Broken Sparrow – Everyone Loves a Fighter

What on earth could make a blog posting on a sparrow worth reading?

Well, people love stories of near tragedy, survival, and salvation, and this has some elements of them all.

A nesting pair of House Sparrows showed up at work this Spring, hidden in the metal framework of a second story bridge connecting two brick buildings of typical government construction. Their nest lay only a foot from the heads of passers-by. No one paid them much attention until the hatchlings started calling incessantly for food. Then the nest became both busy and noisy.

The real story began after a wind storm struck one weekend, leaving behind an injured male sparrow. It was obvious that one of his wings had been damaged for we found him on a Monday morning walking up and down the concrete walkway, trying to dodge the frequent pedestrians, and not flying away to safety. In fact, it looked almost as if a wing had been torn off.

But what got everyone’s attention was the sight of him hopping down 12 feet of metal stairs to get to the ground, search for some food, then hopping all the way back up those stairs to defend his nest site, the best he could by being there, injured. Considering he was only about 3 inches high, those hops would be equivalent to us hopping up and down 232 feet of stairs, repeatedly.

I was probably not the first to test his flying ability, and indeed, when frightened he would fly a short distance to a palm tree trunk not far from the bridge. But then he would climb to a secure spot on top of the palm tree, rather than fly straight to the top. Flying for him had become a last result. It was difficult and seemingly painful for him, although he never cried out in pain or alarm, as I’ve heard sparrows can do.

The next day I borrowed some bird seed from a bird lover, and set out a small pan of water, so the injured bird would not risk being eaten by the feral cats that roam our buildings at odd times of the day. When that seed was quickly eaten, a warrior friend of mine came asking for some seed so he could feed his bird.

His bird? So, I was not the only one taking an interest in this brave little male and his struggle for survival.

Unfortunately for the female, her mate was not able to forage for the young, and she had to work double time. That could be why, as soon as the babies had fledged, the nest was emptied, and the female never returned to her mate for another breeding cycle. She could do better, I suppose.

In spite of his troubles, and probable pain, he remained the strong sounding male, calling, announcing his prime nesting site. Never mind that no other bird wanted it. If they had, they could easily have taken it from him since he was defenseless. But still, he thought, he had a job to do. It was a man-thing.

For weeks we would see that male, starting to hop down the stairs, to look for food, and if he happened to see my warrior friend or I bring food, he would turn around, and hop back up the stairs to eat, rather than risk foraging on the barren ground. He became used to us caring for him. Of course he always kept a safe distance from us.

 One morning my warrior friend was visibly upset.  Three female sparrows and a ring neck dove started mooching off the birdseed. He chased them off, as I did when I saw them, but they were persistent.

“How dare they steal food from my bird,” my friend said. “I’m gonna bring a BB gun and stack their little corpses up like cord wood.”

We both laughed at the irony of it.

And then he said, pensively, “I wonder how many birds I’ll have to kill to save this one?”

Others got into the protection business when three females, perhaps his offspring, ganged up on him when he was on the ground and started pouncing and pecking on him mercilessly. One of our female employees became angered by the attack on the injured male, and chased the females away. After that, the male flew best he could back up to the relative safety of the second story walkway.

And that was a good sign. He was growing stronger. A week later, I saw the sparrow flying instead of walking or hopping, and calling loudly to attract a female back to his nest, without success.

But I think the story is now complete, for today he left, fully healed, perhaps in search of more desirable real estate.

When I told my warrior friend the bird was gone, and that we had apparently saved him long enough for him to heal, he said, “You know, I go bird hunting a lot, but there was something about this guy that made me want to save him. It must be something psychological.”

“He was a brave soldier,” I said, “and you don’t leave an injured man to die on the battlefield without trying to save him.”

He smiled and nodded his head. He knew exactly what I meant.

The Puerto Rico Trench and Denizens of the Deep

(Public domain - from U.S. Geological Survey)
Puerto Rico Trench. (Click once or twice for full image) U.S. Geological Survey

The Puerto Rico Trench is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, and is only surpassed in its depth by the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. It is 500 miles long, and at its deepest plummets 28,232 feet down.

After receiving my doctorate with a special interest in deep-sea physiology, I was invited on board the oceanographic Research Vessel (RV) Gilliss for an expedition to the Puerto Rico Trench. I was accompanied on that research cruise by Dr. Robert Y. George, a deep-sea biological oceanographer from Florida State University.

I had been studying the effect of very high pressure on invertebrate hearts. As luck would have it, the largest population of deep-sea creatures indigenous to the deepest places in the ocean are invertebrates (animals lacking  vertebrae, backbones.) But on the way down to the deepest reaches of the trench, you encounter some very strange creatures indeed, such as the Humpback Angler Fish.

Click for a larger image

 

 

 

 

 

 

These bizarre and frightening looking fish inhabit the abyssal pelagic zone (or the Abyss) between 13,000 and 20,000 feet. But below the water containing these abyssal fish lies the zone of the deep trenches, the hadalpelagic zone between 20,000 and 36,000 feet, the deepest point in any ocean.

“Denizens of the Deep” are known in merfolk tradition as the beasts that swallow up the sun at the end of the day, which is somewhat ironic since sunlight never reaches down to the abyssal and hadal zones. Whatever light is there, is produced by bioluminescence. Down there, light means either a meal, or a trap. And since meals are uncommon in the sparsely populated ocean depths, predators seem designed to ensure they miss no opportunities to feed. Their jaws, fangs, and other anatomical structures seem especially designed to snag a hapless passer-by, and provide no chance of escape for those caught.  Fortunately for us, animals adapted to the high pressure, low oxygen environment of the deep ocean cannot survive in shallow waters.

But imagine for a moment that something perturbed that natural order. Time has separated us from man-eating dinosaurs, but the only thing separating us from deep-sea monsters, ferocious predators that make piranhas look playful, is something as simple as pressure and oxygen.  Could things change?

Well, not to scare you, but until 1983 or so, the Puerto Rico Trench was a huge pharmaceutical dumping ground. Massive quantities of steroids and antibiotics, and chemicals capable of causing genetic mutations, came to rest on the sea floor, or were dispersed in the waters above and around the trench.

Read more about that here: http://deepseanews.com/2008/04/dumping-pharmaceutical-waste-in-the-deep-sea/

You don’t need to take just one person’s word for it. Professor R.Y. George himself commented on the issue in his resumé.

July 5 – July 30, 1977. Revisited Puerto Rico Trench (now Pharmaceutical Dump Site) aboard R/V GILLISS of the University of Miami to study Barophylic (pressure-loving)bacteria (Dr. Jody Demming’s Ph. D. work from Dr. Rita Colwell’s Lab. in the University of Maryland), and to study meiofauna, macrofauna and megafauna (in collaboration with Dr. Robert Higgins of the Smithsonian Institution).

Frankly, if I was visiting Puerto Rico, and signed up for a deep-sea fishing trip, I’d ask the boat captain just how deep we’d be fishing. I really wouldn’t want to bring up a Humpback Angler Fish large enough to eat the boat. After all, Angler Fish are fishermen too.

For a NOAA sponsored animated tour of the Trench, play the following high resolution video.

[youtube id=”v1OnsuyFdaM” w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

Polar Bear in Town

In some places, the food chain gets down-right personal. In the high Arctic, a careless human is not a top predator; he is a meal. Polar Bears are methodical hunters, showing no fear of humans. When hungry, they are white death on paws.

In 2007 the U.S. Navy and I were helping the Smithsonian Institution Scientific Diving Program teach a course on under-ice diving in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, an international research town a relatively short distance from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is the most-northern continuously occupied settlement, and is occupied year-round by scientists and support personnel.

The fjord adjacent to Ny-Alesund is normally covered in 4-5 feet of sea ice in the springtime, making it an ideal location for training in under-ice diving. To gain access to the water, ringed seals travel some distance from land to find holes penetrating the ice, through which they enter and exit the water beneath the ice. And polar bears walk out on the ice to patiently wait for the seals to reappear, and be gobbled up. 

In 2007, the sea ice was gone. The polar bears’ food was not concentrated around breathing holes, and thus the bears were not catching many seals. They were hungry.

By law, the resident and visiting scientists had to carry rifles with them when they ventured away from the icy town to do research in the surrounding hills. But in town, no weapons were required. Polar Bears simply didn’t come into town.

Until one night.

There is only one bar in Ny-Alesund, and it specialized in serving Jesus Drinks during parties. A Jesus Drink is any alcoholic mixture served with glacial ice that is roughly two thousand years old. Get it?

On the night of the bear sighting, a petite Australian doctor friend of mine was walking back from the bar alone, and as she approached the dormitories, she saw a polar bear passing along the side of the dorm I was in. As it disappeared around a corner of the building she was left wondering if she was hallucinating. To make sure of what she saw, she ran across the end of the building just in time to see the white bear reemerge, calmly walking down a snowy road. Since she was close by, I clearly heard her yell the alarm, “Polar Bear in Town!”

The bear was headed towards the area where about a dozen Greenland Huskies, used for pulling sleds, were tied down for the night. So the deathly calm of the Arctic night was shattered by a female doctor yelling at the top of her lungs, while the vulnerable dogs were barking to save their lives — literally.

Of course I hopped out of bed, threw on my multiple layers of Long Johns, slipped into my Arctic parka and gloves and headed out the door to see the bear.

As luck would have it, our experienced dive team leader from the Smithsonian was walking in as I was headed out.

“John, you’re heading outside, in the dark, with a bear close by, and you have no gun.”

“Hmm… I see what you mean.”  I hadn’t looked at it from the perspective of a hungry bear. I turned around and went back to bed.

The next morning we found bear tracks a plenty. The dogs had scared off the bear apparently, since he didn’t claim any animals. Lucky dogs.

Well, the next evening we happened to have a party, with plenty of glowing blue Jesus ice. Although the walk to the bar, down a snowy road with no protection from the elements had not seemed daunting in the fading polar daylight, things were different when I returned to the dorm about midnight, by myself.

There was no moon so the sky was pitch black, but everything else was white, except for me. My parka was brown, and in retrospect made me look a bit like a muffin. And of course I knew that out there in the whiteness, somewhere, was a brazen, hungry bear looking for a snack.

I had never thought of myself as a potential meal, until then.

My head was on a swivel, and my not-yet dark adapted eyes were peering towards the most distant snow and ice, in all directions, looking for a movement that might warn me of a bear. And then the huskies started yelping again, in obvious alarm. That was when I realized that by the time I saw the white on white predator, he would have me. They’re fast, and I had nowhere to run for safety. I was in the open.

That is a curious feeling, knowing that you could be taken like a hunter takes a deer.

I wondered how badly it would hurt.

Well, with that Jesus ice coursing through my veins, I felt safe. That is, I felt safe once I was back in the dorm, snug in my bed.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on how primal a fear it is, that fear of being eaten.

Diving Under Antarctic Ice

You are 100 feet down using scuba, with your dive light spotlighting the most exotic looking Sea Hare you’ve ever seen.

It’s noon at McMurdo Station, Antarctica but it’s dark at your depth because between you and the surface of the Ross Sea lies19 feet of snow-covered ice.  Your dive buddy has drifted about 100 feet away, but you can see him without hindrance in the gin clear water of the early Antarctic springtime.

The 800 foot water visibility also means you can easily see the strobe light hanging on the down line 200 feet away, the line leading to the three and a half foot diameter hole bored through the ice.

Under these conditions, you should not have to worry about your regulator, but you do, because you know that any scuba regulator can fail in 28° F water, given enough opportunity. You also know that some regulators tolerate these polar conditions better than others, and you are using untested regulators, so yours might free-flow massively at any moment.

Should that happen, you have a back-up plan; you will shut off the free flow of air from your failed regulator with an isolation valve, remove the failed second stage from your numb and stiff lips and switch to a separate first and second stage regulator on your bottle’s Y-shaped slingshot manifold, after first reaching back and opening the manifold valve. Of course, that backup regulator could also free-flow as soon as you start breathing on it – as has already happened to one of your fellow test divers.

In that situation you would have no choice except to continue breathing from what feels like a torrent of liquid nitrogen, teeth aching from the frigid air chilled to almost intolerable temperatures by unbridled adiabatic expansion, until you reach your dive buddy and convince him that you need to borrow his backup regulator. Once he understands the gravity of the situation, that two of your regulators have failed, then the two of you would buddy-breathe from his single 95 cu ft bottle as you head slowly towards the strobe marking the ascent line. And of course he will be praying that his own primary regulator doesn’t fail during that transit.

Once you reach the ascent line you are still not out of difficulty. The two of you cannot surface together through the narrow 19-foot long borehole. So you would remove your regulator once again and start breathing off a pony bottle secured to the down line. Once it is released from the line, you can then make your ascent to the surface; but only if a 1300-pound Weddell seal has not appropriated the hole. In a contest for air, the seal is far more desperate following an 80 minute breath-hold dive, and certainly much more massive than you. Weddells are like icebergs – their cute small face sits atop a massive body that is a daunting obstacle for any diver. 

But you even have a plan for that — you’ve heard that Weddell seals don’t like bubbles, and they get skittish about having their fins tugged on, and will thus relinquish the hole to you. … At least, that’s what you’ve been told. You certainly hope he would leave before you consume the meager amount of air in your pony bottle.

The text above was taken from a U.S. Navy Faceplate article I wrote concerning  a 2009 Smithsonian Institution sponsored diving expedition to Antarctica in which I participated. On and under-the-ice photos were taken by expedition members Drs. Martin Sayer and Sergio Angelini.