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Some sights from my rambling morning ride

May 18, 2016
A sharp-looking starling strikes a pose.

A sharp-looking starling strikes a pose.

May 18 started out cloudy, a bit grey and otherwise just right—not too cool and not too hot.

Because it was a Wednesday, I was out of my parkade and straight into the back alleys to load up on returnable beverage containers before the weekly collection trucks had emptied out all the recycling bins.

Here’s a bit of what I saw along my travels.

One of Vancouver’s common criminals strutting its stuff

A not-as-bright-as-a-crow starling has a go at some Styrofoam.

A not-as-bright-as-a-crow starling trying to eat a piece of Styrofoam.

7:27 a.m: My first notable sight, as I rode my bike and trailer across West Broadway Avenue and into the major grid of Fairview’s back alleys, was a solitary little starling, walking around the surface parking area behind a white three-storey walk-up.

Actually, the starling was strutting like it owned the place and it may well have felt that it did.

The cubby-holes of this particular building have given shelter to many generations of this handsome speckled pest bird.

Aside from the fact that they’re an invasive species with no natural predators and that en masse they’re hell on fruit crops and they can literally shower things with their poop, I like to see starlings. I like their spotted, iridescent coats, their long yellow beaks and their fast, acrobatic flying.

The City of Vancouver certainly doesn’t share any of my appreciation for this bird and neither do British Columbian farmers. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, some half-million starlings were captured and killed in the Okanagan and at the end of 2015 Abbotsford announced a similar trap and kill program to protect the lucrative blueberry crop.

In Vancouver’s urban environment, starlings behave like an up-and-coming gang trying to horn-in on the territory of more established and powerful criminals. That is to say that they behave like wanna-be crows.

Starlings are clearly learning the ropes from crows but no matter how much they try to copy them, I believe that starlings will never replace crows as the dominant binner bird, simply because those bigger-brains corvids will always be able to think circles around their little understudies.

What worries me is that crows and starlings might learn how to work together.

He ant heavy at all

Probably a carpenter ant—as long as a thumbnail—solo forraging in a parking lot.

Probably a carpenter ant—as long as a thumbnail—solo foraging in a parking lot.

8:52 a.m.: I saw an ant (likely of the carpenter variety) so big that it’s solitary journey across an alley caught my eye from over a metre away.

I know nothing about ants except what I’ve read and sometimes not even then.

In 2014, for example, I read how BBC presenter Chris Packham explained that if one could put all of the ants in the world on a scale, they would weigh as much as all of the people.

Of course this is something that no one can ever know and it just goes to show how much people, even scientists, like to repeat nonsense—even when they’re not on Facebook or Twitter.

As the BBC later explained, Packham was simply repeating a claim made by Harvard University professor Edward O Wilson, and German biologist Bert Hölldobler, in their 1994 book “Journey To The Ants“. In turn, Wilson and Hölldobler were passing on the much earlier calculations made by English etymologist C. B. Williams.

Williams pioneered the application of statistical analysis to etymology, with good effect apparently but trying to calculate the weight of the world’s ants seems no more scientific than trying to determine the number of angels that can fit and/or dance on the head of a pin—the so-called “Angel Density Problem“.

There have been doubts cast on the calculations of Wilson, Hoelldobler and Williams but not because the weight of all the world’s ants is fundamentally unknowable but rather because someone thought that they could arrive at a more accurate answer!

And if ants aren’t weighty enough, check out science’s answer to how long it takes a photon to escape from the sun!

What’s the point of all these needles that I’m seeing?

A mess of insulin needles scattered in an alley of Cambie St.

A mess of insulin needles scattered in an alley off Cambie St., of all places.

9:31 a.m.: In the alley on the east side of Cambie Street, in sight of King Edward Avenue, I happened across several safe injection kits worth-of rigs strewn in the waste area between two apartment buildings. There were 10 or so packaged syringes, mixed up with blue plastic vials of sterile water and a few little shiny tin cups for melting the drug to be drawn into the syringe.

Fortunately, these needles were new and unused but the fact is that I’m seeing abandoned, used needles more frequently in Fairview and in totally inappropriate places, like dropped on the sidewalk along West Broadway Avenue.

Why is this? While I more-or-less stay out of the business of my drug-using street acquaintances it’s been impossible not to see a  trend developing over the last year and some. Namely, that many street drug users I know have taken to injecting their drugs.

There are heroin users, of course, who have always used needles but I also know crack cocaine users who’ve stopped smoking the drug and instead use vinegar to reconstitute the crack back to water-soluble powdered cocaine so that they can inject it.

The popularity of this can be judged by the fact that fast food restaurants such as the McDonald’s in the 1400 block of West Broadway have started keeping the vinegar packets behind the counter.

Likewise, I know a number of crystal meth users who’ve suddenly switched from smoking it to “poking” it.


Used syringe found in 2014 on a Spruce St. Hydro cabinet that is now gated.

I do not pretend to know why more people seem to suddenly prefer injecting street drugs. One friend who agrees that this shift in drug use is happening, suggests that users may think that the drugs are somehow “purer” when injected.

My “friend Henry” (who’s less-and-less friendly and more-and-more angry and aggressive) explained that he had to switch to “smashing” his meth because smoking it was making him sneeze uncontrollably!

One possible side effect of increased needle use I’m watching for is if B.C. Hydro utility cabinet alcoves begin to be gated off in any quantity. These inset cabinets are scattered all over Vancouver’s alleys and people can squeeze in behind them in order to have a private moment, for whatever reason–including to shoot up.

Street trash continues to pile up

An uneasy chair sitting on 16th Ave. and Yukon St.

An uneasy chair sitting on 16th Ave. and Yukon St.

9:57 a.m.: There was a ripped and ratty-looking leather armchair abandoned on the grass fringe between the road and the sidewalk on the north side of 16th Avenue, a block east of Cambie Street, at the intersection with Yukon Street.

The chair had a big “FREE” sign stuck on it, which, in this case, represented a transparent attempt to transform an act of illegal dumping into one of neighbourly sharing.

Curiously, this corner has been the site of other dumped furnishings and mattresses over the years, perhaps because it has an extra-generous width designed for both pedestrians and cyclists crossing 16th Avenue.

Wave at the clouds everyone!

A curious repeating cloud form in the northern sky over Yukon St.

A repeating cloud form in the northern sky over Yukon St.

10:05 a.m.: Standing on Yukon Street, with the Vancouver City Hall’s abandoned East Wing building on my left, the sky to the north was a phenomenon. The strongest cloud feature was a huge repeating waveform.

As usual I had to scramble to get photos because the cloud was breaking up and dissolving before my eyes.

Afterward I made a wholly unremarkable descent to a recycling depot, where I cashed in a modest-sized load of returnable beverage containers. Then I went back to Fairview to have some breakfast. And then I relived my morning ride by writing this blog post. Click the images to enlarge them.

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