Archive for the ‘Dubious Speculation’ Category


Common mallard = gray wolf

Domestic mallard (Pekin, Cayuga, Rouen, Khaki Campbell) = domestic dog

Black duck = Eastern wolf

Mottled duck  = red wolf

Mexican duck = coyote

Laysan duck = Ethiopian wolf

Hawaiian duck = African golden wolf

Gadwall= Golden jackal

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black angus

The snow swirls wildly.  Whiteout conditions then subsume the land. But just as soon as the snow squalls came, the sun blinks and out, and the snow clouds dissipate. The dusting left on the dormant grass melts away. It is the sallow grass of winter.

But soon it will be greening, for we have entered into that oddball month that runs from late March to late April, when the days switch from balmy sweetness of coming spring to the driving chills of winter. The two forces will war against each other over the next month.

Spoiler alert: the warm and balmy beats the dagger cold in the end.

This is the time of the great calving. Not of glaciers or of wild beasts but of the beef cattle that move their way through the green pastures, munching away at their forage, getting fat as they fart and belch and chew cud in the sunshine.

The agrarian life is in a moribund state here in North-Central West Virginia. The old ways of farmers turning out a few beef cows with calves and keeping a few head of sheep are slowly but surely in decline. Georgia and Tennessee are better lands for beef, and the price of wool is but a pittance.  Big agribusiness works the more fertile lands of the Midwest, Great Plains, and California, and the mixed operation little hill farmer of the Alleghenies is left way behind.

Only a few souls cling to the business of cattle. Virtually none do it full-time. My own grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these part-time cattlemen. He was a school bus-driver. He “drove bus” is the way his occupation was described.  But his heart was in raising beef cattle. He was not a man of great education, but he was every bit as into improving his strains as Robert Bakewell or Thomas Coke. He was always looking for a fine bull to put to his cows, and he never kept any scrub cattle.

But now the old farmers have gone. Their children have gone off to make their fortunes elsewhere, and by now, several generations have been removed from that lifestyle.  Children’s hands, which once milked dairy cattle, now caress smart phones and video game controls. To most of us, this world as a foreign as Outer Mongolia.

But I often drive this stretch of rural road, though, where the farmer still turn out their cattle into roadside pastures. And in between the March snow squalls, I slip along this road.

The cattlemen along this road keep only “black Angus” or the crossbred form known as a black baldy. These Scottish cattle grow thick coats during the winter chill, and although they are hornless, they sort of make me think of bison when I see them. Their shaggy hides just have that sort of primeval look to them.

And March is the time when the calves drop. They fall black and wet onto the yellow grass, and their mothers stand over them, licking them with the deep cleaning, stimulating strokes of their muscular tongues.

And then they rise from the grass and drink the colostrum, while the snow flies all around them.

The cattlemen breed the cows to give birth in March, so the calves can grow and mature on the green grass of spring. That way, they can get top dollar at the autumn livestock markets.

There is a toughness in these cattle, though they are so carefully bred for their fine marbled beef, that they drop their young into this time in which the winter chills square off against the coming spring warmth.

This scene feels ancient, but in long history of the Alleghenies, it is but a brief footnote. Mammoths and mastodons once dropped the calves here, as did the ancient North American bison.  And when the Europeans came, the forests were full of elk and modern-day bison, and they too had their young in the spring sunshine on these glady hills.

And 50 years ago, the Angus weren’t grazing the hillsides. The very stately English Herefords were the beef breed of choice, and a hundred years ago, the most farmers kept shorthorns, which are always called “Durhams” in West Virginia. Cross them with Jersey or Holstein, and you’ve got a nice little dairy cow.  The rest can be killed for beef or sold to market.

As I drive down the road, I come to pasture that is enclosed by an 8-foot fence of woven wire. When I first saw this fence, I thought it odd. Most cattlemen just put in four strands of barbed wire, and if that doesn’t hold the cows back, a solar paneled electric fence certainly will.

But here, the fence is so elaborate, and I never could figure out why it was so.

And then one day, I saw a them standing along the fence nearest the road. They were a herd of about a dozen bison.

They looked out of place behind the woven wire.  In my mind, a bison is a wild animal, one that our greed largely killed off in the past two hundred years.

But on this farm, they have returned, but their reintroduction is ersatz. Two hundred years ago, the bison roamed up from the Ohio River Valley during the early spring to eat the rich mountain grasses, and every winter, they would wander out of the snowfields of the higher mountain into the mild river bottoms.

These bison, though, are confined. Sooner or later, they would go to slaughter. Their wildness has been bottled up, but I can’t help but wonder if they would enjoy running loose as their wild ancestors once did.

I think of these bison and of these cattle, and I think about the question of permanence. In a thousand years, will this bison or the Angus still be grazing these pastures? Will the pastures even exist, or will the temperate forest absorb the grasslands as they have done with all the old hill farms that have been abandoned to nature? Will the snows of March still come flying in that great whirlwind battle between warmth and freezing chill? Or will the warming climate declare final victory over the March snow?

Permanence is illusory.  To adhere to that illusion is to become subject to a delusion.  Sooner or later, the fracking trucks will come, and if the groundwater gets ruined, these little farms will be gone.

Economics and ecology will simply clear it all off, just as these forest bison were cleared off nearly two hundred years ago.

So now behold this land of the black buffalo, but don’t blink.  It might not be around too much longer.


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This animal is a Serengeti golden jackal.

Yes. They do look like coyotes.

Not all golden jackals look like coyotes, but some really are hard to tell apart from their North American cousins.

Golden jackals are much more closely related to wolves and coyotes than to the other two species of jackal. The side-striped and black-backed jackals are very distantly related to the other members of the genus Canis.  They are found only in Africa, while the golden jackal is found in North and East Africa, a huge chunk of Asia, including the entire Middle East, and part of Europe.

During the Pleistocene, there are fossil records of what appear to be golden jackals (not coyotes) in North America, which would have been a weird situation. I’d hate to have to identify wild dogs in that particular environment!

I have never seen a verified record of a hybrid between a dog, wolf, dingo, or coyote and one of those two Africa-only jackals.

I have seen photos of dogs that supposedly are, but no one has ever performed any genetic tests of them. It’s just assumed that because certain pariah dogs in Africa have jackal features, then they must have jackal ancestors.

However, it is much more likely that the similarities are  the result of sub-Saharan African dogs evolving to live in the same environment as the black-backed and side-striped jackal.


Black-backed jackals are fierce little critters. They totally dominate the side-striped jackals. The two animals are almost never found in the same environments, because the because the black-backed bullies drive the side-striped jackals out.

However, it’s a different story where black-backed jackals and golden jackals share a range in East Africa. Black-backeds must share with the goldens.


Many years ago, I saw footage of both black-backs and goldens scavenging the same carcass.

It was really strange to watch.

Here we had the cosmopolitan golden jackal, a close relative of the wolf and coyote, eating with an animal that is the oldest extant member of its genus.

It is almost like humans sharing a meal with Lucy or maybe even Paranthropus.

The two jackals species were about the same size, but the goldens had larger heads.  The goldens also used the “threat gape” and the tucked tail and arched back posture that coyotes use as a dominance display.

The black-backeds were basically just rude guests.

They ran in and out and occasionally got into nasty fights with each other.

Because the golden jackals have bigger heads, I’m pretty sure they really damage a black-backed jackal. And I’m sure the the black-backeds knew this.

They didn’t mess with the goldens.

It was a very weird scene.

It was like watching two branches of an evolutionary family being reunited.

I wonder what these animals think of each other.

I’m sure they know they are not members of the same species, but I can conjecture that they somehow recognize some similarity.

I am reminded of the time when a three-month-old Miley came faced to face with a gray fox– an even more distant relation to her than black-backed jackals are to golden jackals.

The two animals just stared at each other for about 30 seconds. You could read both of their eyes. Both creatures were intrigued and frightened at the same time. This was the first gray fox she had encountered, and I’m sure that this was the first golden retriever puppy this gray fox had ever seen.

These animals have no knowledge of our sophisticated Darwinian theory.

But their noses, their eyes, and their ears surely spoke of some ancient commonality.

A sense that I cannot imagine, but can only catch glimpse of in my psyche.

My mind tells me that I am a primate, that I share a large percentage of my DNA with the chimpanzee and the bonobo, two species that could never safely live in my world. Yet I share my life with dogs, who fit so nicely into our culture constructs and various contrivances we call civilization.

I also am more closely related to that recently discovered titi monkey than I am to the domestic dog, a creature my species has known for tens of thousands of years.

Yet is the dog that feels like a family member.

I know more about those animals than I know about my own primate brethren.

And yet when I look at dog and I look at man, I am still confounded.

We know so much, yet know so little. We are so close, yet so far away.

We are closer than the black-backed and golden jackals feasting on carrion. We consider each other to be social partners, even family members, but the jackals have a common Canisness that I can never experience with another species.

I can’t imagine feeling as close to a chimpanzee as I do to my dog.

I am descended from the ape that became a wolf and then took over the world.

And that may be why I feel this greater commonality with the dog than I do any primate.

Maybe this is why man feels so alone among animate creation. We know no commonality with other species with which we share a close common ancestry, and the species with which we share the greatest commonality in terms of our behavior isn’t a close relative.

So we hold onto dogs to remind us of that one time when we part of something else, when we were not separate from the rest. The dog is our connection to the other creatures, not the chimpanzee.

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This is for fun. Bigfoot in Oklahoma:


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This Italian greyhound comes from W.E. Mason’s Dogs of All Nations.

The head reminds me less of a modern Italian greyhound and more of a deer-headed chihuahua.

The dog has almost the “candle-flame” ears we see in toy Manchester terriers.

The Manchester (“black and tan”) and English white terriers were crosses between some sort of terrier and either a whippet or Italian greyhound. They were celebrated in the ratting pits, and they were popular pets for a time.

The English white terrier went extinct.

The Manchester breeds are still around.

I wonder if any of these dogs were crossed back into Italian greyhounds.

The ears on this dog seem to indicate a possible toy Manchester or toy white terrier ancestry.

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You don’t get more dubious than this:


New blog category: “Dubious Speculation.”

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