[Tweeters] The Port Townsend's(?) Mole -- and how I became a birder

Gary Smith gsmith at smithandstark.com
Sun Apr 13 12:33:38 PDT 2014

I, too, appreciate Jeff's essays. This one got me to thinking about how
moles led me to birding, sort of. I've always had that naming compulsion
that most birders share - what's that plant? What's that rock? What's that

When I took up fly-fishing in the 1970s, that led me to learning about
aquatic insects, which led me to thinking about how fishing flies are
invented and constructed, which led me to learning to tie flies, which led
me to thinking about the materials people over the centuries have
inventively applied to hooks in hopes of fooling a fish, which led me to
acquiring my own store of skins and feathers. (At the peak of my obsession,
I would slam on the brakes to examine the potential value of road kill. The
rather flattened porcupine I took home didn't turn out to have a lot of
fishing applications.)

In any case, I taught myself to detach and preserve the skins of many dead
critters. A friend gave me several prized dead animals, such as a Stellar's
Jay and a mole. As Jeff says, the fur of a mole (sorry Jeff, I have no idea
the species) is wondrously soft, a really luxurious material. When you spin
it on waxed thread and wind it on a hook, it beautifully mimics the thorax
of certain caddis larvae.) Most of the materials that fly tiers have used,
of course, started out adorning a bird. The recipes for flies referred both
to birds and to kinds of feathers I had no idea existed, so you can see
where that would lead. I was just stunned at the variety and beauty of
feathers. I was equally amazed at how different feathers serve different
purposes for the bird, and how inventively those characteristics had been
applied to fishing. I was hooked, so to speak, on an entirely new passion,
and have been an avid birder ever since.

This pathway took root in my nephew, too. When he was a little 9 year-old
living in Chicago, he visited me that summer at my home on Bainbridge
Island. I pulled a large bird out of my freezer someone had given me. We
thawed it and spread newspaper on the kitchen floor and skinned the bird. I
showed him how each part of the bird had different kinds of feathers and
why, and then how the individual parts of the feathers had names, and how
they seemed to work, such as the way that the wing feathers have barbs and
the barbs have barbules and the barbules have little hooks and lock to each
other so the wing gives lift, and how you can zip and unzip those together,
and how in the old days, fly tiers would zip together sections of flight
feathers from different birds to get multiple colors in the wing of an
Atlantic Salmon fly. And how some of the birds sought in those days are no
longer with us because sometimes humans treat wild creatures unwisely. We
examined my store of other dead things.

Years later I sat one spring afternoon at the Burke Museum and watched him
deliver his oral defense of his Ph.D. dissertation. He had observed that
while over the decades many scientists had studied and compared the
characteristics of flight feathers and had developed common terms for
evaluating them, the body feathers of songbirds were comparatively
under-studied and science had not yet arrived at an agreed way of comparing
them. So he launched just such a comparison and proposed for science a
standard method and 'language' to do this. I remembered our day on the
kitchen floor. Nowadays, I bird a lot more than I fish.


Gary Smith

Alki Point, Seattle

From: tweeters-bounces at mailman1.u.washington.edu
[mailto:tweeters-bounces at mailman1.u.washington.edu] On Behalf Of Jeff Gibson
Sent: Sunday, April 13, 2014 4:27 AM
To: tweeters
Subject: [Tweeters] The Port Townsend's(?) Mole

Still camped out here in Port Townsend, where I've discovered a mole.

Now this is not the Russian mole of spy novels (which my dads bookshelves
are full of), because what would a Russian spy do here in Port Townsend?
Possibly looking for the next Crimea? I mean Port Townsend is a seaport,
with a naval weapons depot, and the town is no doubt full of pinko commie
sympathizers ("better pink than fink"), Marxist philosophers (Karl had some
great ideas, but I kinda like the other Marx brothers), forest radicals,
etc. And Port Townsend has a suspiciously good food co-op for the size of
the town - a sure sign of creeping socialism.

The problem with this theory is that Russia aint really communist, or even
pinko anymore - just another sorry-pants oligarchy, which are quite popular
these days around the world. With the oligarchs that is. I don't imagine
Port Townsend being up with that.

Moving right along, the mole I found (the burrowing animal ) was really more
interesting, although dead. All the moles I've ever seen (except one big
honkin' Townsend's Mole) have been dead, but all pretty fresh. They have
remarkable velvety fur ( favorite mole band?; The Velvet Underground).

Well my mole find the other day was'nt so fuzzy. In fact it was pretty much
a flattened skeleton, with just enough dried parchment- like skin to hold
the bones together. I found it under a woodpile that my dad was moving. The
only way I knew it even was a mole was because it still had one front paw
sticking out - the broad palmed dirt paddle, with 5 claws, looking
remarkably like a human hand .

On closer inspection, I saw a very strange looking bone, which turned out to
be the lower jaw bone, fringed with fine teeth. I got out my old 10x hand
lens to examine the teeth. Unlike the dreaded plant chomping Gopher, and
other rodents, the mole doesnt have plant nipping incisors, and plant
crushing molars; the mole is an Insectivore and has a jaw full of sharp
teeth. It really reminded me of another skull I'd seen a picture of - that
of a toothed whale. In another exciting episode of Parallel Evolution ('form
follows function' and all that), the mole and whales need sharp teeth to
grab and tear the slippery fish, squid, or in the moles case, worms, that
they eat. Even the moles molars are sharp.

Now that whole Townsend's thing. For sort of literary kinda reasons, I would
like my mole to be a Townsend's Mole. But it could be the similar, but
smaller Coast (or Pacific) Mole. Aparently you cant tell by the skull
details, and this specimen is only about 4 inches long, so could be a
youngster of either type, both found around here.

Port Townsend was not named for the Townsend's Mole, or vice versa. Port
Townsend was named in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver for his buddy and
fellow royal military nerd, the Marqui of Townshend.

John Kirk Townsend , a name that should be familiar to northwest
naturalists, was an American naturalist and ornithologist who explored the
northwest in the 1830's and has a fairly long list of creatures with his
name attatched to 'em, from moles, to bats, voles etc.

Since this is Tweeters, I should note the man's name is also associated
with two birds, as you probably know - The Townsends Warbler, that
wonderfuly colorful bird of the conifers, and the Townsends Solitaire, which
in my opinion is one of the most charismatic nondescript birds one could
hope for. You can see both of these in Port Townsend. If your'e lucky.

Jeff Gibson

NSI ( Natural Scene Investigator)

snooping in,

Port Townsend Wa

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