crane Hunting

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Like a big wingshot bird, the proposal by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission to open season on sandhill cranes in 2011 keeps flopping around in my head. People who object to hunting sandhill cranes do so for a number of reasons. However, we are generally characterized by advocates of hunting as being uninformed, leading with our hearts rather than our heads. Perhaps they’re right.

Sandhill cranes dropping into a Tennessee field. Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

I will confess to having trouble getting my head around the reasoning behind the Tennessee crane hunting proposal. Plant 750 acres of feed crops for waterfowl. Watch sandhill cranes join the ducks and geese in exploiting the superabundant food. Start a festival for people who enjoy observing the stately birds. Celebrate a festival for 17 years as the wintering crane population swells to 48,000, and watch as a portion of the flock ceases to migrate, sticking around to feed on early spring plantings of winter wheat. Cancel the festival, then shuffle its dates around, back off the food crops to 450 acres, and propose a hunting season on cranes. All the while, grant crop depredation permits, giving farmers permission to shoot cranes that stay around late enough to eat their germinating winter wheat. I confess I’m left scratching my head. I have an incomplete understanding of the wildlife management principles illustrated here. From my uninformed perspective, it seems ill-advised to offer a migratory bird population so much artificial food that it ceases to migrate as it's been doing since the Pleistocene. Is shooting about 2% of the population really the best answer?

When shooting starts on private land around the Hiwassee refuge, Tennessee ornithologists predict that cranes, along with ducks and geese, will make for the refuge. Cranes may be too dumb to divine that the corn managers planted was intended only for ducks and geese, but they are smart enough to avoid places where they’re being fired on. I've seen it suggested that this will actually benefit birders, providing better viewing on the refuge than they'd have were the cranes dispersed on private land. Well, here's something to think about. Concentrating a large population of cranes in a smaller area can result in overcrowding and disease. Birders know that. They want what's best for the birds, not for themselves. I can't imagine any birdwatcher I know saying, "Oh good! They're shooting cranes right outside the refuge! More cranes for ME!!"

What is needed here, it seems, is not more crowding but a natural dispersal of the population, encouraging them to move on south. Now, being a birdwatcher, I admit to being ignorant of the fine points of wildlife management, but what if Tennessee were to taper off the feeding program? Maybe the cranes would keep heading south when the food ran out. Silly, I know, but it’s just crazy enough--it might work. The converse certainly worked.

Tennessee is the first state in the Eastern Flyway to propose a hunting season on sandhill cranes. Kentucky announced its crane hunting season on December 6, 2010. I heard it on the radio as I was writing this post, stopping in mid-tap to stare at the speakers. And oddly, Kentucky isn’t accepting public comment. Have they observed the outcry over Tennessee’s proposal? Memo to Kentucky: Announcing that you’re not accepting public comment doesn’t stop people from calling and writing their legislators.

Oh, and birdwatchers might like to know that Wisconsin’s planning a sandhill crane hunting season, too. Wisconsin: home of the privately funded International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, where the big white whooping crane was snatched back from extinction. Imagine how Wisconsin’s thousands of self-described “craniacs” are going to feel about that. But we mustn’t lead with our hearts. We must accept the wisdom, the necessity of shooting sandhill cranes.

A sandhill crane falls near Bosque del Apache NWR, NM.    Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

The Eastern Flyway sandhill crane population has recovered from near extinction in the last 70 years—in our lifetime--and state game managers have taken notice. Their reasoning appears pretty simple: There are enough cranes around now to shoot some. My reasoning is simple too. Does that mean they must be shot? Is giving a small set of hunters one more bird species to aim at ultimately going to be worth the ill will and polarization of camps between the growing throngs of wildlife watchers and the shrinking ranks of hunters?  For the fact-checkers out there: The USFWS estimates that 33 states saw declines in hunting license sales over the last two decades. Massachusetts alone has seen a 50 percent falloff in hunting license sales in that period. Yes, hunting is declining. Maybe if we offer more species that can be shot...
So let's follow this line of reasoning. There are enough cranes out there now to shoot some without causing another population crash. All right then. There are surely enough red-tailed hawks sitting along the nation's highways to shoot some of them. Robins? Those things are everywhere, and tasty, too. And come to think of it, new great blue heron rookeries are popping up all over the place. A little fishy-tasting, but with the right marinade...

Ultimately, the proposal to hunt Tennessee’s sandhill cranes is about hubris. It’s about manipulating wild populations as we see fit, about tilting the balance of nature toward huntable species by feeding them artificial foods and encouraging them to hang around to provide us a little sport. Try as I might, I cannot cram the lanky four-foot length of a sandhill crane into the slot in my brain marked “Game Species.” They’re too tall, too graceful, too ancient and yes, much too magical. There goes my heart again. Head says: They reproduce too slowly, producing one colt per year if they’re lucky. Ducks and geese can lay a dozen eggs; a crane lays two, and only one colt usually survives. That youngster is still heavily dependent on its parents for guidance in its first winter of life, and yet we’re proposing to let hunters shoot right into those family units. For sport. For fun. For food, maybe, if they have enough strong marinade.  Pretty gamey, I’m told. I intend never to find out for myself.

Sandhill cranes with their colt.                                  Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

We should not be marinating the meat of sandhill cranes. We should be looking up at them alive and flying, our heads thrown back in wonder, gratitude and awe. We should be searching their cloud-gray numbers for the big white cranes who travel with them, and are at risk of being shot, their  precious genes squandered in the mud of a cornfield.

In my view, the great irony in this whole proposal to hunt cranes is that the majority of people who are aware cranes exist feel exactly as I do, vastly outnumbering those who would like to take a shot at one. Note to Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin: Those cranes you're proposing to shoot are everyone's cranes, not just yours. They may breed in Wisconsin and pass through the southern states, but they belong to everyone, and your proposal to let a small subset of hunters fire on them is not popular with the majority who want them left alone. You are shooting yourself in the foot.

People who believe strongly in their perceived right to hunt whatever they wish can be  persuasive in characterizing birders and wildlife watchers as soft-headed and silly for having an emotional connection to birds and animals, for being guided by heart and not head. I believe to my core that it is desirable to hold some species sacred. I feel that way about sandhill cranes because I have observed, from Nebraska to New Mexico, from Michigan to Ohio, that they are potent ambassadors for wild things and wild places to the many thousands of people who are moved by them. These are not necessarily birders, just ordinary people who are stirred by the sight and sound of cranes. Cranes, I submit, are worth infinitely more alive than dead. Just ask the director of the Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary on Nebraska's Platte River, where sandhill crane tourism brings 15,000 visitors from all 50 states and 46 foreign countries; brings more than $10 million into the local economy every year. All without firing a single shot. Wildlife watching is the fastest growing sector in tourism.

I'd love to do this experiment. Take 1,000 people who know what a sandhill crane is. What percentage of them do you think would want to bring one down with a gun? What percentage would simply want to watch one fly overhead? We haven't even begun to tap the tourism potential of live Eastern Flyway cranes, and states are already proposing to shoot them?

Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency posted an online survey in mid-November 2010 with a simple question: “Should sandhill cranes be hunted in Tennessee?” Two buttons: Yes and No. The survey was up for perhaps three days, and abruptly taken down without explanation. No results have been posted. In response to questions on “Tennessee’s Watchable Wildlife” Facebook page, the following appeared:

Your best bet to have an impact on the TWRA decision is to contact the TWRA commissioners with letters, phone calls, etc. At some point we'll provide the results of the survey, but keep in mind that it was not a well designed, scientific survey, it was biased in many ways and is not likely a very reliable source of information.

Birders, photographers, wildlife watchers: we don’t need SurveyMonkey to tell Tennessee what we think about opening a season on sandhill cranes. Comments period ends mid-January. A public meeting will be held Jan. 20 and 21 in Nashville, with an opportunity for public comments. Information: or 1-800-624-7406.

If you can't attend, please...Write them NOW. For the New Year, do something for the cranes.


Letters: Michael Chase, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission Chairperson/PO Box 50370/Knoxville, TN  37950 email:

Governor Bill Haslam, 1701 West End Ave., Suite 300, Nashville, TN 37203 (615) 254-4799

online comments to the Governor:

The Squash Prank

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Ever have one of those days when you don't accomplish anything you set out to do? Me, too. I can honestly say that on Squash Prank Day, the Squash Prank was the best thing I accomplished. It went like this. I was cleaning the kitchen from the previous night's dinner, and I took a cookie sheet out of the oven to wash it. I had baked a large butternut squash on the tray, and in the course of baking it exuded a long trail of sugary juice that bubbled up and went black, then solidified to the texture of very friable, dried-out meringue.

It looked awful and wonderful at the same time. I was seized with the desire to preserve it. I fetched some card stock, some Elmer's glue, a scissors and some spray fixative. I gently worked it off the pan with a spatula and glued it to the card stock so it would hold together better. Or at all.

Then I sprayed it with a plastic coating of art fixative to seal it and keep it from dropping carboniferous crumbs everywhere.

With an X-acto knife, I cut the card stock close to the shape of the exudate, producing this portable, re-usable unit of yucch:

And placed it on Phoebe's new corn-yellow carpet in her ever-perfect, just-so, highly atypical teen girl's room.

The brief, police-whistle scream, followed by a quavering, "Moooommmy??" from down the hall was worth every bit of the effort. I'm saving the Squash Prank for later deployment on Bill. He'll never see this...

Mether. You know who he will blame it on.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Many people are not aware that the Boston terrier is a hibernatory animal. 

It goes to sleep in mid-December and wakes only to eat, tussle, tear stuff up and do its business until the weather warms again in April.

Its gentle rolling snore may be heard in many households across the world.

The Boston terrier seeks out the softest habitat it can find. It is attracted to down and fleece, for it seeks warmth above all else.

However, it may sometimes be found positioning itself over furnace registers or next to space heaters, much the way Florida manatees gather at power plant outflow vents for life-sustaining heat.

Please turn it up to High. 

Its underparts are very sparsely furred, such that the skin may be seen right through its hair. It hates coming into contact with snow especially.

An unusual and somewhat unexpected adaptation to heat-seeking in the Boston terrier is tool-using. In this behavior, the animal creates a sandwich of two or more beds, and instead of sleeping atop it, crawls in between the layers. This allows the animal to get up and stretch or get a drink of water and cover itself back up without waking its caretaker. That is a maladaptive behavior, and the Boston terrier innovates in order to avoid it.

This behavior and configuration of bedding is called Dogburger.

From mid-December on, only small bits of the hibernating animal are usually seen.

In response to hearing its name, the Boston terrier may briefly expose its kissable bits, but they are quickly withdrawn back into Dogburger, lest they lose heat.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

We've always resisted decorating the exterior of our house, reasoning that, being 1/4 mile off a very lightly traveled road and hidden by woods, no one would see it. This year, Bill got a wild hair and threw a couple of strings of lights up in the pines in the backyard, and then he got another and wound some blue lights around some birch trunks and hung some multicolored lights in the mulberry. I'm sitting in the dark kitchen looking out at them glowing softly against the snow, and I'm thankful.

No one but we five will see them, and that's enough.

Although we went kind of coo-coo over the kids as usual, Bill and I decided to put our Christmas into replacing our 1978 vintage kitchen stove. It was a Caloric, and I still loved it and would have been willing to put up with its quirks indefinitely until Bill pulled the trigger. It was down a burner, which couldn't  be replaced because the stove had long since been declared obsolete. The three burners that remained were a bit too hot to trot and having adjustment issues that did not seem to be resolving. To wit: You'd put some chili on to cook slowly on the lowest burner setting, and you'd walk away,  as you do when cooking chili, and you'd come back to find the flame merrily blazing away on Medium High and your chili adhered firmly and blackly to the bottom of the pot. We developed an elaborate system of cast iron frying pans overturned and stacked to run interference between the overzealous burners and our food. It was time.

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

It's a dead heat who's more thrilled about the stove: us or Phoebe. This is her inaugural batch of chocochipcookies. For those who wonder, it's a Frigidaire Gallery with on-demand convection and no drawer broiler, because those things spook me. We were looking at the model one notch above this one and about to settle on it when I noticed that it had printed on the touch panel the words


Now, if we put pizza in our oven it's the homemade kind that Bill constructs from the risen dough up. And I have not had a chicken nugget in the house since 2008 when I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. I took the backlog of frozen Tyson nuggets, formerly a favorite of Liam's, out to the meadow and dumped them out for the vultures, along with a bunch of other stuff that had aged out in the freezer. The vultures, coyotes, opossums, crows and foxes ate everything but the nuggets. You read right. The nuggets just lay there, barely changing in form through snow and rain, until they rotted away.

Would somebody get this frikkin' chicken nugget off my freezer-burned pot roast?
Photo by MeatCam

Needless to say, we were not about to drop an extra $200 to get a high-end range that had printed presets for frozen pizza and chicken nuggets on its touch panel. I was not going to look at the words


every day until they put me in the elderhopper.

 That was a deal breaker. I said as much to our spectacularly unhelpful salesman at Lowe's, who had touted the presets for heat-and-eat foodoid items as a big plus, and he responded, "Ah. Food Nazi, huh?" Oh, that's how you endear yourself to a potential customer. Note to NumbNuts: There are still some people out here who know how to cook, who load the grocery belt with fresh produce and raw meats instead of pre-formed derivatives of corn. We are vanishing, but we do still exist. Tell you what. You go ahead and ingest your fast fake


and we'll construct and eat our snooty real slow food. Sieg Heil!

Hm. I seem to have digressed. I am thankful for our new stove, and each time we bake we marvel anew at its perfection. Phoebe and I made a Danish Puff a couple of nights ago that was the highest, most fabulously evenly golden Danish Puff we'd ever seen. The stove runs off our free gas. Thankful.

Thankful for our blossoming cartoonist, who's working on a series about a superhero onion named Produce Man. He's done two issues and is working on the third, The Adventures of Produce Man and the Awfully Alarming Apples.

Here he's explaining it all to Wendy, a lead vocalist and keyboard player for our new band The Rain Crows. We're playing January 7 at The Adelphia Music Hall in Marietta, Ohio. It has a built-in sound system and a soundman. So we won't be lugging a couple of tons of equipment. Thankful again. And very excited.    

The Raincrows: Jeff Eller, Wendy Eller, Bill Thompson II, Craig Gibbs, JZ and Chet Baker, Mascot 

Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

We wish you a peaceful Christmas, full of music, real food, and love. Just let me wrap all day, then sit and stare at  the Christmas tree with a kid on my lap. That's all I want.

Calamity Days

Sunday, December 19, 2010

After a perfectly ridiculous winter in 2009/10 (who ever has seventeen snow days?), the State of Ohio voted to put an end to the madness by granting her schools only three so-called "calamity days" for this winter season. Surely, if we grant fewer calamity days, it won't snow as much. Well, 2010/11 is shaping up to be a carbon copy of last winter, and we've already used all three allotted days, which means my kids will be in school, making up unallotted calamity days, until the tomatoes come in.

Pink indicates where to kiss.

In principle, I'm all for fewer calamity days. It tones up the school superintendent, makes her really think about what to say in those 5:24 AM robocalls that tell me whether I'm going to get a lick of work done in a given day or not. "Good morning! Abandon hope; once again your kids will be underfoot all day. Working parents: Go to Plan B."

 I'm one of the lucky ones. My Plan B is always ready to be deployed, because I'm always here. It simply involves a shift of focus from listening to Pandora with a parrot on my shoulder while blissfully finishing the illustrations for my book to muscling myself into a ski suit, going sledding, making hot chocolate, and dealing with the resultant mountains of outerwear (Sara says be thankful it's not underwear!).  It involves surrendering to my now, living my reality. Resistance is futile. I know that. I've been fired in the frigid kiln of 2009, a winter when I fought snow days, heroically struggling to accomplish something, anything while searching our miasma of a hall closet for even one pair of matching gloves, boots that don't pinch and apparently do not exist, and making Three Cheese Macaroni, popcorn and minty hot chocolate with organic milk and snowman marshmallows on demand.

There are perks. First, I love being around my kids. Second, with enough I-am-serious-now bossing around, their energy can occasionally be redirected from the glowing screen and turned toward real-time good, such as picking up and vacuuming, scrubbing sinks, toilets and tubs. Third, we have a ridiculously gigantic snow bowl right at the end of our driveway, a geologic feature that serves up screams and thrillingly fast rides. And this year there are no frozen cowpies in it to shatter our tailbones.

This is quite a sledful, one that will travel with tremendous moment all the way to the bottom of the Snow Bowl.

The hill goes on and on, starting with a thrilling berm that power-boosts your ride, and terminating in a barbed-wire fenceline and screams of BAIL!! BAIL!! BAIL NOW!!

The endorphins involved in sledding help bust me out of Cranky Frustrated Artist mode and back into Somewhat Fun Mom mode.

The Canon G-12 admirably captures the rosy beauty against a sere landscape. Yes, I know I have a G-11, but this is the new version which does all this and more.

Note fenceline beyond my Celtic fairy. It's a heck of a ride down to it.

A few fiery strands escape her hat. Ahh. There is great beauty in calamity.

Live your calamity!

I Knew This Day Would Come

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I knew this day would come, when I wouldn't be able to run any more. When the ice and snow would come and our country road would turn into a treacherous mess; when the mercury would dive to single digits and just walking out to the mailbox became an adventure. What would I do? How would I start my day without the two and a half-mile run? How would I get my blood pumping, my thoughts nicely aligned, my haikus written?


Well, I wouldn't. I'd just get up, get the kids fed, packed and on the bus (if it wasn't another --insert choice word-- snow day), eat breakfast,  feed the animals and birds, and start my workday, wishing I could still run.  And I'd go back through my photographs and remember 50-degree mornings with the sun slamming on the hills and what was left of the autumn leaves, mornings with my dog and sometimes even my daughter by my side, with the crunch of gravel and the birds flying over and the neighbors waving as they drove by. Mornings when my body reassured me it still worked just fine.

My road. How I miss it. It's hidden under a shroud of white. I'm waiting for a thaw to lift the sheet so I can see its face again. I've no doubt it's still beautiful, but I'd have to slow down to baby steps to even go out to see. Yesterday I plowed into the ditch just turning out of our driveway. The county wastes no money treating our road. My car being a Subaru, I simply backed out of the predicament.

 My neighbor's house, shining in morning light against cold front clouds.
 I'd never realized how magnificent his maple was until I composed this shot. A good tree can make a house without even being noticed. And this is a good tree.

 One of his sheds. I wish I had a shed like this to look out at. I'd put it in every painting.

 The whole spread. Everywhere I go, classic Ohio farmhouses like this one are being razed and burning down, replaced by spiritless modulars. There's not much money around here, the kind of money that drops mansions into cornfields, so the vast majority of our new constructions come in kit form.  They huddle on the road frontage like vinyl-sided shoeboxes, enhancing the landscape not one whit. Look how this gracious old wood frame house sits like a jewel in the fields.

 On this stunning November morning, I had exactly ten minutes of weak sun to work with. I saw the clouds beginning to break up, ran home as fast as I could, grabbed my camera and jumped in the car. I ran up the big hill and was in position when it broke out of the clouds. I shot and shot, and then it was over.

 Have you got me in the picture, Mether? Because my spotty tuxedo would resonate nicely with that white farmhouse. Keep shooting. I will look out over the meadow.

Thank you, Chet Baker. My photos are nothing without you. Just a bit of dog brings the whole thing to life.

I go to bed at night, having looked disconsolately at my swiftly returning flubber, and pray for open road.  Can a sista get a break here?

Apparently not.

Oh, by the way: I've now been blogging for five years. Imagine that. 1,232 posts, maybe upwards of 8,000 photos; ten brazilian random thoughts and a truckload of great comments from you. I look back at the 2005 archives and see that skinny puppy and those teeny little kids and marvel that it's all here to look at, but I never ever do...I just keep creating new posts. Reading even a smidge of my early stuff disorders my mind.  Someday, maybe, but not now. If you'd asked me in 2005 if I'd still be blogging in 2011, I'd have looked at you real funny.

To all you who've stuck with me, thank you. To all you who've stumbled on this site and taken the time to read the archives, thank you.  To those who've hit the "Donate" button, thank you, too. You're the laces in my sneakers, the sun on my hillside, the bluebird on my windowsill, the bat in my basement.

A Dog's Birthday

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

 Musing tonight on Pet Value. Chet Baker is sitting at my feet, watching a rabbit under the feeders. He's stuck to me like glue today, occasionally launching himself up into my lap for a seriously good cuddle. How did he know I needed that? He just did, that's all.

I really had to have a dog like Chet to appreciate true Pet Value. An interactive dog. The kind of dog you can bake a cake for. Who gets it, and behaves perfectly appropriately.

Phoebe baked the cake, and she was feeling experimental, so she mixed blue and red food coloring and got a perfect Eighties mauve in the almond buttercream frosting. You know, the kind of mauve that is paired with gray and teal in older motels. Gag.  If you haven't already gathered by the peeks into our house that this blog affords, color is Very Important to us here on Indigo Hill. Yes, even the name of the place is a color.

Despite appearances, the cake was absolutely delicious. And it was also for Wendy, a December baby, and vocalist/keyboardist/arranger in The Raincrows, our new acousticky band. Both she and Chet Baker are Sagittarians. I get along very well with Sagittarians, even if I cannot spell it to save my life.

Miss Wendy, will you help me blow out the candles on our cake? My lips are not very cooperative.

I purely love this photo.  
He showered her with kisses, of course, for helping him get his birthday wish.

Which was a Gummy Bone. We wrapped it in brown paper and put it on the table, and Chet took over from there. He catpawed it but couldn't pull it close enough to him to pick it up.

A Boston terrier's reaction to nearly everything: Lick it. Oooh, I want that little present soooo badly!

Finally, Chet climbed up on the table (where you can see the last snowstorm that covered the midsection of the country on Intellicast radar!) and claimed the prize for his own.

I used to buy Chet the hard white Nylabones until KatDoc warned us that they can cause shear fractures of teeth. Nobody needs a split tooth! So now he gets the rubbery ones. And his crounching is much quieter.

I didn't realize until I got this photo up on the screen that there is a rather strange image on our TV of a chimp doing something to a child; being told to act solicitous, I suppose. Eek. I'm thinking Travis...I love this photo for that, for the live rosemary topiary Christmas tree, newly lit and decorated; for Chet's wonderful hands. And all the colors.

And I love this photo, of a sweet boy (growing up so fast!) and his  beloved dog. Our lives are so much richer for having three boys in the family. Please note tool-using behavior in a canid; Chet uses the couch cushions as a kind of vise for his big chewbones. So we must redefine tool-using, or redefine man,* or simply accept that this sleek little animal is much, much more than just a dog.

*a rawther obscure reference to Louis S. B. Leakey's reaction to Jane Goodall's revelation that she had documented tool-using in wild chimpanzees.

Now We are Six, Chet Baker!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


 He is perfect. At six, Chet Baker is exactly the dog I would have designed, had I been able to do that in one stroke. Instead, it took many small strokes to paint him.

For we build our dogs from the ground up with the love and attention we pour into them. He is everything to me, as I am to him.

 We love all the same things: raindrops on morning glories, and deer in the meadow.

 Innocent young birds who need to be watched, loved and protected.

Autumn walks on Dean's Fork. Let me OUT! There are horses I need to nuzzle.

                           Live music. After kissing everyone in the band, Chet keeps an eye on Mether at all times during rehearsal.                           

You rang? Do you need someone to sit on your lap now? I am the dog to do that.

photo from the New River festival by the most fabulous Sara Stratton

You probably cannot hear me, but I hum along to your songs. I know most of them by heart now.

Chet Baker, I know you by heart, too. Long may you run beside me. Happy birthday, Best Dog.
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