Talking Science: King Rail Habitat

My PhD research focuses on studying secretive marsh birds. For a class assignment, I had a fun conversation during which my partner and I talk about one of my projects (which entails figuring out what habitat an endangered marsh bird species needs). Here it is, in case you are interested in learning more about my marsh bird research:

Lights Out Tonight! For the birds.

Hundreds of millions of birds will be migrating over many of us in North America tonight! Like a biological flood, they flow in pulses that are pronounced this time of year. Billions of individuals will migrate this fall, as hundreds of bird species head south. Here is a great site for seeing nightly migration forecasts:

It is, however, a perilous journey – especially due to lights at night which can disorient, attract to suboptimal habitat, and likely will kill perhaps hundreds of millions of birds this year. The good news? Each one of us, especially those in urban areas, can do our part to help make sure that this awe-inspiring flood of life isn’t reduced to a trickle. Just turn off your lights between 11:00 pm and 6:00 am, and spread the word. Check out this site for more information:

By the way, if you want to experience the migration you can head outside on a night with clear skies and a bright moon. Pull out your binoculars and look at the moon. You just might see migrating birds or other animals flying between you and the moon. You also might hear their high-pitched calls as flocks fly overhead.

Finding Northern Indiana’s Lost Marsh

An article that I wrote about the Grand Kankakee Marsh and efforts to bring it back was recently published by Earth Island Journal, so I thought I’d share the link. The marsh was once the largest inland wetland in the U.S., but growing up in northern Indiana I mainly just saw agricultural fields where it had been.

Here is a map of the vicinity where the marsh occurred, and where it could be brought back:

Estimated former extent of the Grand Kankakee Marsh. The Century Atlas Company, 1897. Copyright: Jim Sweeney, 2016.

Fox Snake Swimming in Marsh

While I was completing a marsh habitat survey where a King Rail that I’ve been tracking had been hanging out, I noticed a large snake swimming across the water nearby. It was easy to catch up to. I identified the snake as an Eastern Fox Snake (herpetologists, feel free to correct me!). Regardless of what it is called, I think the snake and the way it moved through the water is beautiful. So, I thought I’d share. Here is the video:

Don’t Litter! Save a Life

While driving to get groceries, my mother noticed something strange at the very edge of the road. So, she pulled over and investigated. Only inches from where traffic sped by, she saw this (she took the picture):

Was it a raccoon? Or a opossom? Whatever it was, she could see that it was shaking, she tells me. So, despite being worried that she might get bit, my mom took a brave step forward and pulled off the bag. And what did she see?!? This:

What a relief it must’ve been for the little cat to be freed from the greasy darkness! It ran away, and luckily didn’t get hit by a car while doing so. A life saved. Good job, mom!

If anyone needs convincing why not to litter (or knows someone who needs to be convinced), I thought that these pictures could help. Individuals of many species could be similarly imperiled by people who litter, or by people who don’t pick up trash when they can, and none of them deserve the fear and further suffering which can result.

Domesticated outdoor cats, I have to point out, can cause great environmental harm. Because they tend to be fed by humans, their instinctive killing is especially hard on their prey (e.g., song birds). Unlike in a natural predator-prey relationship, domesticated cat populations don’t decrease after the populations of their prey decrease. And so the relentless killing by outdoor cats can consequently drive their prey to local extirpation, or even extinction.

Hopefully this cat that my mom’s kindness saved ran home to a relieved human friend, who will keep it inside. Maybe after its ‘cat in the bag’ experience, this particular feline won’t want to go outside again!

Singing For Prisoners

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) has been one of my favorite musicians for most of my years. His distinctive voice, acoustic guitar melodies, and authentic lyrical stories are what have kept me re-listening to and discovering his music for my entire adult life. Only recently, though, have I given much thought to what is perhaps the most remarkable thing about him as far as I’m concerned. Which is that he sang for prisoners.

He performed at prisons for prisoners several times, with perhaps his most famous performance being at Folsom Prison in 1968 when he recorded the ‘Live at Folsom Prison‘ album. The way he talks to the audience mid-song, I think, is special, as are lyrics of songs like ‘The Wall.’ Though I don’t know Cash’s reasons for performing at Folsom or other prisons, and am sure that he was trying to help his own career, I also get the definite impression that he was trying to do something kind for the prisoners. To make them feel better.

Many people, I think, would sneer or scoff at attempts to make prisoners who may have murdered or raped other people feel better. The term ‘deserves to rot in prison’ comes to mind. So, why might have Cash, in some instances at least, disagreed and thought prisoners deserved kindness?

Maybe his song ‘Man in Black,’ in which he describes why he wears black, answers that question: “I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the time.”

Cash’s actions and words exemplify his understanding of a really hard thing to admit, which I remember adamantly denying. Namely, that people are foremost products of their environment. For good or for bad. Like a fire or a flood (or a rainbow), people don’t create themselves. Similar to non-human natural phenomena, people sometimes do need to be contained or avoided to maintain safety. I admit that.

However, I think that it is important to see that spending the energy to hate a person (like a prisoner who ‘deserves to rot’) is as fruitless as spending energy hating a flood. It does no good. That bad has happened and we have to move forward. Like the energy that could be spent creating a wetland to stop floods, singing to prisoners could create a glow in them that also might keep them from burning the world at their first opportunity. I think Johnny knew that. He also seemed to see that there are prisoners everywhere, few behind bars. So, upon seeing that too, let’s sing however we can.

A song: ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou’

I made it my goal for today to write a song about doing a better job of conserving our natural heritage. The song that I came up with is called ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou.’ The lyrics are below the link to me playing the song, so that you can read along (or read only) if you’d like.

Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou

Paul wakes up and makes his eggs,

he says: ‘here we go again.’

The old engine fires, moves his tires

to the place that hollows his years.

By the forest-bordered river he drives

where there’s so many memories

that for a moment he forgets

the radio’s conspiracies.

 

With hair done and makeup on,

Winona walks through the park.

The girls will be indignant today,

the news never disappoints.

But, for a moment, the gossip-world erodes.

As a young fox pounces on a leaf,

Winona feels a warm glow

that she hasn’t felt in weeks.

 

But Evelyn the politician says:

Pauls shouldn’t trust Winonas,

because donkeys and elephants don’t mix.

And demonizing and dividing she knows,

gets herself far more votes.

And people become so dizzied that they

fail to see the beauty that she sells to

get profiteers to give her money.

 

The Evelyns of the world will do whatever they can

to change the image that in the mirror they see

But they’re just reflections of Paul, Winona, you, and me.

And their charisma is often meant just to deceive.

Don’t listen when they say to disagree, without thinking.

 

So, let’s prove the politicians wrong.

Let’s tell them loud and clear

that there’s something about which we all agree.

Whether we’re ‘R’s’ ‘D’s,’ or ‘L’s’,

We won’t sleep under your spell.

We demand our natural heritage to be protected,

Or you won’t be elected

Or you won’t be re-elected

Or you won’t be elected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do I Really Look Like an Ostrich?

“You look like an ostrich.”

That is what I remember someone telling me. I’ll not ‘name names,’ but will say that the person who said this to me, coincidentally, had the name of an animal species in his/her last name. I didn’t see the resemblance.

I often do, however, see resemblances, kind of like that person did when looking at me (I’ll admit that like an ostrich I am tall, have a long nose, and cannot fly). I’ve had the opportunity over the last eight years or so that I’ve seriously been studying birds to see many people who study not only birds, but many other animals species. I’ll be the first to admit that some people bear an uncanny resemblance to the organisms that they study.

Yes, I’ve seen frog-people and mice-people, even moose-people. Not usually, but sometimes.

The resemblances that I see, though, usually go beyond attributes such as body-type, facial features, etc. Generally, when I watch the way that people move through the world, I think that their behaviors more closely resemble the organism that they focus their studies on than does their physical appearance (with some notable exceptions that I won’t elaborate on).

In a herpetologist, I’ve seen the calm, zen-like demeanor of a salamander. In an ornithologist, I’ve seen the indifference of a sleepy owl.

It could be that people are hard-wired to see similarities between any two things placed nearby (physically or mentally), and that in fact people don’t tend to behave more like what they study or associate with than would randomly paired people and animals. My gut, however, tells me that this isn’t totally true.

I’m convinced that if one watches anything for long enough, to some degree that thing becomes a part of their mental process and affects everything about them, even if they do not realize it. This is a simultaneously beautiful and depressing realization, especially when one considers the things we all see and wish we didn’t, and also that which some people must see every day and cannot escape.

I feel very lucky to be able to watch birds. And if I do, in fact, become a bit more bold or inquisitive after spending years watching Blue Jays, or even more secretive like a marsh bird, that’s OK by me.

I know that some people probably consciously choose to act the opposite of what they watch, and that most people likely don’t actually behave like what they study or associate with.

To me, though, a world where I think that I might see the intelligent poise, or even ruthlessness, of a wolf in someone is far more interesting, and usually inspiring, than a world without wild and natural influences.

Let’s do our best do maintain the diversity of wildlife, and behaviors in people, that remain. Even if we don’t see the effects of our conservation efforts, others may see the effects, perhaps even when they look at us.

A Stranger, Sagan, and Science

In the spring of 2013, I was a junior undergraduate university student. I was studying wildlife science, and had just gotten to the point that I could take some ‘free elective’ courses, which didn’t have to be directly related to my sought after degree. That semester, I decided to take an introductory astronomy class, for non-majors. I remember enjoying the course, but I do not remember much about it specifically. Parsecs, astronomical units, blue dwarfs, red giants, and parallax shifts. Those are some (maybe most) of the few terms that I remember learning in that class. Admittedly, I did not gain much knowledge from that course that I still possess. As is the case for most of the classes that I’ve taken, however, the main value that I gained was not the knowledge that I can recall, but the motion that it caused. I forget almost everything that I learn, but the act of learning moves me in a direction which could guide for a lifetime.

As I look back, there are very few moments in my life that I can point to which I’m sure had an exceptionally large impact on helping/causing me to become who I now am. And that person who I am now, in a single, simplistic sentence is: ‘I’m a scientist and writer who cares about conserving and experiencing the natural world.’

I attribute much of that sentence to a single moment. And that moment was when I was leaving the aforementioned astronomy course, namely a ‘lab’ portion of that course which occurred every week, at night. If I recall correctly, my in-class assignment for that lab was to try to make a telescope out of materials like cardboard, paper towel tubes and mirrors. When I was leaving the classroom that night, I think that it is safe to say that I couldn’t see anything more closely, nor more clearly, than when I had entered.

But as I walked alone through the hallways, I recall looking for a restroom. I don’t know how I ended up talking to the short, older man who was wearing a stocking hat. I think that he was writing on a paper, beside a cart that held cleaning supplies. Maybe I asked him where the bathroom was? Regardless, for some reason, we began talking.

With a spark of life in his eye that I don’t see often, I remember him asking ‘what did you learn in class today?’

Clearly, I remember saying, ‘I learned how small I am.’

And I think that that was, to some degree, actually true. In preparation for making the telescopes, we were first informed about the far away things that some telescopes (not the one I would make) can show a viewer.

I recall that then the man (who I’ll call Allan) and I began discussing a number of things related to learning. Somehow, I found out that he held the pursuit of knowledge in very high esteem, despite many obstacles, and that when he was not working as a janitor he was working to complete an engineering degree. Allan had nearly completed the degree, and was obviously proud. For some reason, the conversation led to him taking out from his stack of papers by the window a piece of paper, for me. And he wrote down the name of someone who, looking back, I am surprised that I had not heard of at that point in my life: Carl Sagan. I needed to look up this amazing scientist, my friend for the moment said as he handed me the paper. It was as if Allan were speaking of someone who had provided him a key that had freed him from unbearable, stifling chains.

Carl
The paper that I was given, with Carl’s name on it. Thanks to my mother for finding this paper in my library and sending me a picture of it!

After he finished praising the work of Sagan, I told Allan that I’d heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I thought must be similar. He replied by saying that I’d be more impressed by Carl. So, thrilled to have had such a nice, unexpected, inspiring conversation, I said that I would look up Carl. We shook hands and I never saw Allan again.

For a variety of reasons that I think are commonly experienced by young (or older) people trying to acquire independence in a complex and challenging world, I was at the time a bit psychologically battered. Therefore, I was receptive to suggestion, and open to possibilities. I think that it is safe to say that the man’s enthusiasm about learning and science that night, and his seemingly sincere awe about reality, was something that I had never seen before. Not in my fellow students, not in my professors, certainly not in myself. At the time, science was just a vague concept that didn’t seem like something that I could actually do, which I felt was at odds with my ‘creative’ self, and about which I knew embarrassingly little. But that night, for maybe the first time, I felt truly excited to learn more about it.

And, so, when I got back to my dorm room, where my roommate was sleeping on the other side of his desk, I did look up Carl Sagan. In the dark, from my glowing laptop computer, I learned that Carl was an astronomer and science communicator with broad interests, who rightly insisted that science is a way of thinking that anyone can relatively easily participate in. He had gained most of his fame by writing the book ‘Cosmos,’ and by producing a compliment to that book in the form of a TV series, for which he also was the host. After I listened to several videos of Carl speaking that night via headphones (his voice and rationality are still soothing to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wupToqz1e2g), I eventually acquired and read the book ‘Cosmos’ a few months later. Reading a book like that either in a tent or from my car (i.e. house), during a summer spent travelling thousands of miles across the Great Plains, hiking deep into natural areas to identify what birds were present in those areas, was transformational. The words of a scientist/poet like Sagan, who confronted the strangeness of reality by looking at it hard rather than hiding from it, was the most intense jolt of scientific inspiration that I’ve had. That inspiration, I think, was just enough to keep me on my journey toward becoming a scientist.

That journey toward understanding and participating in conservation-related applications of science, and to become a conservation biologist, has been a circuitous, difficult route that is still being blazed. Scientists are people, too, and can be difficult to deal with. I’m sure that Carl was no exception. I’m sure that I‘m no exception (though I try to be good!). There are limited funds to support science, and many fiercely seeking them. The entire process of being a professional scientist can be isolating and exhausting. However, as Carl wrote, ‘science exacts a substantial entrance fee in effort and tedium for its insights.’ To pay that fee and to be able to understand even a microscopic fraction, from my minuscule human perspective, of the incredibly vast process of which I’m a part has become a truly awe-inspiring experience.

And I have the kind man in the hallway who told me about Carl Sagan to thank for that.