Michael Ellis

Michael Ellis

People often ask me – what’s your favorite animal? Or which bird do you like best? The question is legitimate question but I want to answer like the parent of four children – which one do you love the best? “Equally! They’re all God’s creatures.”

But I do have favorites. The Native Americans and many other aboriginal cultures around the world practice what we call animism. Animals and other natural objects are imbued with spirits that they connect to in a deep and spiritual way. They became their “totems”. This is a word from the Algonquin Indian language, meaning “sibling kin, group or family, therefore his family mark”.

So these natural objects, usually animals, are considered part of the family. Some North American native traditions believe that each person has nine different animals that help them through life, not just one. New Age practitioners have appropriated this Native practice and you can visit numerous websites that help you discover your totem animal and what it means.

I must confess a deep and abiding bond with the black-backed jackal of Africa. I could watch these remarkable canids go about their business all day long. I feel a kindred connection with them, which is a little embarrassing.

They have so many admirable qualities that I like to think I have as well. They are faithful, monogamous and excellent parents. Trim, fit and very good-looking, their pelage – silver, black, brown fur – is always neatly in place and looking sharp. They are clever, opportunistic and brave. I have watched them scavenge kills right from the jaws of lions; frustrating those cats with their chutzpah. But my favorite thing about them is just watching them move. They travel with such certainty and a bounding, self-assured gait across the landscape.

Am I projecting? Totally. But if I had a family coat-of-arms. the jackal would play a prominent role in it.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

Imagine that you’re on a movie set…. there’s a soft rain falling, a couple embracing passionately on the porch of an antebellum mansion, the warm, heavy southern air envelops them, heat lightening flickers in the distance. The mood is nearly perfect but not quite; the director senses that something, something is missing: What is it? “FROGS” he shouts, “Frogs! We need croaking frogs! That’s it!” And he sends the sound technician scurrying for frog noises.

And so once again our hero, the Pacific tree frog, also known as the Pacific chorus frog, is called into action. It’s the most common frog sound heard in movies. And whether the scene takes place in Britain, New Guinea, Texas or the Serengeti, if it’s shot in Hollywood it usually gets the local frog. So, even though amphibian sounds vary throughout the world, for the sake of expediency this guy is the costar of the night.

This rainy winter we are hearing plenty of loud, evening choruses throughout California. Where there’s any standing water – a roadside ditch, a farm pond, or even an old outdoor hot tub, you’ll find uncountable numbers of males singing, each one trying to attract a mute female. Imagine her dilemma: she chooses a mate based on his singing ability — one voice out of hundreds. This is cutthroat — or should I say frogthroat?) — competition.

Even though these little guys are easy to hear, they are tough to see. They’re small; only 1 1/2 inches from nose to rear. They range in color from brown to green with every shade in between and they can change those colors completely in a short time. But regardless of its color phase each frog has a brown stripe running from the tip of the nose through the eye to the shoulder. When you see this field mark you’ll know it’s a Pacific tree frog.

So the next time you are watching old reruns of MASH and see Major Houlihan and Frank trysting in the “Korea” night, remember that’s our very own Hollywood tree frog that serenades them, the same one that’s in your backyard.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.


There are 12 months, each with its own personality. So of course anything with personality has to have a name, and the names tells us where they came from.

January is named for Janus, the Roman god of portals. He is always depicted with one face facing forward and the other backward. And January 1 has always been a time of reflection on the past and some potential actions for the coming year.

Febra was the Roman festival of purification. This was generally held on the 15th of February. And the idea was to have some spring-cleaning.

March is named for the god of war, Mars. This used to be the first day of the year for the ancient Romans. And that makes perfect sense because much is beginning anew in this month. Mars was not only the god of war but also the guardian of agriculture.

April is named for the beautiful goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. How perfect is that? The time when the world becomes luscious and full of wildflowers.

May means “the great one”. The great one was Maia, the goddess of the spring. She is associated with growth, though ironically not with sexual union, even though we still celebrate the Maypole, the dance symbolizing the union of male and female.

No, it is June when couples get married. Juno is the goddess of marriage and the well-being of females.

July is the month of Julius Caesar. He created a new calendar that was more accurate than the old one. And in his own honor he named a really nice month for himself.

Continuing in the spirit of self-aggrandizing, Augustus Caesar continued to improve the calendar and named this month for himself. And now September, October, November, December-that is, 7,8, 9,10. I suspect those two months added by the Roman emperors pushed these months forward.

So from seasonal identity to imperial ego to misplaced math the months give our calendar plenty of personality.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

Many, many years ago I was sitting alone in the darkness outside my friend’s country home in a highly altered state of consciousness common at the time. I was just contemplating all of the sounds of the night and all those voices in my head. Some of you out there will know exactly what I am talking about. When, suddenly, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye heading right toward me and making absolutely no noise. It was dark and I couldn’t see very well but whatever it was white and coming fast just off the ground. Just as suddenly as it appeared the pearly object veered away and then totally disappeared into the night.

The katydids were deafening as I sat for a long while trying to understand what I had just seen. Nothing that I thought of seemed probable, so I decided it must have seen a ghost. I didn’t mention this to anyone that night.

Several years later I was once again outside at another friend’s house, this time under the influence of nothing more powerful than a couple of beers when the apparition appeared again and I got a good look this time. it was a Owl, an owl. Aha… I hadn’t seen a ghost after all. But I was not disappointed, owls are totally cool.

More specifically it was a barn owl and since then I have often watched them flitting low across the fields hunting for mice. Biologists working with captive barn owls discovered that they can hunt in complete and total darkness. The owls locate their prey solely by the scurrying sounds the mice make. The large faces of owls are actually the original acoustical dishes that funnel sound waves into very their large ear openings. Special feathers on the leading edge of the wings muffle the sound of wind and render the flight completely noiseless.

Barn owls have adapted readily to roosting and nesting in man-made structures, hence their name. They are often found in the belfries of churches where they sleep by day and hunt by night in the surrounding countryside, which often includes, guess what, a cemetery. So barn owls may well have been the original ghosts that people first saw gliding silently over graves.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

The other day I was having dinner with a friend, Leona. Something was definitely bugging her. She was feeling antsy, uncharacteristically wolfing down her food. She wouldn’t tell me what was wrong but I kept badgering her. Sometimes she is just as stubborn as a mule.

Finally she confessed that it was her work. She just left IBM for a job in a small company, now she was a big fish in a little pond. But one of her fellow workers was getting the lion’s share of assignments. He was always nit-picking about her work. A real snake in the grass he was. But finally the straw that broke the camel’s back was when he rammed his own proposals right through without going through the proper channels. He had wormed his way into the good graces of the boss.

Just then our waiter appeared with a rather dog-eared menu. He had been hounding us about the daily specials but I had a whale of an idea. Let’s just share a vegetarian burrito and a diet coke. I had really been pigging out during the holidays and my physique was nothing to crow about. Besides I am no spring chicken and I have been squirreling pounds for years now.

Anyway. Leona is normally as timid as a mouse but once she gets a bee in her bonnet then watch out. I told her what is good for the goose is good for the gander. I suggested that she not horse around with this, that she get to work and find some stool pigeon in the company who can ferret out this skunk’s weak spots.

She told me that the old coot is proud as a peacock and most probably crazy as a loon, but he is real foxy in the business world so it may be hard to get to him. But if she worked hard and got real bearish about pointing out his weaknesses then he would soon be singing his swan song.

Finally the waiter brought the bill but there was something fishy about it. I hate to grouse about checks but it was too high. They had charged us for two burritos. I was mad as a wet hen. After he corrected it, I went ahead and ponied up for the tab. Leona and I said our goodbyes as we always do: See you later alligator, after a while crocodile.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

We often use the word maze and labyrinth interchangeably. But they are quite different. A maze has a multitude of paths that often lead to dead ends. You must retrace your steps and choose correctly over and over again to move successfully through it. There is a corn maze every Halloween in Petaluma and rubberneckers cause a major traffic jam along 101. I don’t like mazes.

A labyrinth on the other hand is a complex, circuitous single route that you take from the outside of a circle and through many twists and turns. You are always on a single path until you get to the center. You then turn and take the same exact path back out. There are labyrinths all over the Bay Area and whenever I see one I am drawn to walk on it. It is a joyful, walking meditation, not a somber one.

I enjoy labyrinths because they are a metaphor for life. We are born and know that we will die, but our life journey is full of unexpected twists and turns. And for me the beauty of walking the labyrinth is that I know I’ll get to the middle. Even though I have walked it hundreds of time, there are surprises. I expect a certain route but suddenly the path heads in the opposite direction. And then it abruptly turns again and I seem to be going in the wrong direction. But I must have faith. It is such an allegory for life. Whatever we imagine it to be , it will be something else.

Many ancient cultures had labyrinths in some form. Probably the archetypal one in Ancient Crete was actually a maze with the Minotaur in the middle. There is evidence in ancient Egypt of a labyrinth and Native Americans often incorporated labyrinths in their basket weaving. Clearly there is something elemental about the shape and path of labyrinths that resonates for us all.

Our most recent labyrinths can be traced to the medieval churches. When Christians no longer controlled the Holy Land and couldn’t complete their spiritual lives with pilgrimages there they developed labyrinths as a Plan B. If you couldn’t walk to Jerusalem, at least you could walk in the churches on the labyrinth’s path and that would be good enough to get into Heaven.

I do find labyrinths a-mazing. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.


I love nearly all the creatures that inhabit our planet. For me a banana slug is the epitome of grace and form. The naked head of a turkey vulture excites me like that of no other bird. And even the lowly opossum has a kind of inner beauty that I find touching.

But as a card-carrying naturalist I must reluctantly confess a deep-seated dislike for yellow jackets.

I assume this antagonism dates from my early childhood. As a wee lad of five, I ventured too close to a hive and was promptly attacked and repeatedly stung in the ear and head. As a teenager, I would often push the lawn mower over yellow jacket nests and get stung. And once while I was riding my motorcycle a yellow jacket flew into my mouth and stung my tongue. I grew to hate them.

This late summer there have been a lot of yellow jackets, and it is not your imagination. This is one of the worst years ever. In the Sierra Nevada the density is one yellow jacket per square meter and people have been driven out of campgrounds by these ferocious insects. No one is quite certain why there are so many yellow jackets this year. Is it just some periodic natural cycle? Or maybe climate change?

Unlike honey bees, yellow jackets sometimes sting without provocation. I’ve seen them just land on a hand and zap the person. As if this weren’t bad enough they then release a chemical that attracts all of the other yellow jackets in the neighborhood.

So what good are these little beasts? What role do they play in the natural scheme of things? Well, they eat nearly everything including rotten meat and Coca-Colas. So I guess they act as scavengers keeping the world a bit tidier and reminding us to pick up after ourselves.

Fortunately there are a few natural predators that help limit the population. Some birds will eat a few and western toads will sit outside the nest and snag them as they fly out. But the most effective control are the striped skunks. These nocturnal predators dig out entire nests and consume the larvae, eggs and even the adults. How they tolerate the stings is a mystery to me, but I am sure glad they do.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.


Walt Whitman once said that a weed was a plant whose useful purpose has not yet been discovered. My dad, on the other hand, said that anything growing in the yard that was not grass was a weed. So basically it comes down to an anthropocentric value judgment. A weed is simply a plant growing where humans do not want it to  at this moment. Often these plants are referred to as "invasive species." This term is defined as "a non-native species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."
Fennel, German ivy, pampas grass, teasel, yellow star thistle, milfoil, scotch broom, gorse, ice plant, dune grass, cheat grass, Klamath weed and bindweed are just of few of the noxious weeds that have found a nice and permanent home in the Bay Area. Last year, over $85 million was spent in California combating their myriad negative effects.
Weeds are hardy generalists. They are adapted to many different habitats. They thrive in disturbed areas like gardens and gravel parking lots and out-compete native plants. Extremely fast growing, weeds reproduce sexually and asexually. Flowers are mostly wind pollinated; the seeds are abundant and small, dispersing readily. And most importantly, these seeds can lay dormant for centuries.

They also reproduce asexually. With long taproots that break off easily, each piece generating a new plant. Or with runners like blackberries or underground stems like crabgrass. Many of them are armed and toxic, and some produce chemicals to inhibit the growth of nearby plants.   
Many of our worst weeds are Eurasian in origin. They accompanied the European invasion of this continent. These plants had already spent thousands of years adapting to the severe alterations made to the environment by agrarian societies. In the New World the settlers cleared the primeval forests and plowed the native grasslands. These Eurasian weeds were "pre-adapted" to these severely disturbed habitats and took a firm hold. They have been expanding their range ever since.
In short, weeds are some tough plants. Good luck weeding your garden. Weeds bat last!

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads tours throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

When I was 19, immortal and free of the need of my parent’s permission, I jumped out of an airplane. My exit off the wing was perfect but I botched the landing and broke my leg. On the way to the hospital we celebrated with a special herb from Columbia my buddy and I had saved for the occasion. Arriving at the hospital serenely happy, I was immediately whisked into surgery and outfitted with a large, heavy cast. I still have three heavy screws in that leg.

You’d have thought I would learn something about risk, but I was 19. Living on a lake with a bunch of other rowdy kids, I promptly took our tiny sailboat out with my broken leg, an old broom for a paddle and no life jackets. If I had gone overboard, I would’ve sunk to the bottom like a Mafia hit.

A month after the parachuting accident on our way home late one night after some serious partying, my friend swerved to avoid a possum crossing the road. Of course no one was wearing a seat belt, as the car rolled three times. Chuck Berry was playing ‘No Particular Place to Go’ on the eight-track as we came to an abrupt end in a ditch, headlights shining up into the darkness, windshield gone, tires hung up on fenders.

We managed to extricate ourselves and limped to the hospital. My friend had broken his neck and I had a cracked sternum to add to that broken leg. As soon as my cast was off I bought a nice Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. No helmet! By the end of my 19th year I had been arrested and thrown into the Knox County Jail and tear-gassed at an anti-war rally in D.C.

I did survive that last teen year, but barely.

For 45 years since then I’ve been free of major illness or injury, thanks in no small part to equal helpings of luck and adult common sense. But recently I took a serious fall while running and this week I had rotator cuff surgery. I have lost the use of my right arm for six weeks. It may never get back to normal. But I managed to survive young and stupid. I’m hoping older and wiser is just as forgiving.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

Recently in my local physician’s office, I noticed a large sign asking folks to not wear any perfume or strong scents.

I jog on a nature trail near my home every morning and as I pass other people I play a game. I try to smell them. Not surprisingly fellow joggers often have a pungent, musty smell. Teenagers often smell like gum or rarely marijuana. And many of the women, rarely men, have the strong whirling odor of perfume. I can still smell them long after they have passed me by.

Mammals mostly communicate by smell. Foxes urinate to define their territory. Deer use special glands between their toes to lay down a scent as they walk along. House cats use glands located under their eyes and along the rear flanks to rub and mark their owners. Your cat owns you; you don’t own your cat.

Humans have lost the excellent smelling ability of our ancestors but it still plays an important, albeit subtle, role in our lives. We have special scent glands located in our armpits and in our genital area. The reason we have axillary hair is to trap and enhance the odors emitted by our own bodies. These glands must be important. They respond when we are frightened, aroused or excited. The smell of competition, nervousness and sexual arousal are all distinctly different odors. Research indicates smells are intimately involved in mate selection. The chemistry of love is just that.

These odors can be strong and the advertising industry has convinced us that our own body smells are evil, nasty and must be washed away or disguised. One irony of perfume is that one of the common chemicals used by the industry is musk oil from other animals. We cover own scent with compounds collected from the anal gland of the Abyssinian civet. I did not make that up!

Personally, I prefer the smell of a sweating jogger and bay-scented air to the smell of someone drenched in Estee Lauder. Let’s leave perfumes for special occasions and celebrations, not for daily strolls in the forest or in waiting rooms.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

We all have significant life passages — births, deaths, graduations, marriages, divorces, lost jobs, new jobs. The one constant is change.

About 30 years ago my wife was just about to give birth after we successfully completed the Bradley method. We had our midwife and our backup doctor and thought the only decision we had left was what kind of music to listen to while she’s relaxing in the bathtub. In short, we were well prepared.

But fate had other things in mind. Unbeknownst to us, my wife had pregnancy toxemia or preeclampsia. This is about the only condition in the modern United States where middle class women can lose their lives while giving birth. Blood pressure of the mother can become dangerously high and in the last month of pregnancy instead of putting on weight the baby is losing it. Not good!

Instead of listening to gentle music and breathing together with the midwife; it was high drama at Marin General Hospital. Surrounded by doctors, nurses and sophisticated medical equipment, I’ve never been so focused in all my life. The extremely dangerous, skyrocketing blood pressure in my wife was coupled with threatening low oxygen levels in the baby. But thankfully after a relatively quick labor, I welcomed my son into the world. He had swallowed amniotic fluid and his own feces. He was jaundiced, very yellow. He was normal length but nothing but skin and bones. His ribs were sticking out. His cry was weak and plaintive. But we did not care. He was the most beautiful being we had ever seen. And my wife’s blood pressure was back to normal.

We brought Hunter home to Muir Beach where to our good fortune a Tibetan high lama happened to be staying at our home. We were spiritual but not particularly religious, so we figured any port in a storm and our son received a special blessing from this holy man. And I guess it worked: Hunter grew into a healthy child and now a strapping young man.

He turned 30 yesterday and he is getting married tomorrow. For his mother and me, this common rite of passage will have special meaning, of a life that nearly wasn’t and all the wonderful changes that brought him to this beautiful day.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads tours throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

I have been watching birds for most of my life and when you learn the name of something it becomes less mysterious.

Common names for birds can create confusion. Some people refer to American goldfinches as wild canaries and house finches as linnets. These names vary not only from state to state but also country to country. For example, two birds are commonly called robins. The one in France is quite different than the one in Virginia.

Scientists however have created a universal system that allows only one scientific name for each organism. These names consist of two words, a Genus and a species, that are usually derived from Latin or Ancient Greek. The European Robin is Erithacus rubecula and the American Robin is Turdus migratorius. Kids love that one… the migrating turd. But actually Turdus is Latin for thrush.

To minimize misunderstanding the American Ornithologists Union decides on exactly one acceptable common name for each bird in our country. This is possible because there are so few species of birds in the United States (only 800 or so). This won’t work with far more numerous plants. In California alone there are more than 6,000 species! Occasionally a common name will suddenly change. A marsh hawk becomes a Northern harrier; a gallinule becomes a common moorhen.

The birds, of course, could not care less what humans call them. They are what they are.

These name changes however aren’t arbitrary. When Europeans invaded the New World they usually assumed they were seeing all new bird species and so of course they gave them new names. Many years later ornithologists determined that a gallinule and the moorhen are exactly the same species. And the oldest name has preference. There have to be rules- right?

And sometimes birds that were thought to be different species are discovered to be just different forms. Researchers found that the myrtle warbler of the eastern United States and the Audubon warbler of the west are exactly the same species because they are capable of mating with one another and producing viable offspring. So the two species were lumped into one and both given the same new name — the yellow-rumped warbler.

So what’s in a name? Quite a bit – if you’re a bird.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist living in Santa Rosa.

Michael Ellis

By now nearly everyone has heard about the super wildflower bloom this spring in the deserts of California. A desert is a region that receives 10 inches or less of precipitation in a year. But it is not so much the paucity of water but it’s the unpredictability. Some deserts go for decades without appreciable rain. But not ours not this year.

There are several ways that plants cope with xeric environments. They can be deep rooted and tap into permanent water found far below the surface of the desert. Classic example are the mesquites. These leguminous trees can send roots down to over 100 feet to suck up groundwater water.

And there are plants called stem succulents. The characteristic example, of course, is the cacti. They rarely produce leaves but photosynthesize right on the stems. Often the stems are pleated and when the rains come they swell up and expand up like an accordion. And during that dry season or seasons, as the case may be, they can tap into water within their own tissues.

And then of course there are just those super tough evergreen and salt tolerant plants. The quintessential desert dwellers are the creosote bushes. They are probably the most numerous shrubs in North America -tens of millions of acres are covered with this survivor. On the floor of Death Valley where virtually nothing else can tolerate that incredible heat and dryness, creosote bushes manage to thrive. At Ground Zero in Nevada after an atomic blast, 19 of 20 creosote bushes popped back to life. They are tough, tough, tough.

And finally we have the ephemerals. These are plants biding their time as seeds just waiting for the optimal conditions to occur and then they burst forth in huge numbers. And these conditions, according to one botanist, are and I quote, “if an inch or more of the rain falls in early October germination inhibitors will be leached from the seeds resulting in mass germination”

Well, last fall the Mojave got three inches of rain in two big storms. And the result, my friends, is spectacular. But don’t wait. Remember, it’s ephemeral.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who conducts tours throughout the world.

Michael Ellis

As a child in East Tennessee I could see the Cumberland Mountains from my backyard. And I watched them slowly, but steadily get stripped of their precious coal. The black seams in the mountains were girdled and large gaping wounds bled orange dirt into the surrounding valleys. It was sad to me: it was brutal and seemed an irrevocable loss.

Dana, the tattoo artist, said that normally she did not ink names on anyone unless it was a blood relative but she would make an exception for me, primarily because of my advanced age. I wanted to surprise my wife for her 50th birthday by tattooing her name on my ankle. It was my first and, I was quite sure, only tattoo. Long married, we were both certain, beyond certain, we would always be a couple. Our destiny was in matching rocking chairs together in the sunset of our life. It was such sweet comfort that we had each found our soul mate.

Well as it happens, things changed and within three years we had separated. I was devastated, heartbroken, dreams shattered – all the country and blues songs echoed within me. And I had that damn tattoo.

Last year, I traveled back home to visit my mother and glanced up at those same mountains of my childhood. Where was the orange dirt? I could see nothing but emerald, the trees and shrubs had grown over the raw surface. The mountains had actually healed, but not totally. I could still see through the lushness, the underlying scars left from the strip mining. And I realized it was just like my heart. The scars were still there but time and the greenness of my own life had also healed me. My reality is different at the present and it’s very good. I still miss that dream but now I have other dreams.

I saw Dana one more time and she tattooed orchids on my ankle. My ex-wife’s name will always be there, but now beautiful flowers cover and surround it. Perfect.

This is Michael Ellis with Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.