It is no doubt due to the research required to write about my two birds that I now seem to either stumble upon, or lock onto with laser beam focus, anything written about birds… recently, I travelled to the remote regions of Mongolia (disappointingly, this was a ‘virtual’ visit), where wind hewn, coppery-faced hunters clad in fur coats, riding atop rugged, sure-footed horses, head out into the wild mountain ranges, each with a massive golden eagle sitting regally and alertly on one arm. Together, hunter and eagle, scour the snowy tundra for fox. One of the best known birds of prey in the Northern Hemisphere, with a wingspan as large as seven feet, weighing as much as fifteen pounds, and capable of reaching diving speeds of 200 mph—the golden eagle is truly magnificent. A unique (and dying) relationship between man and bird has been documented by photographer Palani Mohan in his book, Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs… the black and white photographs, austerely beautiful, capture a complex, ancient, and now, sadly, disappearing human and avian partnership.
An eagle closer to home, the American bald eagle, was observable via live camera feed in Washington, DC this spring: the first bald eagles to nest in the Beltway in many years (two babies were born, both mother and father feeding and caring for them)—a sign of the strong resurgence of the bald eagle, which was on the US government’s list of endangered species until 1995—they are now occasionally nesting in quasi-metropolitan areas. This pair flew in on the prevailing winds (not Air Force One) and despite their VIP status in this particular town, they assumed no special privilege, choosing to nest in a public park (versus one associated with a rather large white house) and declared their political party affiliation as independent. Humble and smart birds.
The January 31, 2016 New York Time Magazine’s cover article, ‘The Parrots of Serenity Park,’ is heart-wrenching and unforgettable, and well worth look-up in the NYT archives; but be forewarned, their stories are heartbreaking. Yet, in spite of cruel, inhumane treatment by their owners, these birds remain capable of bonding with their new caregivers—veterans who have their own post-traumatic stress issues—in ways that are as mysterious as they are beautiful. This elegantly, powerfully written piece is testimony to the emotional and intellectual depth of exotic birds and to the absolute imperative of having a loving, nurturing bond with humans when living in captivity.
Last and most recently, the following article speaks for itself, or I should say, speaks for a certain blue and gold macaw and his friend, a French speaking common raven. If I had to guess, that I happened to see this was not an accident, but rather the result of two determined birds who very much wanted this scientific data to be read and shared as widely as possible. With Olivia and Theo’s UK connections (and reprint permission from the Daily Mail UK), following is the article, which serves as definitive proof that the human-like attributes and skills of Taco and Noir are not fiction—at all.
By COLIN FERNANDEZ, SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT FOR THE DAILY MAIL
PUBLISHED: 01:07, 14 June 2016 | UPDATED: 09:11, 14 June 2016
For years birds were accused of being feather brained.
But now scientists have found they are not only as clever as apes, but have more brain cells despite much tinier brains.
Crows and parrots have shown remarkable skills such as being able to use tools, recognise themselves in a mirror, and in the case of parrots, learn to speak words.
The mystery of how they manage these intellectual feats with such small brains has been puzzling scientists for years,
But researchers have now discovered that birds have far more brain cells packed into their tiny skulls than apes, monkeys and other mamals whose brains weigh many times more.
The scientists from Charles University in Prague measured the numbers of brain cells in 32 different bird species, including crows, parrots, emus and owls.
And they found the average bird's brain had twice as many brain cells per gram as the average mammal.
Using a device called an Isotropic Fractionator, which is able to count neurons, the researchers counted the brain cells of different birds – and found that birds were the winners in the brain department.
For example, a tiny goldcrest, the researchers found, despite weighing nine times less than a mouse, has 2.3 times more brain cells.
Just having a greater number of brain cells is only one facet of the superiority of the bird's brain.
By packing the neurons in tighter, it may also speed up how fast they can process information, the researchers said, and 'may further enhance cognitive abilities of these birds.'
The authors writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that in many respects birds are now seen as the intellectual rivals of chimps, gorillas and orang-utans.
They write: 'Corvids [crows and ravens] and parrots appear to be cognitively superior to other birds, rivalling great apes in many psychological domains.
'They manufacture and use tools, solve problems insightfully, make inferences about causal mechanisms, recognize themselves in a mirror, plan for future needs, and use their own experience to anticipate future behavior of conspecifics [those of their own species] or even humans, to mention just a few striking abilities.
'In addition, parrots and songbirds (including corvids) share with humans and a few other animal groups a rare capacity for vocal learning, and parrots can learn words and use them to communicate with humans.'
But the authors add: 'However, bird brains are small and the computational mechanisms enabling corvids and parrots to achieve ape-like intelligence with much smaller brains remain unclear'.
Birds that are less intelligent than crows and parrots, such as the emu, the red junglefowl - the wild ancestor of the chicken- and the pigeon have lower densities of brain cells.
It seems that a big factor for birds to become more intelligent is singing complex songs.
A songbird such as the great tit has a brain 50 times smaller than that of a red junglefowl – but roughly the same number of brain neurons, the authors write.
But even these, less bright birds, have densities of brain cells 'comparable to those observed in the primate cortex'.
Despite not singing tunefully, crows and raven's brains have brains that appear to be 'scaled up' versions of the complex brain structures seen in songbirds – suggesting that their ancestors may have sung more than they do today.
~ Author’s Note ~
No exotic birds were sold at this bird expo. However, all bird owners were welcome to bring their well-behaved birds with them, and vendors who owned exotics could bring them to the event, hence my photo opportunity with the two dapper blue and gold macaws.
The last few months have been busy and fun, with the publication of The Fantastic Tails of Sammy and Mr. Chips in February. The STARS, of course, have not let me forget there are certain perks that go along with being major characters, and (not surprisingly, if you have read their story) somehow secretly elected Ziggy as their Spokesperson/Agent. Whenever he visits, his clipboard is filled with requests (read: demands) from the STARS, which are delivered to the author, pronto…
In February, I was invited by the Jupiter Island Arts Council to make a presentation about the story, and both Mr. Chips and Mr. S. accompanied Mrs. S. (Sammy was invited, but declined when he heard there would be no national press coverage). The evening rained cats and dogs inside and, as it happened, outside, as well! I spoke about the inspirations for the story, shared insights into plot development, and the importance of setting (both real and imagined): Blueberry Hill Farm, Rip Van Winkle’s RV Campground, The Red Lion Inn, The Mount, Tanglewood, Henny Penny Farm, and their destination, The Berkshire Athenaeum. Kelly Arnold, artist/illustrator/graphic designer extraordinaire, joined me, and the presentation concluded with the projection of her exquisitely detailed pen and ink illustrations, along with a book signing…
The month of March was very busy as the author and her birds flew to new perches!
Members of a local Arts Council invited author and illustrator to talk about The Time Seekers… I spoke about the timeline, inspirations, and process of writing the story, including the research required to write about a Salem Witch Trial, time travel, and the physiology and capabilities of macaws and ravens. Kelly’s presentation focused on how she created the colorized and embellished vignettes for Kindle ~ along the way, dazzling the audience with a visual walk-through of the elaborate computerized process required to layer and colorize just one illustration (over thirty in the book!) The next evening was a reception for the participants of a weekend Arts Festival, followed by a full day book signing. The month of March capped off with a book signing at an exotic bird expo… interestingly, a number of macaws seemed to find their way to The Time Seekers table… and the highlight of the day came when a blue and gold feathered father (27 years old) and son (15 years old) rather reluctantly agreed to a rare photo opportunity ~ as is not uncommon, they are bonded with their owner and can be aggressive toward anyone they don’t know. This photo took a leap of faith by the owner and the stranger-- and if not for the fact that the stranger showed the owner her book (and for some reason believed the birds would intuitively know she loved them on first sight), there would not have been a photo opportunity. Happily, she can report the leap of faith was proven true, both were perfect gentlemen.
(aka Zigbottoms, Zigmeister, His Hineyness)
About thirty pen and ink sketches will be included in the book… will be available in paperback on Amazon in the coming months. Blog post will confirm when available. Like TTS, this is a book for all ages. Oh, it is an ADVENTURE story, in case there was any doubt : )
(aka Sammy or Sam)
A visit to La Conchita Espinosa Academy located in Miami, FL was a wonderful event for author and illustrator at the end of April! Students in three third grade classrooms read The Time Seekers and were excited to hear about the writing of the story and the creation of the artwork! Approximately seventy students, their teachers, and the Principal attended the presentation… which included the author introducing the original Taco and the illustrator donning part of a macaw costume! One highlight was the unwrapping of a white package with green ribbon (the students immediately knew this was the gift Nicolas gave Alexandra for Christmas.) The gorgeous snow globe was unveiled with flashing colored lights and ‘snow’ falling around the Windswept sailboat… this was the illustrator’s gift to the author following publication of the book, and the students were enthralled with its magical beauty. Another highlight was when Taco ‘whispered’ something to the author. Following is a transcript of the author speaking.
“What are you whispering about, Taco?”
“You recently flew to Dark Harbor, Maine from Florida and back again?!”
“That is a very long flight!”
“Why did you go?!”
“To do some shopping??!!”
“Did you go to the Moose’s Closet? And who were you shopping for??”
“Oh, the Book Nook… you wanted to bring a gift for the students so they will remember you after this visit?” That is very nice, Taco! Where is it?”
“In the carpet bag?! Ok, I’ll get it out….”
“A mobile! A flying blue and gold macaw parrot! That’s a perfect present!”
“Yes, I’ll tell them—Taco hopes this mobile will be placed in the school library so you will remember him and The Time Seekers!
Nearly all the students asked questions at the conclusion of the presentation—wonderful, interesting questions that reflected a close reading of the story, and most impressive given this is a 500+ page book! Author and illustrator loved the ‘Questions and Answers’ and then were delighted to sign books. Many of the students brought their books with them, so this was a long line of very patient students… and each student received a Time Seekers’ Map and postcard!
We were so impressed by La Conchita Espinosa Academy—a wonderful school with a strong emphasis on the arts and humanities (music, theatre, dance, newspaper, magazine, and videographers!) We would especially like to thank Principal Cassandra Jolliff for extending this invitation, and to the third grade teachers and to all the respectful, engaged students for making our very first school visit so special and something we will never, ever forget!
Taco and Noir want you to know how much they appreciate the Amazon reviews that have been posted! (Both have been observed checking Amazon—they have mastered the ipad using their beaks, and unlike the author, do not need to take a class to master tablet technology. They read very carefully, hoping to see their names in print—they LOVE to see their names mentioned. And they have been overheard whispering about how good their names would look in bright lights. Such dreamers, these birds… ☺)
As spring begins in earnest, will close with the opening lines of a very famous Prologue (the first twenty or so lines the author can still recite in Middle English, a college course requirement that must have taken place in a different space-time continuum)…
“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…”
Mr. S. and Mr. Chips
This summer proved that even the best of intentions can drift away on a summer breeze (or be replaced with different intentions, if you are held hostage, more on that below). To be clear, the ‘best of intentions’ involved researching space launch systems, the effects of Zero G on birds, theoretical travel through wormholes (effect on humans and birds), astronaut training, a dash of astrophysics, what an advanced human civilization might be like vis a vis technology, architecture, government, education, currency, art, etc. All of this was on my Summer Reading List, and even though this is not light reading (i.e. not fun), I fully intended to do the research and continue work on the sequel to The Time Seekers (‘TTS’). It was my best laid plan.
Until it changed.
I was forced to detour when a story materialized, quite literally, in front of my eyes. Specifically, when a beyond adorable (will fully admit to zero objectivity) long-haired dapple dachshund named Mr. Chips, a very smart cat named Samuel Adams (who had his debut in TTS), an overweight and lazy cat (even he would admit this is an accurate description) named Bud, and a terribly handsome black and tan short-haired dachshund named Ziggy (who is going to graduate school with our daughter and is probably smarter than Sam—after all, he is in grad school) all ganged up on me. It happened when I was beginning to organize piles of research (also true that the paper shuffling was accompanied by deep sighs, almost like someone had died, or was about to). I was outnumbered, overruled, and given my marching orders: THEIR story had to be written BEFORE the sequel. The three who were not in TTS said it was favoritism and that I had created a ‘hostile home environment,’ because only one had achieved stardom. I tried to protest (it was not what you would call full-throated), because I did feel duty-bound to my birds, who were expecting the sequel work to begin. However, the four musketeers were not budging and had pretty much surrounded me. So, there were a couple of seconds when I was technically held hostage, debating what I should do. Ended up we did not need to call in a hostage negotiator, as I folded pretty quickly: the hostage was willing to sign on the dotted line. As in, give me the pen and you can have everything—the mortgage, the well-stocked pet food pantry, ETC. And yes, I will write your story.
Thus began The Fantastic Tails of Sammy & Mr. Chips. (The title, however, did require the services of a professional negotiator. The two left out, Bud and Ziggy, were not happy, at all. Which led to some, well, bribery, involving extra food, treats and toys. In the end both parties were content, one getting fatter by the day and the grad student hoarding his new toys and not sharing.)
Here’s a peek at the artwork for the front and back cover . . . both portraits could be mistaken for photographs, but they are oils and they are perfection. Kelly Arnold has captured Sam and Mr. Chips exactly as they appear in real life and she has captured the essence of each—their unique personalities—which is why this was so much fun to write. Writing this story was the joyride of my life.
And for anyone who has loved a cat or a dog ~ this is my valentine to you.
If you are travelling to Stockbridge, I hope you will stop by their Gift Shop ~ large postcards of this painting will be included with each book purchased!
I am slowly working my way up Route 7 (virtually), and will be reaching out to all the wonderful independent bookstores and libraries from CT to MA, with hopes they, too, will want to feature The Fantastic Tails.
This story, as was true for The Time Seekers, is a book to be enjoyed by readers of all ages, from age 8 to 80+… I hope you will recommend to friends and family… and Amazon reviews are deeply appreciated by all the STARS (and Mrs. S.).
The story takes place along Route 7 in Connecticut and the Berkshires of Massachusetts, my family’s home territory. The pocket watch shown below was a gift from Edith Wharton to my great-grandfather in 1897… he was her coachman and lived above The Stable at The Mount in Lenox, MA with his family (one of the most poignant scenes takes place in The Stable). And, The Mount is offering The Fantastic Tails for sale in their bookstore! I am thrilled and deeply honored by their enthusiasm and kind offer.Two chapters are set in or nearby Stockbridge, MA, and most prominently, The Red Lion Inn. I am over the moon that The Red Lion Inn Gift Shop will also offer the book for sale! These chapters form the heartwarming center of the story…and for this reason, based upon the pen and ink illustration in Chapter Eight, ‘A Local Celebrity,’ Kelly has rendered the drawing as a beautiful painting, which captures the iconic Front Porch of the Red Lion Inn, in all its New England charm and color…
The Kindle ebook was on display at all the book signings (downloaded onto an ipad with the Kindle app), the vivid colors of the book cover, title page, chapter illustrations, tigers, and the Orion Constellation delighting young and old alike! The Time Seekers Kindle ebook is an uncommon chapter book with colorized illustrations—very few offer this enhancement. Author and illustrator agree, this technology needs to further evolve: to permit movement (tigers twitching their tails, birds in flight, a moose breathing, ETC.) along with music and sound effects, allowing the ebook to offer a multi-dimensional reading experience. One day, this will undoubtedly be possible… perhaps even a hologram of Taco or Noir will fly into your home for a visit!
So delighted to announce the publication of my second children's book! The Fantastic Tails of Sammy and Mr. Chips was inspired by the pets in my life, and two of the "stars" appear in this photo . . . Ziggy and Mr. Chips! As was true for my first book, it is a story to be enjoyed by readers of all ages. The story comes alive with thirty gorgeous illustrations (viewable via a link on the book order page) and carries the reader away on a "Grand Tour" of western Connecticut to the Berkshires of Massachusetts as experienced by an intrepid (and brilliant) cat and a young (and not adventurous) dapple dachshund. Strap on your backpack, and join Sammy and Mr. Chips as they head north on a journey filled with memorable characters, exciting adventure, heartwarming and frightening moments, and learn what is most important of all . . . family.