Notes from the field

Kings Play Chess On What?

If the sentence “Kings Play Chess On Funny Green Squares” brings back memories of high school biology, you know your way around taxonomy. It classifies organisms in an ordered system that indicates natural relationships. The mnemonic helped students remember taxonomy’s levels in ever-increasing specificity: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

The scientists who write articles for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine are familiar with the convention of capitalizing words in the taxonomic system, and italicizing when it comes to genus and species. So, the common raven’s scientific name is Corvus corax. It’s a member of the Corvidae family, which includes jays and crows.

More completely, a raven is in the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Aves, order Passeriformes, and the rest you know. Isn’t that well organized and elegant? You can almost see a liveried butler at the door of a ballroom, announcing the entrance of Mr. Common Raven like a member of the aristocracy: “Animalia Chordata Aves Passeriformes Corvidae Corvus corax.” And here is our guest in his shiny black feather suit being welcomed by George Alexander Louis, Prince of Cambridge (I just had to get cute here).

So far, so easy. Capitalize words used in the taxa. The challenge comes when deciding how to deal with English words derived from the taxonomic system. We run across this occasionally in articles for our magazine. The common raven, that robust member of the Corvidae family—is he a Corvid, or a corvid?

I could argue this both ways. On the one hand, “corvid” is simply an adjective, like “black” or “feathered.” No reason to start it with a capital “C.” On the other hand, “corvid” is an adjective derived from the word Corvidae. This raven is a member of that family. If I am a Hammonds, a member of the Hammonds family, shouldn’t he be a capital-C Corvid?

In my head, those are both good arguments. Fortunately, on questions like this there are references outside my own head that I can turn to for the answer. In this case, I found it in the Chicago Manual of Style. Per CMS 8.126, “English words derived from the taxonomic system are lowercased and treated as English words.” The relevant example: hominid (from the family Hominidae). The Corvus corax, the common raven, is a corvid, a member of the family Corvidae.

Sorry, Dad: Guess I’m a hammonds after all.

Madera Canyon Macrophotography

A recent trip to Madera Canyon (a birding hotspot south of Tucson) proved especially fruitful, photographically speaking, because I had just edited a book about macrophotography and was eager to put some of its lessons to use. Some of the results were more successful than others, but that’s how we learn, right? All images were taken with a Nikon AF-S 60 mm Micro lens on a Nikon D3100 body.


Other People’s Bucket Lists

This “bucket list” project we’re working on has given me a neat opportunity to ask other people the big question: “What’s on your bucket list when it comes to experiencing Arizona’s amazing wildlife?”

One thing I’ve learned is, people tend to call on memory rather than dream—to tell me what they’ve done, rather than what they want to do. Some creative folks blend the two, describing what they’ve done in the past that they’d like to do again.

I’ve asked this question of some fascinating people, longtime or even lifelong Arizonans who have made a career in the outdoors: biologists, wildlife managers, naturalists, sportsmen, educators. So I’ve been privileged to hear some fascinating answers:

  • “Stand on the Navajo walking bridge at Marble Canyon in the spring as the California condors fly overhead, so close you can hear their feathers flutter in the wind.”
  • “Watch a rattlesnake combat dance.”
  • “Listen to the deep-throated, challenging bugle of a bull elk across the forest as a full moon rises over Escudilla Mountain in eastern Arizona.”
  • “Watch a tom turkey strut through an old-growth ponderosa stand in the early morning and walk through rays of sunlight coming through the canopy, like an actor on a stage.”
  • “Catch a native trout on a fly in its native habitat, and let it go.”
  • “Watch a herd of mule deer feeding as they move through a snow-covered stand of cliffrose, on a very cold morning in White Pockets (this area was a victim of the Bridger-Knoll Fire in ’96).”

If that list doesn’t make you want to lace up your boots and get outside, I don’t know what will! Hearing these stories and so many more has been very inspiring to me, and I hope it will inspire readers of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, too, somewhere down the line.

What about you? What’s on your Arizona wildlife bucket list?

Recommended Reading

I am reading “Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-Based Writing” while on vacation this week. It’s not exactly a “beach read,” but if you want to meet a group of people who care about communicating effectively about the natural world, open its pages and introduce yourself.

Bucket List

I was recently challenged to come up with some “bucket list” items related to wildlife and outdoor Arizona.

I love the term “bucket list.” It’s so much faster and less morbid than asking someone, “What would you like to see, do, experience or accomplish before you die?”

The items on this particular list must relate to wildlife and take place in Arizona. It can be useful to have constraints such as these when coming up with a bucket list. When all the world is in play, choosing a handful of specific items is much tougher. Would I choose spring in Paris over spring in Seville? Who could decide? Faced with unlimited and equally attractive options, I often succumb to decision-making paralysis. Having sideboards focuses my mind.

As I brainstormed items related to wildlife and occurring in Arizona, I called on memories from the past 10 years.

  • Listening to an enormous flock of sandhill cranes murmur and chatter unseen in the last shadows of night at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.
  • Thrilling to the sight of a soaring California condor as I endured the last, long hour of a hike out of the Grand Canyon.
  • Freezing in my tracks at the sound of a bugling elk, somewhere off in the distant forest.
  • Startling a pronghorn, which took off at a sprint faster even than the pounding of my heart.
  • Watching a swarm of hummingbirds in brief, fierce aerial battles around a line of feeders.
  • Walking through the woods in southern Arizona, hoping to show my dad an elegant trogon, and having an actual trogon fly right past us and perch on a branch 10 yards away.

By definition, these memorable events can’t be on my bucket list because I’ve already experienced them, but I can confidently recommend them to anyone else, including readers of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine.

What should be on my list? What have I yet to experience? I’m still mulling that over. What about you? What wildlife-related items (in Arizona or not) are on your bucket list?

Is “Wildlife” Singular or Plural?

Question: When I use “wildlife” as the subject of a sentence, should it take a singular or plural verb form?

Annoying yet accurate answer: It can take either, depending on what you want the sentence to mean.

If you’ve come here hoping for a simple answer to this question, I’m sorry to disappoint you! You’ve asked a tricky question, and the response requires a bit of thought on your part.

“Wildlife” is not an easy word to work with. It looks singular, like “house.” Unlike “house,” “wildlife” does not become plural when an “s” is added on the end. Yet there are times when “wildlife” is plural, depending on the meaning it’s supposed to convey. That’s because “wildlife” is an example of a collective noun, also known as a mass noun (see “The Wildlife Conundrum” for more on mass nouns).

Nouns such as “wildlife” are tricky, because in order to match them to a correct verb form, you can’t just look at the word. It won’t tell you it’s plural or singular. You have to look at the sentence, and think about its intended meaning.

If the meaning of the sentence indicates that you’re considering wildlife collectively, as a whole group, the correct verb form is singular: “wildlife is.” This usually happens when you’re thinking of wildlife as a concept: the aggregate of non-human animals. An example would be, “Though seldom seen or heard, wildlife is all around us.”

If the meaning of the sentence indicates that you’re considering the actions of individual members of the group, use a plural verb form: “wildlife are.” An example would be, “Some wildlife are known to behave aggressively toward humans, though this is rare.”

If you’re looking for an easy guideline, try this: The group is, but individuals are.

If you want advice on a sentence or paragraph that’s troubling you, post it in a comment. I’ll be happy to suggest an answer in my reply.

The Music of Words

I hate to point this out, and those of you with sensitive natures may find it shocking, but most freelance writers strive to produce a publishable story while investing the minimum amount of time researching, drafting, revising and polishing it.

This is a sensible, cost-effective strategy. Our magazine pays writers based on the word count of a published piece, not on the number of hours they devoted to preparing it. The fewer hours spent on each article, the higher the hourly rate of pay. This is not a bad strategy—but writers who use it must have the skill to pull it off.

Those who don’t are wise to invest time to gain that skill. The hourly pay rate may be lower, at the start, but devotion to craft pays off, and I mean that literally. Editors can tell when a submission is not a writer’s best work. We wince as that writer then rushes through the editing process with a minimum of attention to changes. When I assign the next story, will I choose that writer, or someone who delivers a polished first draft and works closely with me throughout the editing process? It’s an easy choice.

Don’t get me wrong: I like coaching writers. I don’t mind editing a workmanlike but rough draft, as long as the writer sticks with me to make sure the final version is representative of the best work he or she can do. Editing is a partnership.

For writers who find the editing process tedious, here’s my question: Can you hear the music in your words? A good editor can help you discover it. If you can’t be bothered to listen, why write? There are other, far more lucrative ways to make a living. If you don’t care enough to tune your work as attentively as a violinist tunes a Stradivarius—if it sometimes seems, to you and to the editor, that they care more about the melodies in your work than you do—maybe it’s time to pick another profession.


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