Amoeba’s Lorica: Island Biogeography, For the Birds

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba first excysted, and started pseudofooting around, in the neighborhood of southeastern Massachusetts, USA. Back when elephants had fur, the news was mostly about how the Soviet Union’s ICBMs were going to blast US all to smithereens any moment now, and the woods still contained large populations of whip-poor-wills.

For those of you, dear readers, who don’t know, the whip-poor-will is a bird, of unremarkable size, boring plumage, and a set of lungs that any three opera singers would kill to possess, employed in a sadistic ritual that its name only partially does justice to. The bird belongs to a family known as nightjars, which it does to perfection, jarring unsuspecting children awake with its endlessly repeated thrashing of whoever the hell poor Will was. Usually starting at about 10 PM on a still summer night.

Causing said children, who had, as usual, been sent to bed after a barrage of ‘duck and cover’ public service announcements, to awaken screaming in terror at the 10 megaton missile, courtesy of Comrade Khrushchev, milliseconds from exploding directly overhead. And then wanting to storm out of the house with pajamas and BB gun, to flush out and exterminate every last one of those miserable feathered menaces.

Indeed, writer/cartoonist James Thurber, who did most of his work before there were such things as ICBMs, wrote a story about how the call of a whip-poor-will drove a man (who, it must be acknowledged, was already, er, slighly unstable), to murder. Certainly understandable to anyone who has been nightjarred awake.

Grey Francolin male, calling

Grey Francolin, murdering sleep

But YFNA thinks that, if Thurber had been subjected to the call of a grey francolin instead, he might have conjured up a tale of a massacre.

The grey francolin is counted among what the ornithologists like to call ‘backyard birds’, in this case the backyards of Hawai‘i Island. Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba and Dame Amoeba (Quilly) are fortunate enough to occupy a place on Hawai‘i Island with a backyard, and even more fortunate to have that backyard tended, every two weeks, by these very nice people who mow the grass, rake the leaves, and prune the bushes, trashing the civilizations of all the buggy and squishy things that live among the bushes, and leaving the wreckage for the wildlife to clean up.

Which the grey francolins are only too happy to do.

Grey francolins are of unremarkable size – quail-sized, actually, and they run around in quail-sized families, which is kinda cute – and boring plumage.

And a voice on the dominant male, when he thinks he’s found something and wishes to claim it, that sounds like a drill sergeant pushed through a stadium amp.


At any time from first light of dawn to the last gasp of twilight. YFNA reckons that, if they don’t belong to a family called dayjars, they should. They certainly have jarred Quilly into wanting to go after them with pajamas and BB gun. She’s had to settle, though, for going after them with a camera. So far, they’ve taken the hint …

To his shame, YFNA once wondered, briefly, how the native Hawaiians put up with the noise. Then he realized. They didn’t have to.

Because grey francolins, like practically all the rest of the backyard wildlife in Hawai‘i – except the centipedes – were not part of the wildlife that the native Hawaiians had to put up with. They’re haoles, from India, no less. Brought in by those haoles who turned Hawai‘i from a sovereign state into, mostly, an amusement park and military base.

backyard_birds_smallerIn fact, when YFNA made a list of the birds that he and Quilly have found in their pleasant backyard, they discovered that none of them were native to Hawai‘i. They are all imports, and from all over the place. A far cry from the last island (San Juan Island, Washington) where YFNA and Quilly had hung their hats, where most of the birds were native to the surrounding area; only a few had been imported from elsewhere, and one of those (the Anna’s hummingbird) had imported itself, (mostly) without human help.

Scientists who study the flora and fauna of islands recognize something called “island biogeography”, in which the living things on an island usually consist of the plants and critters what got there first, mostly from the closest neighboring land masses, and their descendants. Folks have often struggled to understand how some creature from far away got to an island in the first place, never mind established itself once it got there. Especially if there was just one of them …

A future society, confronted with the Hawaiian Islands and somehow ignorant of the existence of humans and their nasty terraforming habits, would have a really hard time understanding how all these weird things from all over the place, with no means to survive long ocean voyages, came to land on this rock in the middle of the ocean, 1500 miles from the nearest continent.

Unless, of course, sometime in the near future, some yahoo malihini imports whip-poor-wills onto these islands, and crazed children with dreams of fusion bombs in their heads burn down Hawai‘i in a desperate bid to get rid of them. Then, all bets are off.

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3 Responses to Amoeba’s Lorica: Island Biogeography, For the Birds

  1. Quilly says:

    I believe our conversation the first morning we were in this house went something like:

    Me, jarred from a sound sleep and somewhat cranky: “What the -bleep- is that?!”

    You, already out of bed and standing at the window: “I’m not sure. I’m looking for — oh, there it is, underneath the hedge. I see it.”

    Me, perhaps still a tad-bit miffed: “I hope you’ve spotted the damn thing down the sights of a rifle.”

    You gently reprimand: “No, dear. That would wake the neighbors.”

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