Bird Building Stone

Humans are not the only species to build with stone. Several species of birds are well known for this trait. The desert lark (Ammomanes deserti), a ground nester found in the Middle East, builds low stone walls (about 4cm high) in front of its nest. One ornithologist described the stone structure as a “pebble glacis,” a type of defensive barrier found in medieval fortresses. In contrast, the rock wrens (Salpinctes obsoletus) of the American southwest appears to be more friendly. The birds live in labyrinthine world of crevices, nooks, passageways, and recesses and construct nests with stone driveways, one of which consisted of 728 flat pebbles ranging from ½ to 2 inches long.

Early ornithologists hypothesized that this behavior might help the rock wrens recognize their nest cavity from the multitude of holes found in cliff faces or that the walkway kept “the young from falling into crevices or getting their feet caught in the same.” The pathways may take several years to build, though not by the same pair of birds. At this time, though, no one has come up with a conclusive reason for the paving.

Most impressive, though, is the black wheatear (Oenanthe leucura), known in Spain as pedrero, the stone quarrier or stonemason. During breeding season, a male will pick up an average of 277 stones and fly them back to the nest area. He deposits them in a pile, some of which contain up to four pounds of rock. The piles provide no benefit; the stones neither discourage predators, protect against weather, nor moderate temperatures. Instead, the females use the males’ stone toting facility to determine how much effort he will provide in raising their brood.

I can just imagine her thinking “Now, there is some good mating material. If he spends this much energy building a pile of rocks, imagine how devoted he will be to the kids.” Then again, I worry that she may be disappointed. He may just be a typical rock hound who likes to collect rocks.


Another Swindler, 1883-1891

Amazingly enough, James Dale Owen was not the only person to swindle geologists in the late 1800s. Even more notorious, and more persistent, was a man known as the Swindling Geologist. Like the man who took on the persona of Owen, this Swindler’s true identity was never discovered. From 1883 to 1891, he hornswoggled, hoodwinked, and bilked people from Philadelphia to Oskaloosa. In nearly every situation, he pretended to be a famous geologist or scientist.

The Swindling Geologist first appeared in the news in 1884, following his arrest on February 9, in Philadelphia. Pretending to be W. R. Taggart of the Ohio Geological Survey, he had befriended Ferdinand V. Hayden, of the United States Geological Survey, and stolen one of his rare books and made off with $20. Trying to track down Taggart, Hayden learned that the Swindler has posed as E.P. Strong of the Kansas Pacific Railway, E. Douglas of the Ohio State Geological Survey, and E.D. Whitney, a geologist from Denver.

The Swindler then disappeared from the news until August 6, 1885, when he resurfaced in Davenport, Iowa, as Francis Arandel, a native of Austria. Soon, however, he took on the role of Leo Lesquereux, Jr., the son of a well-known, Swiss-born paleobotanist who had settled in Ohio.

Traveling throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, Lesquereux Jr. snookered the unsuspecting. In one town, he used a mysterious formula to show two mine owners the “unexcelled richness” of their ores, for which he was paid royally, honored, and feasted. In another, he borrowed books from one person, sold then to a second, then borrowed them back and returned them to the original owner. And always, he appropriated specimens and scientific equipment and bailed on his lodging charges.

Not that he was always successful. He was in jail at least three times. As Leo Lesquereux Jr, he spent three months incarcerated in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in late 1885. As Captain Roy M. Lindley, he served an unknown amount of time in Kanakee, Illinois in 1886. Finally, from March 5, 1888 to June 9, 1890, one Otto Syrski was in the state penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio.

After his parole, the Swindler pops up sporadically. According to a letter to the editor in the American Geologist of May 1891, he stayed in Columbus as a reporter for the Sunday World. He later appeared in Lansing, Michigan, where his speeches were reported in the Detroit Tribune in an article titled “A Man with a History.” His last reported attempt at swindling comes from a June 17, 1891, letter from Garland C. Broadhead to the American Geologist. Broadhead noted that he recognized the Swindler, confronted him, and told him “that I thought that a man gifted as he was ought to be every way correct.” The Swindler then trembled and hurried away, vanishing for ever.

I still feel that there is much to discover about the Swindler. For example, I have not been able to locate the Columbus paper or the article in the Detroit Tribune. I also know that there are letters about him in the United States Geological Survey’s papers at the National Archives. I suspect that there is more material out there. If anyone has access to the above items, or other thoughts on where to track down the Swindler, please let me know.

And then there are the questions. Where did he come from? Where did he get his training in geology and paleontology? Did he continue in a more surreptitious manner that escaped detection? Did he abandon his ways? Was he related in any way to James Dale Owen? I like to think that the Swindler was Owen’s son. As has been written, the truth is stranger than fiction.

By the way, if you are interested a bit more in the Swindler I have a short article about him in the October issue of Earth.