Saturday, March 31, 2012


One afternoon not too long ago, eleven puppies wandered out of the crawlspace into the front yard. They nipped, stumbled, and whined their way through the uncut grass, their senses surely overwhelmed by such a brand new world. The two mothers, Silver Dog and Momma Dog, kept a cursory watch on them but for the most part they were already on their own, just four weeks after birth. A few times a day, Silver or Momma would begrudgingly nurse them, only to shove them off quickly and run away to hide.

Since that first day of emergence, three puppies have died. The first was a runt with conjunctivitis whose eyes sealed shut and spent all night wandering blindly through the yard. The second was outwardly a perfectly healthy pup but disappeared one day, perhaps to the talons of a red-tailed hawk or the needle teeth of a mongoose. The final puppy mysteriously broke its back leg and was put out of its misery by Byron the Gardener.

So now we have a healthy set of eight puppies. They spend their days cordoned off in the disused garage, getting the occasional bowl of whole milk or hunk of pig guts. They are utterly coated in ticks and fleas are, to the utmost, filthy. But, no matter how much dirt a puppy has on it, its still a puppy and thus, cute as hell. Here are some pictures:

Silver Dog is barely a year old, but is already tasked with nursing two litters. At once. That makes for one forlorn mom.

Momma Dog, seen above, has also taken to eating the turds of every puppy. She moves through the area sucking up the peanut-sized droppings with gusto. She is for the most part a negligent mother, but, if you'd had two litters every year for five years, maybe you would be too.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cassanova - A Look at the Famous Jamaican Machismo

As a white, straight American male, I grew up in a culture with certain acceptable methods to courtship - how to be polite, complimentary, and when the time is right, make moves. Now as an adult working in foreign countries, I have had the opportunity to bear witness to how courtship evolves overseas and in turn see the differences that exist. Needless to say, it is often quite fascinating.

So. What about Jamaica? Jamaica’s men are famous for their aggressive courtship, bumpin' beats, and "mackin' hoes and slammin cadillac doors" attitude. This is not lost on tourists and apparently is attractive, since a thriving business of Rent-A-Rasta’s occurs in Jamaica, where visiting women can rent themselves an island man. But what have Laura, Ashley, Shawn, and I witnessed first hand? Surely some interesting things have occurred with our clashing of societies. If Jamaican men are used to getting rented by whities, how are they going to react when they find out that Laura and Ashley aren't interested? Well... let's see.


Part 1. The Approach

It was an early Saturday afternoon in the citrus. No one picks oranges on the weekend so we had the place to ourselves. Just like every other day, however, the afternoon sun was beating straight through the orange trees, making life uncomfortable for us humans. Sweat poured down our legs and drenched our clothes - the cool, soothing mist of the early morning seemed like a distant memory.

Thankfully the workday was at an end and Laura and I split up to take down our nets. I went off in one corner of the grove while she went down to the corner nearer to the entrance road. When Laura and I reunited around our banding station about thirty minutes later she said she had had an interesting encounter with two Jamaican men that had been passing through. Laura said that the exchange had gone like this:

- Can I catch a bird?

o No, we haven’t been catching many today anyway.

- Where you from?

o The US. Where? Vermont. Where? Vermont. Up North.

- Are you in here alone?

o No there are a few of us in here right now.

- Are you married?

o Yes.

- What’s your name?

o Laura.

- Do you have any friends I could meet?

o No, she’s married.

- You have no unmarried friends?

o Nope.

- You are very nice looking.

o Thanks, I gotta go check the nets.

- Have a wonderful day.

So what about this interchange? These men were forward, yet respectful. But maybe they were respectful just because of Laura’s answers. What if she had been alone? We need more to understand.

Part II. Getting Pushy

Shawn and I were off by ourselves in the upper plot of the citrus and as we returned we found Laura and Ashley talking animatedly. It turned out that a Jamaican Cassanova had struck. Ashley told us that while off by herself a man had approached her. Unprompted, he began telling her how he loved her body and was ready to sweep her off her feet. She said that he was very persistent in his approach.

A few days later, Ashley came back to us around eight one morning after being off alone doing some point counts. She related a disturbing story to us. While she was off walking around three men had approached her and stalked her through the trees. As she stood there, they stared and talked about her until one man began spouting off about how usually when he comes across rich people he bashes their heads in. They then began a debate about whether she was “clean or dirty.” Thankfully, she was close to the road and eventually they moved off. She had tried to call us on the radio but none of us had answered. Whoops. Won't happen again.

Well this episode certainly takes it to the next level - no longer is the Jamaican man inoffensive. Frightening and criminal is more like it, even if it was just words.

Part III. What a Girl Wants

A few weeks ago our Jamaican phone lit up, saying that we’d gotten a text. Exciting, right?! Not. Turns out that it was just spam from some girl… a blast text, sent to masses of people. Here is how it read:

If I’m fat, I am pregnant. If I lose weight, I’m sick. If I dress nice I am stucked up. If I say what I think, I am being disrespectful. If I don’t say anything, I am boring. If I cry, I am making a scene. If I have female friends, I am a tramp. If I defend myself, I am problematic. These days we just cant do anything without being criticized. If you are proud of being who you are send to all your friends who means the world to you, even back to me.

Well, this Jamaican woman sounds disrespected and mistreated. Jamaican men are supposed to know what women want. How to help Stella get her groove back. Seems to be a disconnect. Something's gotta give.

Part IV. In Review

What do I think? Well, I’ve got mixed reviews. I’ve encountered men on both side of the spectrum. The constant among them all seems to be that they are aggressive and honest about what they think and want. On one end of the spectrum, there are good, honest, hard working men who are committed to their families. On the other end, there are many hyper-masculine, delusional chauvinists who treat women as a booty call and a piece of property. The latter seems to be the dominant majority among the youngsters.

In addition to this, it is hard to ignore the accounts that I have heard from locals. Their analysis runs something like this: Jamaican men are for the most part nothing more than sperm donor absentee fathers, whose single biggest contribution to the country is to the crime rate. Ouch. The single mother must then work enough to be able to provide money for the children and send them to school, a task not easily done. We have met many people who tell us that many children cannot go to school simply because their families cannot afford the books and uniforms required for class. The women toil while the men quarrel.

But enough of my words already. Just recently, we got another unprompted mass message on the phone, a message that threw a wrinkle into this story. This time it was from a guy. It read as follows:

I am not looking for a perfect girl, cause obviously there are none. All I want is someone who loves me, compliment me, who care for and about me.

So, perhaps there is hope after all... this guy sounds pretty decent. When the complicated layers of human interaction are peeled back, there’s really only one thing left. Feelings. Feelings that have no knowledge of cultural boundaries and language, just what feels good, and what feels bad. So maybe Jamaicans go about it a very strange way to us, but deep down they are looking for the same things we are.

Monday, March 5, 2012

“It is not the shine, but the moon and the stars.”

For this post I’m going to switch gears and focus instead on the human interactions that we have had in the citrus. We are in the midst of peak citrus production right now and the groves are filled with pickers of all sorts. They get paid the equivalent of six American dollars a day to pick fruit, which they then take to their local market or street stand to sell. Since we are peculiar white people setting up nets all around them, we get approached by a ton of curious people, each with a motive of their own. Here is a colorful account of some of the more memorable and frightening moments…

As we parked the car at dawn the first morning, we were the only ones in the citrus, but on the walk back to the car a few hours later, I passed numerous people. A middle-aged woman draped in colorful, wind blown clothes was singing hymns as she piled oranges into her cloth bag. A young, sinewy Rasta in a green tank top was scaling another tree, tossing oranges down from the crown, his body barely visible among the branches. As usual, some gave a polite hello, some did nothing, and others simply stared.

A few days ago, I had a man come up to me with a check in his hand while I was taking down our nets. At first I couldn’t understand what he said as he blurted out in Patois to me. It took me a minute to realize that he wanted me to cash a check for him. I told him that I didn’t have any money, that I couldn’t do that, and that was that. He then asked me if I was spraying for insecticides. I laughed and told him no, and then he left. Meanwhile, I was fending off a little kid named Mario, who had been tagging along behind me for the past hour. He followed me from net to net, and as I pulled out each bird, all I heard was “Give me that one. I need it. I need to raise a bird.” Every time he said this, I said “No. Not this one. This is a wild bird, and it’s going to stay that way.” It went back and forth like this many times. “I NEED THIS ONE.” “NO.”

Another day, Laura and I met an old Rastafarian man named Renrick Ellis, who approached us and immediately broke into a performance of his memorized Rasta-inspired poems. I couldn’t understand the majority of what he said, but one phrase that has stuck with me was “It is not the shine, but the moon and the stars.”

Renrick then asked me if I could record his poem performance so that I could relay it to a greater audience for him. I told him that in fact I would love to, and that I would bring my camera tomorrow. To his credit, he then engaged us in a long conversation about birds, and he was very interested about the work we were doing. He nearly feinted with amazement when we showed him a black-and-white warbler, explaining that it flew from somewhere in America down to the same grove of Jamaican oranges every year. We exchanged phone numbers, and said our goodbyes, promising to meet up soon. Unfortunately to this date, I have not recorded his poems. I’ve got to make that happen, and will post it when it does.

One person in particular, however, has become the star of our citrus acquaintance. His name is Andrew. He is a giant young man who first introduced himself by staring mutely at Laura and Ashley for over half an hour, peeling orange after orange with his modified dinner knife. After this he decided to tag along behind us for the morning. At first he was intimidating, but has since revealed himself to be a harmless, over grown boy who grins at you if you engage him. He is mostly silent, but if you encourage him, he will talk – he has pointed out different varieties of oranges to us and told us how to avoid the ants, all the while tromping barefoot across the ground. He doesn’t drink all day; instead he eats about thirty oranges, peeling each one as you would an apple and sucking out the juicy pulp.

The next day the gossiping women at the security gate told Ashley that Andrew was “retarded,” and talked scathingly about his mother, who supposedly didn’t even know how old he was, and in their opinion, was the one responsible for his inability to either read or write.

The only serious downside to Andrew’s presence is that it is very difficult for him to resist pulling birds out of the nets. He is obsessed with white-winged doves, which all Jamaicans love to eat, and every time he sees a bird that looks remotely like one, he runs up to it, tugging on it. As I approached a net later in the afternoon I saw that he was guarding a bird that was caught. It was not a dove, but in fact a white-chinned thrush, a pretty large bird, and as I pulled it out I asked if he would like to hold it, thinking maybe it would cultivate his interest. He grinned and said yes, so I put the bird carefully on his outstretched hand and told him to release it. Instead of doing that, however, he covered it gently with his other hand and insisted that he must go show Ashley. There was no way to get around it. I sighed and escorted him to her, where he presented the bird, waiting expectantly for praise. Ashley obliged, and after another trademark grin he disappeared.

A couple hours later I spotted him walking with two women, an empty orange bag in his hand. He veered off from the women to come over and visit us, but as he did, I heard one of the women say – “Where you gwan? You’re not white!” I couldn’t believe my ears. Her voice then rose even more, almost yelling, “Know your race Andrew!” In response, he turned and headed in the opposite direction.

Thankfully he did not take her words to heart and was back at our side in 15 minutes. He kneeled by us at our banding station, saying nothing. Laura and I sat silently, sitting Indian-style amongst our banding pliers, calipers, cameras and binoculars, pulling biting ants off our bodies. As usual Andrew reeked of body odor and his cheeks were streaked with dust, old sweat, and orange pulp. Though usually barefoot, today he had a pair of dilapidated shoes with his giant toes sticking out through holes in the sides. He climbed up to the top of a nearby tree and pulled down a few oranges to eat. After an hour or so we heard someone screaming his name, which wasn’t an unusual thing to hear. People often exploited Andrew’s strength and got him to carry their bags of oranges for them. As the man kept calling for him, “AnDRUH! AnDRUH” he finally got up and disappeared, having not said a single word to us his entire visit.

As early afternoon approached the workday was coming to an end. We pulled down our nets, packed up our gear, and grabbed a few oranges for ourselves. We pulled out of the citrus, and as we wheeled around the curves, passing houses, schools and food stands, our ears caught the familiar sounds of the street - kids laughing, music blaring, and of course, every minute or so the call of “Whiteeyyy!! White woooman!!!! White man!!!!” We shook our heads, laughed, and continued on towards home.

The materials needed to make some homemade OJ, courtesy of the citrus.

A Change of Scenery

While at our house and working in the Copse plot we are mostly by ourselves, isolated and secluded. The only people we see regularly are the cattlemen and the people who work around the house. Though the solitude is pleasant, it is always nice to have a variety, and thankfully we have been granted that in the form of a new study site. The Citrus.

The valley below us is filled with vast citrus groves, where row after row of orange trees line the rolling hills. In addition to producing copious amounts of fruit for people to eat… many, many migrant warbler species live in this man-made habitat (although few resident species do). Since migrant warblers are what we are after, the citrus is a great study site, providing a contrast to the relatively pristine forest of Copse. What is the warbler density like down here? How healthy are they comparatively? These are the questions that we are trying to answer.

During the first few hours of each day the valley is blanketed by a dense fog. The citrus trees show the effects of this daily gift of moisture; the branches are draped with mosses and epiphytes, and if you look closely, orchids. Parulas and redstarts can be seen gleaning from the leaves and flying out in quick bursts to snatch flying insects while ovenbirds and waterthrushes hunt unobtrusively on the ground.

For the first week in the citrus, I spent my mornings wandering down the misty lines of trees, stopping at set points to survey the birds I could identify. After these preliminary assessments, we have begun capturing birds there, setting up nets within the citrus trees to color-band redstarts and assess the health of other warbler species we catch. Much like our work in the wet limestone forest, we set up 8-12 nets and leave them open from first light until early afternoon. We check the nets every 20-30 minutes, extracting the birds and taking them back to our makeshift banding station. We were able to borrow some extra nets from the other Smithsonian crew down in Whitehouse, and thanks to this, Ashley, Shawn, Laura and I have been able to split up into two separate banding teams, doubling our efforts.

Here are some photographs of some of the birds we have caught so far, with some explanations to boot. Woot woot!

Above is a migrant, a male Cape May Warbler, one of a couple that we've caught this past week.

Here is another migrant, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler. This species breeds in Canada, New England, and down the spine of the Appalachians. Abundant throughout Jamaica, they are the focus of much research on migrant biology down here.

This is an abundant, conspicuous resident of the citrus, the White-winged Dove. The people of Jamaica love to eat white-wings, and have devised a number of genius methods to catching them. Every time someone saw us holding one, they emplored us to give it to them to eat.

Here is the villain of the citrus, the Greater Antillean Grackle. Hordes of these guys maraud through the citrus, eating rotten fruit, bird eggs, and if they're lucky, a bird dangling in one of our nets. Thankfully we've had no grackle murders yet this year.

The Jamaican Mango. This endemic hummingbird is just one of many jewels zipping amongst the trees.

What's fruit without parakeets?! The Olive-throated Parakeet, seen here, is a common species throughout Jamaica, and one that we were very excited to have fall into our nets, provided that we kept our fingers clear of that nut-cracking beak.

And perhaps most shockingly of all, Laura pulled this bird out of the net one afternoon! A Merlin! This medium sized falcon migrates from the taiga of Canada down to the coasts of the North, Central, and South America during the winter. Needless to say, it was an absolute thrill to handle this bird killing machine.