Urban Naturalist: The $5.5 Billion Bird

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

We relate to birds in odd ways — by caging them, eating them, scaring them, shooting them, trapping them, wearing them, killing them with our cats, cutting down their homes — but we all love birds in general, and the more we learn about them, the more we seem to value them and their mystery. As a nation, we were galvanized to save the bald eagle (Haliaetus leucocephalus) when we learned how the very symbol of the United States had been poisoned and hunted to the brink of extinction by its own citizens.

But will the California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) engender the same support?

I didn’t think so a few weeks ago as I settled into a wooden bench in Courtroom 6 of the U.S. District Court downtown on a Monday afternoon. I got there early to get through security and to avoid the crowds, but there were no crowds. I alone sat in the public seating on the right side of the room, behind the two attorneys from the not-for-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) representing the gnatcatcher. On the other side of the courtroom sat lawyers and interested parties representing the Southern California Builders’ and Industry Association, Rancho Mission Viejo LLC, Irvine Ranch Water District, Foothill Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, and the Department of Justice representing the Department of the Interior and its Fish and Wildlife Service. The gnatcatcher’s side of the courtroom was open space, and the developers’ side was overcrowded with white people in suits.

The gnatcatcher’s proponents are suing the U.S. government to force it to follow its own regulations restricting the development of 500,000 acres of undeveloped coastal land that has been designated “critical habitat” for the recovery of the species. The builders and developers who hope to build 14,000 homes on 24,000 acres and a north-south toll road directly through the center of the 500,000 acres — which stretch from Palos Verdes to Baja — claimed that the Fish and Wildlife Service process was illegal and failed to consider the economic impact of lost jobs, property values and land revenues estimated at $5.5 billion. One lawyer after another made broad non-scientific statements about the population and the needs of the gnatcatcher. Each claim was refuted by the NRDC with scientific facts. As the only one on the gnatcatcher’s side of the courtroom, I found myself caught up in the contest, shaking my head or looking shocked, hoping the judge would see me and be swayed by my reaction. I wanted to be the voice of the gnatcatcher and equalize the proceedings.

I first met Polioptila californica in 1996 near a rock quarry in Palos Verdes. I had just discovered bird watching, and the California gnatcatcher topped the list of birds I most desired to see; it was the only species that was found nowhere else in California, the U.S. or the world. That first day I was lucky. Soon after I arrived I could hear a mewing like a kitten and saw some movement inside the eye-level scrub. I got my binoculars on the male, a 4.5-inch dark gray-brown bird with a long tail and a dark cap, flitting from branch to branch and cocking his tail. Upon closer inspection I noticed a pinkish wash under the tail and a black cap forming on the top of the head. It was the beginning of breeding season. That explained the cap. The female was nearby as she always is. This species almost always travels in pairs. I was careful not to disturb or harass them. They were foraging through the scrub for insects — not just gnats — and I thought how funny that name is. I sat down and watched for a while, getting good looks at the white ends of the tail feathers on the long tail. I was captivated.

Since then I have been back to that spot more times in response to Japanese and Taiwan and U.K. birders imploring, “Do you know where I can see the gnatcatcher?” It is known worldwide as the gnatcatcher. No first name. Originally thought to be a subspecies of a gnatcatcher with a wider range, it was first recognized as a distinct species in the late 1980s by biologist Jon Atwood when he was at UCLA. The rest of the world recognized it in 1989. In 1993 there were only an estimated 1,200 pairs left, and after petitions from scientific organizations, the bird was officially listed as a threatened species in the Endangered Species Act, giving it protection by the United States of America.

Few people in Southern California have actually seen the California gnatcatcher. It’s not widespread like crows or jays or even as adaptable as hummingbirds. It can only live in coastal sage scrub, which is not just one species of plant but a group of species unique to Southern California. Pulitzer Prize–winning biologist Edward O. Wilson lists this flora as one of the eight most critically endangered habitats in the world, comparable to ecological disasters like the Philippines, southeast Brazil and Madagascar. It’s the only habitat in North America bad enough to land on his list. And the gnatcatcher is not the only species dependent upon coastal sage scrub for existence. Three-spined armored stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus), the endangered Stephens kangaroo rat (Dipodomys stephensi), Quino checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino), banded gecko (Coleonyx variegatus) and orange-throated whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus hyperythrus) can’t survive outside it. Coastal sage scrub isn’t easy to get to unless you make an appointment with Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary in Trabuco Canyon in Orange County, or take back roads that are usually private and fenced. You have to make an effort.

 

When the lawyers finished their arguments, Judge Wilson carefully announced his decision. Fish and Wildlife must re-evaluate the critical-habitat designation with new information on the economic impact. The builders have won this round. But during the two years the new designation might take, will the current protections remain or be struck down? Judge Wilson is supposed to rule on that this month, after receiving a reply from the NRDC and briefs from the Department of Justice. And when he does rule, I’ll do everything I can to be there, alone again in the gallery, a solitary voice for the gnatcatcher.

—Garry George

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The Erica Effect

There are those who dismiss daytime dramas as so much ersatz emotion, but you cannot so easily dismiss the throngs of fans who’ve come from as far away as Dallas, Wisconsin, Miami, Toronto, even Italy, to meet 19 All My Children cast members Sunday during the first of three “ABC Super Soap Weekends” at Disney’s California Adventure.

On the agenda are sign-and-snap sessions with the stars, press-conference-style Q&A’s, soap couples playing Who Wants To Be a Millionaire for audience prizes (“You guys won these people a tote bag!” chirps the host) and “Casting Calls,” in which a few lucky gals get to grope soap studs in re-enactments of steamy love scenes, then get a videotape of the performance. In between, fans can chow down at the Soap Opera Bistro on “One Leaf To Live Salad” and choose from the “All My Chilled Wine” list, or check out the “Soap Link” store, which sells mugs, T-shirts, General Hospital scrubs and size-2 designer hand-me-downs from All My Children star Susan Lucci. (“We’ve sold her handbags, shoes, even her divorce papers,” reports a salesperson.)

Of course, the biggest draw is, in fact, Lucci, who’s played scheming, seductive Erica Kane for more than 20 years and through 11 soap-opera marriages. The Ericans arrived as early as 3 a.m. to line up for wristbands entitling them to an autograph, a photo-op and especially a one-on-one moment with the doyenne of daytime.

Wearing pink leopard jeans, gold stiletto mules, a black sweater and a nonstop smile, TV’s tiny terror, barely 5 feet tall and no wider than your left thigh, clearly knows how to work the crowd — teens with Farrah flips, the occasional eccentric with a topiary-animal hairdo, a couple of husky mamas who look alarmingly like Bruce Vilanch and lots of hefty, kid-schlepping moms. This could be Vegas, Graceland or, hell, The Jerry Springer Show.

And at the moment it seems as if a Springer-like scene is about to unfold. Young Victoria from Victorville, you see, has been denied an Erica-access wristband and is quite distraught. But instead of throwing Jerry punches, Victoria is overcome with Oprah-like emotion when she sees Lucci from afar. Miraculously, Lucci spots her young fan and, moving away ä from her handlers, goes over to Victoria and hugs her.

“I’ve been through so much,” Victoria says later, between sobs, explaining her failed efforts to get the required wristband. “A complete stranger is getting her autograph for me. I’m not like a typical fan. She’s just my downtime every day. I can’t believe she hugged me! I’m just so happy! Out of everything I’ve been through, she hugged me! I was up all night, and this beautiful woman hugged me!”

—Vicki Jo Radovsky

THE IDES OF APRIL: Obey Your Taxman

The first thing you learn about Your Taxman is that he doesn’t want his name used. Or his address. Or the names of his many celebrity clients — even those whose murky demise has only served to prolong the intrigue surrounding their Byzantine fortunes.

The second thing is he never takes on new clients unless they are referred to him by another client, giving the whole thing a slightly illicit air. And, as if to confirm your references, he frequently quizzes you on the whereabouts of these missing links — by extension, connecting you and everyone else back to the common roots and branches of his sub rosa society.

 

And third, no matter who you are or where you come from, this is a benevolent dictatorship. You serve at his whim, obey his rules, and you always have to wait.

But on one point, everyone agrees: He has an almost mystical understanding of the tax code, and he can save you enough money to counterbalance any amount of eccentricity or grandstanding — even if it means waiting for hours on end, listening to the accretion of his storied life pass by in a slow-streaming, never-ending monologue, from which you may take wisdom or succor, as you wish.

“Contrary to popular opinion, the IRS is very easy to get along with,” he says, apropos of nothing. “They just have three things they ask of you: That you stay in compliance, that you keep in contact and that you render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Other than that, they’re really pretty flexible.”

Housed in a residential apartment complex someplace in West Hollywood, where a Picasso guitar–shaped pool glows turquoise through the long night as a constant beacon, Your Taxman hosts an endless stream of TV actors, all-night waitresses, studio musicians, rock managers, postal workers, mob hitmen and tongue-studded circus people who make their annual pilgrimage here. He’s been doing this for 16 years now, as evidenced by the flying tangle of white hair and the thick band around his middle, and he estimates he sees roughly 1,400 clients a year — which, in the final weeks of tax season, come at the rate of 25 a day. He always orders takeout for whomever wants it, even though his clients are apt to bring him culinary bribes — cookies, pasta, collard greens — and there’s always plenty to drink, giving the proceedings an increasing festivity as night stretches into morning. He claims to sleep only three to four hours a day, and to have never lost an audit. And he never turns anyone away — including his ex-wives’ ex-husbands — unless they deserve it.

“Look at my desk,” he says. “This is fucked-shui. If the mail gets any higher, I won’t be able to see the screen. This is a stack of people who fly in from out of state. Movie stars, celebrities — they all sit right here like everybody else. I had a guy say, ‘I’ll give you $100 if I can come see you today, and anybody whose place I take, I’ll give them $100 too.’ I said, ‘You had a chance to make an appointment in January like everybody else. I can see you on April 15. It’s first come, first served.”

His bio is sketchy and a constant source of speculation to the regulars: He was a golden boy at H&R Block, where corporate culture ultimately proved too great a burden. He’s a die-hard Republican, judging from the framed portraits on the wall of Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Uncle Sam, the latter doubling as his logo. (He was once a finalist on Win Ben Stein’s Money, but seemed far less thrilled by the actual money than the fact that Stein once wrote speeches for the Nixon White House.) He’s a textbook father to his three kids, but seems perpetually vexed by each of his three ex-wives. And he always seems to be dating some fashion model, whose entire profession is secretly in league against him.

“Women are okay unless I marry the broad,” he says. “If I marry them, it’s all over. My Italian grandmother says, ‘If you’re walking in the tall weeds and you get bitten by a snake, it’s not your fault, it’s not the snake’s fault.’” No one appears to have the slightest idea what he means.

“I’m gonna put in some schmooze meals,” he tells the burgeoning starlet whose turn has come. She’s a young woman who clearly has never paid for a meal in her life. “I figure you do about two a month. And I’m giving you a few extra miles this year.” It’s the far side of midnight on a Saturday, and several open bottles of wine are making the rounds. A producer’s assistant remembers the old office, the one just off Hollywood Boulevard, which sported its own retinue of transvestite hookers. An aircraft machinist shows off his latest tattoo, and two sisters recall their first time here, when the woman ahead of them confided, “I know how to make a lot of money on a racehorse.”

 

“He’s really a performer,” says the producer’s assistant. “I think he should do standup.” Except this is more like the nine-tenths of standup that doesn’t go on stage, the part where he perfects his act.

There is more than a little of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi in Your Taxman’s verbal peregrinations. (“No soup for you — one year!”) Except that whereas all the eccentrics in New York have learned how to make themselves indispensable by leveraging an overburdened system — the subway-token attendant, the dry cleaner, the guy down at the newsstand can all make your life miserable if they so choose — L.A. eccentrics always have an element of performance to them. And as the numerous framed letters from various official entities apologizing for some infraction or capitulating on some obscure point attest, it’s probably a good thing he doesn’t have more free time on his hands.

And so we watch. And wait.

“There’s nothing more I can do for you,” he tells the starlet. “I have just saved you from utter ruin.” Dali’s melting clocks above the mantelpiece remain oblivious to the time, fixed in a permanent dream state of their own. Your Taxman cackles to himself, feeds sheets into the floor-model shredder and launches into an exegesis on garlic.

This is the nexus of the universe. At least until April 15.

And everyone moves up a space.

—Paul Cullum

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