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.
As most of you reading this probably know, my blog is called ‘Thoughts of a Naturalist.’ Generally, my posts are rather thoughtful (I’d like to think), maybe even a bit ‘deep,’ as some might say. Mostly, though, this naturalist has non-deep thoughts, and thus I think that I should occasionally share some of those, too. Here is one of those thoughts, presented as a caption of the image which made me think it:
That is my vehicle (isn’t the plate a give away?). And seeing the bird poop on it struck me as a bit funny, given the plate that is also on the vehicle. Hopefully others, maybe even you, found the image a bit funny, too.
By the way, I didn’t actually decide that I’d ceased liking birds that day…
I experienced a simple, pleasing accident involving a picture (you’ll see below), which inspired this short post about how wonderful accidental occurrences can be. First, I need to set the scene…
Last week I was out in the woods, trying to catch a Song Sparrow. As I’ve been doing a lot recently, for a research project, I was trying to entice a male Song Sparrow to fly into a net that I had put up by playing the song of another male Song Sparrow. Males of this species use song to both attract a female mate and to protect their territories from other males, by advertising their presence. Bird song often says something like, ‘if you are a dude, stay away, I’m tough. If you are a woman, come to me!’ So, when a male Song Sparrow hears an ‘intruding male’ singing (that is actually a recording that I’m broadcasting), often he will rush in, sing a bit, and then fly right into the net that is in the vicinity of where he thinks another male is, as a result of what I imagine might involve blinding fury. Then I quickly take him out of the net (see picture below– usually they are in the net for less than 15 seconds). Next, I take some measurements, and attach color bands to his legs so that I can know who he is when I see him in the field again, after I release him.
It is important to note that you need permits (maybe several) to catch native songbirds like this in the US, and that broadcasting the song of a bird might cause it to use precious energy that could be better used. And misusing energy can be deadly. Point being, I’m not suggesting that you should go out and do what I’ve described. I’m not catching birds just for fun, I’m catching them because the data that I’m collecting for this project has the potential to help people better understand how to co-exist with birds, rather than causing birds to disappear.
So, that day last week, it appears that I met a Song Sparrow that is smarter than me. Or maybe random chance just wasn’t in favor of the bird hitting the net. Anyway, no matter where I put the net, or where I put the speakers, I couldn’t catch him. Multiple times, just over, just under, or right beside the net, he flew. Singing away he was, as I sat there thinking about how many more Song Sparrows I have to catch, and how this one would be doing himself a favor by going into the net already!
But, he didn’t. Just before I was about to take down the net, to stop bothering him if he wouldn’t go in, there was a flash that came out of the woods along the flooded stream to the north and a sparrow was in the net. For a moment, I thought that it could have been my Song Sparrow! But I could tell as I walked up that the bird in the net was too small, and lacked streaks on its breast that a Song Sparrow would have. I saw that it was a Field Sparrow that I had caught, a cute little sparrow with a pink bill.
I quickly took it out of the net and decided to take a picture of the little guy (I checked).
That is the picture that I had intended to take. It is a good picture, I think, kind of like what I had imagined. It shows how that adorable little bird with a pink bill looked in that moment. But I wasn’t blown away after looking at it, because the image isn’t perfectly crisp, the lighting isn’t great, and the angle of the bird isn’t perfect. Also, my fingers aren’t as calloused as they used to be from playing the guitar! Oh, how I wish I played the guitar more… In other words, the picture is adequate, but not amazing, not how it could have been. However, the ‘lower quality’ picture that I took on accident right before I took the one above left me far more satisfied, due to accidental circumstances. Here is that picture (taken as my phone was falling!):
To you, this picture might not seem exceptional. But I think that this picture which I didn’t intend to take, of a bird that I didn’t intend to catch, is special. I’m guessing that my left hand which had the bird in it may have slightly moved as my right hand dropped the phone and grabbed at it. And that slight movement might have caused the Field Sparrow to quickly flap its wings. My fumbling fingers must have hit the screen when the phone was falling and snapped the picture which captured an image of the exquisite, out-stretched wing of the little male, and his sharp claws held by my semi-calloused ones. How unexpected and exciting it was to see what my phone had captured!
And that element of accidental, pleasant surprise seems to me a great gift, as it provides a brief escape from the terrible dilute-er of pleasure that is a mind which expects too much of an event that it has had time to anticipate. Time for anticipation, I’ve found, can cause disappointment after discovering what actually happens if what happens doesn’t live up to what one hoped would happen. Had I been trying to take a picture of a Field Sparrow’s wing out-stretched, and not held in an out-stretched position by me, I probably would have been less happy with this picture. But I wasn’t trying for what happened, and so I can cherish the unexpected result.
When a phone drops, say, and captures a unique perspective that one’s mind didn’t have the chance to expect and in a way destroy, the result can be very pleasing, due to the pleasantness of surprise. When it comes to discovering books, relationships, nature trails, etc., for me, at least, a pleasant accident is almost always better than a planned occurrence. And so, while I try not to expect extravagantly of what I see coming, I excitedly stumble and fumble along, knowing that what I can’t see is coming, too.
Anyone who has read my writing on this website knows that I spend a lot of time observing birds. I’ve learned that there is much which can be learned from studying the behaviors of birds (and other organisms) which can be applied not only to wildlife conservation efforts, but also to my daily activities as a part of human society. Yes, sometimes I do leave bird society! In fact, I’m confident that if people more closely observed animal behavior and related such behaviors to their own, then human society would be in far less danger of unraveling, possibly explosively, due to our actions.
Take territoriality, for instance. Some birds defend territories, some don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time observing Blue Jays, and Florida Scrub-jays. If I were to walk into a patch of forest where I knew Blue Jays existed and played a recording of Blue Jay flight calls (calls that they utter when they are flying, possibly to stay in contact with a mate, siblings, or offspring—depending on the time of year), I likely wouldn’t attract resident Blue Jays who are ‘looking for a fight,’ who wish to drive away ‘intruders.’ In other words, Blue Jays aren’t territorial.
Florida Scrub-jays, however, will station a member of their group on the tallest available perch, which offers an unimpeded view over a territory up to 50 acres in size, which is usually covered by short scrub oaks. Especially just prior to the breeding season and when acorns are on the trees in the fall, if that sentinel scrub-jay sees, or hears, a nearby scrub-jay within its territory that is not a part of its family, one could say that ‘all Hell breaks loose.’ That is, the sentinel jay will begin calling and will fly ‘aggressively’ toward the ‘intruder’ (me with playing a recording) or the actual intruder, with a flight consisting of undulating dips (not unlike the routes of some roller coasters). Its family members will follow in a similar way, and the intruders will likely be chased away. Very rarely, there may actually be a fight, which involves locking feet together, and pecking at one another while on the ground.
Here is a link to a video which contains a recording that I captured when Florida Scrub-jays were acting territorial:
Point being, two closely related species can have very different ways of behaving in similar circumstances. Why might that be? The difference in the tendency to behave in a certain way is due to differing past circumstances that the ancestors of these species encountered. Scrub in Florida has historically been basically a series of small islands surrounded by a sea of other habitat types (this situation is getting worse, due to human-caused habitat destruction, hence the necessity of translocation). So, the scrub-jay ancestors of current scrub-jays found themselves in a situation which required them to aggressively defend pieces of land where scrub existed. Those that did not do this probably did not pass on as many genes (which directly influence behavior; aggressive scrub-jays tend to make aggressive scrub-jays) and thus those that were territorial prevailed. Alternatively, the ancestors of Blue Jays inherited and came to depend upon a much wider range of habitats, covering a much larger area than the scrub which Florida Scrub-jays depend upon (most of the eastern United States, currently). In fact, because Blue Jays are so good at using a variety of forested habitats, I even have seen them in older scrub, beside scrub-jays. And so, it seems, because there is a lot of their required habitat available, and therefore all of those things which habitat provides directly or indirectly (food, shelter, mates), Blue Jays are not generally inclined to be territorial.
In other words, both Blue Jays and Florida Scrub-jays, like all other living things, are products of their environment. They behave the way that they do because of circumstance. As the sound waves produced by the call of an unfamiliar scrub-jay are perceived by the sentinel bird, hormones are released which cause a territorial response by that sentinel scrub-jay, along with his/her family. And maybe, I speculate, they experience feelings that we could recognize as they take their undulating path toward the ‘enemy.’ Alternatively, the Blue Jays in the tall forest less than fifty meters away watch a ‘stranger’ jay fly by, without so much as an internal ripple of indignation.
Remarkably, circumstance has allowed most human beings to possess the capability of understanding such processes. For one who does in fact understand them, the world can become a much more intelligible and tolerable place. Even, maybe, an infinitely wonderful place. Reasons for the behaviors of friends, neighbors, family, and ‘enemies’ can thus become clearer (though usually remain murky, at best, due to so many factors being involved). And for me, at least, with even a small degree of understanding comes a profound appreciation for the good things that people do. Compassionate, altruistic, and loving behaviors can be identified and cherished if one pays attention. A kind act in the supermarket: ‘you only have two things, go ahead.’ A call, ‘out of the blue,’ from a friend who you haven’t heard from in years. A kind, thoughtful conversation with a stranger. A commitment to not part till death.
However, the fact that many humans and non-humans constantly behave mindlessly and destructively is also painfully apparent. This is, of course, through no fault of their own, as hard as that is for anyone to initially admit. A co-worker goes out of their way to make you look like a fool, and cause you pain. A spouse cheats. A relative holds an unreasonable, destructive grudge. A dog bites, a snake strikes, a Blue Jay watches as a scrub-jay chases. An egocentric, ignorant president or dictator impetuously orders a nuclear strike.
The simple fact is that we as human beings are in an extraordinarily precarious position. The environment upon which we and our family (including non-human life on Earth) depend upon is being altered due to selfish acts which are not always easy to identify. Territorial impulses cause people in one country to hate people in another country. We possess the capacity to destroy life on Earth with our technologies, and seem to be on the track to doing so. We are constantly bombarded by information which lessens our ability to focus upon the real issues that threaten us. Many of our leaders are no more conscious of the causes for their actions than a scrub-jay is, and far less admirable. These leaders possess the capability to, and seem intent to, destroy life by selfishly exploiting natural resources and those who depend upon them. They might gravely and tirelessly prepare for hurricanes which scientific projections suggest will radically and negatively alter the lives of their voters within a few days, ‘because we must prepare for the worst,’ but ignore related, long-term climatic projections which suggest a threat of far greater magnitude and severity, simply because doing so will not get them re-elected. These leaders behave in a way that is dictated by voters. An ignorant electorate will yield politicians who behave ignorantly, even if they aren’t actually ignorant. Selfish actors, it seems, are never in short-supply. It is obvious that they will destroy life as we know it if we allow them to.
And so, I’m doing my best by writing this to provide to you with some information that I have been lucky enough to happen upon, due to circumstance. When you see a bird, or another type of animal, I hope that you will take the time to watch the way that it behaves and wonder why it behaves the way that it does. What about the way that it behaves might have helped its ancestors to survive? Examining life in such a way may cause you to be inclined to examine your own behaviors. And I’m sure that you have already, but maybe not using the ‘lens’ that I have suggested that you use to observe a bird, which has been influenced by the same types of historical pressures as you. Does the hawk eat the sparrow because it’s evil? No. It does so because that is how its ancestors behaved to survive. Do you, when no one is looking, do something which might, for no good reason, hurt the feelings of, or prospects for, someone else, because you are evil? No! More than likely, you, like the hawk, are behaving in a way which helped your ancestors spread their genes. Luckily, though, you possess the ability to be conscious of your actions and thus modify your behavior. What impulses do you have which might have helped your ancestors to survive, which may in fact be harmful to you, your family, and/or the rest of life on Earth? Taking the time to think about this simple question is very important. Not only can an honest answer to this question allow us to lead happier lives, but it just might allow us as a species to avoid self-destruction.
Luckily, there are many, many people who in fact are aware of much or all of what I have written in this post. They may be among those who have devoted their lives to developing technologies which lessen our environmental impact, like solar-powered vehicles. They may be educated activists who attempt to bring public attention to pressing social justice and/or environmental issues. They may even be politicians who must carefully mince words in order to be re-elected, so that they can do some genuine good. Or, more likely, they are plumbers, secretaries, high school teachers, and other important members of society, who we meet and interact with every day. There is a lot of reason for hope and optimism, but only if human consciousness can outpace a terrifying unconsciousness that seems to be leading toward global catastrophe. These are dangerous times, which require that the majority of us be awake. Indifference will result in disaster, to a degree which we simply cannot accurately predict.
I want you to know that I understand the reasons for sensationalism, which some people might characterize this post as being caused by. It is true that an author might sell more books if he/she convinces readers that they have written about an important issue. A news network might describe a situation as being far more dire than it is, to get more viewers. This happens. I can assure you, though, that the primary cause for me writing this post is that when I woke up this morning, I felt inspired to attempt to spread some information which might help to protect the experience of life on Earth, which I’m fascinated by. The cause for that feeling this morning was certainly affected by my exposure to others, in the past, who have concluded similarly. My hope is that maybe I can affect readers similarly.
And so, I encourage you to pay attention/care, and to the best of your ability speak out against things that you believe to be wrong, organize effective means of causing change, vote responsibly, and generally act in a way which might preserve this wonderful place for our descendants. Our behavior will have a profound impact on them.
Nick Drake was an acoustic guitar player who made his music in the late 1960s and early 70s. He lived a short life, and relatively few people discovered his music while he was alive (considerably more have discovered him since his death). In this song, which is one of my favorites by him, he seems to suggest that birds are creatures that think, and not only think, but think deeply (and experience consciousness):
Here are the words that I am referring to, in regard to avian philosophizing:
Bird flew by
And wondered, wondered why
She was wise enough to stay up in the sky
From there she could wonder
For the reason
What’s the point of a year
Or a season
‘Wisdom’ is attributed to this bird that is flying in the sky, and she even has existential thoughts. As someone who has spent years studying birds, and ‘wondering why’ about many things, I’ll admit that I doubt that any bird wonders ‘what is the point of a year or a season?’ But maybe they will someday… The lyrics in this song seem to ‘anthropomorphize,’ which is to attribute uniquely human characteristics to non-human animals. I feel fairly sure that Nick Drake didn’t think that birds actually wonder like the bird in the song does, as art does not need to represent reality. However, the song stimulated some thoughts in me that I’ll share with you.
No human can know for sure what a bird does or does not think, though for anyone who pays close attention to birds and other animals, it is obvious, based upon their behaviors, that at least some species do in fact think (imagine your dog or cat). Take a look at this short video showing a bird who modifies a tool that did not originally work, in order to gain access to a food item:
That bird, in my opinion, was obviously thinking, and possibly in a way that I could relate to—I think that the bird knows that it is something (and is therefore a self-aware something) that wants food.
It has long been assumed by many animal behaviorists that animals (including human beings) are, as Thomas Huxley coined, ‘automata,’ which is a machine that is driven exclusively by forces (genetics, past and current environmental conditions) that it cannot control. This assumption appears to be true, so far as I can see, except that I do not understand how consciousness (the ability to be self-aware) fits into the equation, an uncertainty which could undermine the validity of the assumption. In fact, consciousness is in my opinion the most inspiring, dependable (if I’m thinking, it’s there), and greatest mystery that I have encountered. I will be thinking about it for as long as I am conscious. Consciousness could be (and some people say definitely is) just another natural process that we have no control over. However, it is fascinating to me that self-awareness does not seem to be necessary, and yet it does exist. By ‘not necessary,’ I mean from an evolutionary perspective, as it does seem entirely possible that molecular machines which we call organisms could be assembled which reproduce and survive based entirely on stereotyped responses (a stereotyped response is a reaction that requires no thought, and happens automatically in response to a certain stimulus). Such a thoughtless creature is the sort of identity-less, stereotyped machine that many people, it seems to me, assume that non-human animals (which aren’t their pets) are. But I don’t think that that is, in many cases, true! I believe that it feels a certain way to be, say, a moose, or a bat. I also think that at least some vertebrates (animals with a backbone), including mammals and birds, experience some kind of consciousness, as it seems extraordinarily narrow-minded to assume that human beings are the only conscious animal on planet Earth. I find this thought of consciousness in other animals to be liberating!
Why liberating? Well, I occasionally find myself falling into a Dustin-centric trap. That is, I find myself assuming that the way I see things is simply the way it is. By thinking so, inescapable doom and gloom, for example, can become the definition in my mind of our universe on a given day when that is, in fact, ridiculous. It helps to remind myself that thousands of other organisms (there are at least 40,000 other organisms on Earth that are so similar to us that they also have a backbone) are experiencing (to some degree) the same Earth in an entirely different way than I am, in a way that I could not even comprehend. It is a relief to know that the universe isn’t about me. Colors, scents, fields (like magnetic), and other external stimuli that I cannot detect shape the lives, and probably thoughts, of the other animals that we as humans share this planet with. How different would it be to be a conscious dolphin than a conscious human? I cannot imagine!
Some animals, apparently, think because an animal that can think is often better off from an evolutionary perspective than an animal that cannot think (except, for example, when climate-changing technology, including nuclear weapons, are developed in conjunction with selfish, ignorant users). One passes on more genes with the aid of intelligence, and intelligence (the ability to use information) has apparently led to consciousness in some animals. Birds in the family Corvidae (crows, ravens, magpies, and jays) have been compared to primates (humans are primates) in regard to their advanced intelligence.1 It seems hard to believe that Corvids possess the intelligence that they do without also having some level of consciousness, and harder to believe that chimpanzees, which share about 99.7% of their expressed DNA with human beings, are not conscious.
When a bird flies by, it is nice to remind myself that my thoughts cannot be definitely known by it, just as its thoughts cannot be definitely known by me. It is estimated that there are 100 billion stars in our average-sized galaxy, and near each might be the potential for thinking organisms, possibly similar to us. Further, there are an estimated 10 trillion galaxies in our universe, and maybe an infinite number of other universes, all of which could be brimming with conscious beings. About 95% of the matter/energy in our universe is, at the moment, entirely indescribable to the scientists who have tried to study it. In other words, it is a mystery. I cannot help but wondering how this so-called ‘dark’ matter/energy relates to consciousness, and how it might affect the ‘automata-like’ nature of living organisms, possibly providing a sort of ‘freedom’ that many brain scientists insist, I think prematurely, is an illusion. Further, the matter that we consist of, at a very small level (quantum-scale, i.e. atoms, electrons, etc.), interacts in a way that scientists can somewhat describe, but don’t understand, which may impede our ultimate understanding of how consciousness works, given that matter apparently creates ‘mind’ and we are unsure why matter interacts as it does. Maybe someone in our galaxy has already figured out the answers to these questions…
Speaking of thinking-things in other places (planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, etc.), they would probably be able to understand my thoughts far less than the bird that flies by can. Actually, I think, I wouldn’t even be recognized as a thinking thing by such distantly-related thinkers, somewhat like most people assume that plants have no level of intelligence (a notion which some scientists are currently challenging). If the ‘multi-verse’ (infinite universes) that some scientists think exist combines to create, say, a brain of an organism that thinks, that organism would probably understand its thoughts about as much as I do my own (and might appreciate the mystery). This is an important reminder, for me at least, to appreciate the awesomeness of reality, which can be enriched if one considers the many different ways of seeing the same world by co-inhabitants. Such knowledge helps me to remember to interact kindly with other people who believe slightly different things than I do (that’s the most difference that there can really be between human beliefs, in the ‘big picture’). It also reminds me how similar we humans are, and how we need to come together, embrace our unity, expand our consciousness, and do our best to avoid destroying our chance at life. Such destruction, I think, will happen sooner rather than later if we pretend that the universe is as we want it to be rather than as it is, if we choose ignorance rather than knowledge. The ability to be conscious is an incredible opportunity that we have, and I think that we should all ‘look’ while we can, so that others here can see, too.
Ultimately, I think, a bird flying by has approximately as much of a chance of really understanding consciousness, or whether or not there is more than one universe, as I do. But it sure is fun to think while being conscious, and I feel comfort knowing that I am not alone in doing that.
Emery, N. J. The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes. Science306, 1903–1907 (2004).
I am sitting upon a Canadian rock, watching the rhythmic, breaking grey waves of Lake Erie. The wind presses hard against my face, and a slight rain falls, but these sensations which might cause most people to get up and go towards shelter are over-ridden by something in me which wants to stay where it is. And I am watching and listening to the violent splashes of water on rock, feeling the mist, when I think of how incredible my mind is, which has created the whole scene around me. ‘Cold’ doesn’t exist without a mind to create it, nor does the particular image that I see of atoms interacting and light reflecting, which some might naively call just another lousy wave breaking at their feet. The gull flying over my head sees the stunted hackberry tree that is shivering in the wind at my back differently than I do, as its mind creates a different, more one-dimensional image of the world (because of its monocular vision due having an eye on each side of its head), an image that is, for example, probably better used for detecting floating fish on the surface of the water than mine is. We all see in a way which helped our ancestors to survive, and miss essentially everything that wasn’t helpful. I am reminded of the fact that approximately 95 percent of our Universe is apparently made of matter/energy which human astronomers cannot even identify, and of how my human eyes can perceive far less than one hundredth of a percent of the light waves entering them. So for a while I watch the incredible detail of the rolling waves, and the deep feeling of air in my lungs and wind upon my face, grateful for what I can perceive and aware of the awesome beauty that I cannot imagine.
I walk to the southern-most point of the Canadian mainland, at Point Pelee National Park (a world-renowned place to see birds in migration), where the juniper, hackberry, and maple trees give way to the ever-shifting sand that becomes a point jutting into the lake. I stand as close as I dare (for fear of being taken by waves) to where the sand disappears beneath the water, which is not as far as the gulls who have congregated further to the south. On my right (to the west) are the same waves that I had been watching from my thoughtful rock, but to my left the water is as calm and flat as one’s swimming pool before one-time (long ago) 250 pound high school wrestling champion Uncle Billy jumps in. The contrast and close proximity between calm and not-calm is striking, as seen here:
So, as usual when at such spots, I sit down again and take in what I feel lucky to be able to see. I watch a Sanderling (a type of bird, see below) braving the waves that pushes it around near the Point as it searches for food amongst the sand to provide energy so that it can continue its flight from the Arctic to, possibly, the southern tip of the South American continent. What a journey! As the Sanderling walks near my feet, I spot a walleye that has been pushed by the waves onto the sand, where it struggles until another wave pushes it closer to the calm water, then closer again, and closer again until finally it reaches deep water on the other side. And it is very clear to me in the wind on the Point that an unexpected sandbar could catch any of us, and that it may take waves that we cannot control, waves that may never come, to push us to calmer waters. So I enjoy the current while I can, before deciding to get up.
I begin walking along the calm shore, and pass a woman who through the wind is able to say to me, ‘this is beautiful.’ And it is, though certainly the beauty that she sees is different than the beauty that I see, just as, though probably to a smaller degree, the walleye’s view of the water and the Sanderling’s view of the sand is far different than how I see those small parts of our world. The beauty that I see is a reminder of the tenuous nature of life, and of humanity’s impact upon that life on this planet.
I worry very much about our fellow inhabitants of Earth, which interact with the world in such a way that is determined by past conditions. The gull sees the way it does because the long line of its ancestors were determined, among other reasons, by who could see fish the best and therefore past on their genes the most effectively. But this line of reasoning goes beyond vision, of course. Everything about the Sanderling, from its plumage, to its bill, are adapted to survive. And if we humans are drastically changing the environment in which these species live, what chance does the Sanderling, for example, have? What chance do we have if the many species that our ancestors interacted with disappear? If our eyes were suddenly confronted with conditions that they were not adapted for, would we, blinded, have a chance to survive? Probably not, and the same problems are being faced by other organisms as we militantly convert the landscape, and other conditions, which they depend upon.
As I walk along the calm beach, I am reminded of a recent trip to Isle Royale, another national park. Because of our love for the natural world, a friend of mine and I drove all of the way from Indiana to the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, Houghton specifically, where we caught a ferry that took over six hours to reach the beautiful wilderness island in Lake Superior, a backpacking naturalist’s paradise. We spent four nights and five days on the island, hiking over 40 miles through the backcountry, before taking a float plane back to the mainland. The island is famous for the long-term study that has taken place there to understand the predator and prey population dynamics of moose and wolves. The wolves control the moose population, preying upon the weak and elderly, so that the plants on the island aren’t heavily browsed by moose, which in turn causes the moose population to be healthier than it otherwise would be. When the moose population declines, so does the wolf population, which causes the moose population to go up, and so on, which causes a predictable, wave-like cycle in regard to numbers of these animals on the island. But, because of a recent warming of the globe (which humans have likely caused due to the burning of fossil fuels), the water between the island and Canada does not freeze as often as if otherwise would, which has isolated the wolf population, caused deadly inbreeding, and reduced the number of wolves to only two, from an average during the last 75 years of around 25. These wolves, half-siblings as well as father and daughter, will die soon. Not surprisingly, the moose population is rapidly increasing, which, if the National Park Service does not intervene by introducing more wolves (or by finding another way to control the moose population), could result in a serious degradation of the island’s plant-life, and therefore endanger all of the animals on the island which depend upon that plant-life. We saw a total of six moose while on the island, including this one, which would soon be followed across the trail by her calf:
It seems that the park’s size (~900 square miles) is not large enough to sustain an isolated population of wolves (if immigration were still possible, the population would likely survive due to new genes wandering in). This is an important reminder that habitat size, and connectivity of existing habitats, is crucial for the preservation of natural systems. Even mainland parks like Point Pelee National Park are essentially islands surrounded by developed land, and the survival of its inhabitants depend upon immigration from nearby habitats (which often don’t exist). Here is an aerial photograph of Point Pelee National Park, which has an obvious border with the adjacent, developed land:
There is a well-established ecological principle that after an episode of terrestrial habitat destruction, calculating the fourth root of area remaining as wildlife habitat will provide a somewhat accurate prediction of the percentage of species that will remain. For example, if 50 percent of Earth’s land area is set aside for non-human life and the rest made useful only for humans, approximately 84% of the species originally present will avoid extinction into the foreseeable future. This is the rationale of the great biologist, E.O. Wilson, who is valiantly campaigning to set aside half of the world for wild things. His book on the subject can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Half-Earth-Our-Planets-Fight-Life/dp/1631490826. It is not surprising that, even though the ~ 6 square miles that encompass this park were protected in 1918, species within it are still being lost. For example, of the herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) present before European habitation, six of eleven amphibian species and 10 of 21 reptile species no longer exist in the park (Hecnar and Hecnar 2013). Protecting large areas of habitat and connecting them to other protected areas is absolutely crucial for protecting wildlife.
I continue to walk along the calm side of the Point, aware, as always, of the threat that life on our planet faces, and feel that I have no choice but to do my best to do whatever I can to help preserve what is left. I see a swirling cyclone of over 50 migrating Blue Jays rapidly enter the trees to my left (these birds, like hawks and butterflies, don’t want to cross Lake Erie during their southern migration, so follow its coastline to the west to cross the Detroit River, where I have seen them every day for the past three weeks). And as I watch them enter the trees, I see a small falcon, called a Merlin, flying just over the tree-line, which is certainly what had frightened the jays. As I watch this predatory bird, I forget everything but the moment, probably like the falcon. I watch as the Merlin goes after a small flock of songbirds, probably American Goldfinches, and soon focuses on one, which repeatedly dives towards the water before ascending to avoid the fast-pursuing falcon. The small songbird flees over the beach, into the trees and out of sight, as the Merlin is gaining ground. I am left to wonder what will become of the little songbird, and of the little falcon, which needs a meal to survive.
I later think that this series of events near the Point could be related metaphorically to what is happening to life on this planet. It appears that for many awe-inspiring species, doing all that they can do to survive, there is a fast-approaching killer closing in on them. And I am ashamed to know that we as humans, with our destruction of habitats, changing of the climate, and lack of understanding of what we are or what we can cause, are acting as a major killer of life on this Earth, which could be thought of as a fleeing songbird. We as a species are not evil, just as the falcon is not evil. We are all doing what we think that we need to do to survive. But no matter how bleak the situation currently looks, I, like I imagine that the little songbird escaped (and the Merlin found another, less Anthropomorphized meal!), am optimistic that we can change our ways and priorities before it is too late to save ourselves and much of the rest of life on Earth. Awareness of, and a strong conviction by, a large number of people are all that it will take to improve our situation as it relates to our natural environment, and there are many ways that you (!!) can help, such as by educating someone else, joining (and/or donating to) a conservation club, doing citizen science by, say, reporting what birds go to your bird feeder on this website (http://feederwatch.org/), voting responsibly for environmental protection in elections, not being pessimistic, and/or creating some wildlife habitat by planting native species in your yard.
As I type this, I am glad to know that wild, rocky shores, teeming with non-human life, still exist, and hope that they do for as long as there are people to see and understand the beauty which we are privileged enough to have the capability to see.
Stephen J. Hecnar and Darlene R. Hecnar. 2013. Losses of Amphibians and Reptiles at Point Pelee National Park. Parks Research Forum of Ontario.
Many of you reading this know that I am currently in the Dakotas conducting breeding bird surveys. Few understand specifically what it is that I am doing out here, or why it is important. So I am going to explain!
My employer, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, is a non-profit organization with the goal of ‘conserving birds and their habitats through science, education and land stewardship.’ Just as a vehicular crash is likely if the driver is asleep at the wheel, the crash of a given bird species population may be likely if human beings aren’t paying attention (unfortunately, we are inflicting many unnatural stresses upon birds and other natural things, which puts them in an especially precarious state). Considering that many bird species have distinct breeding and wintering habitats, and depend upon habitats to be intact throughout migration pathways, a lot goes into understanding if species x is flourishing or floundering. In order to understand this, data need to be collected so that inferences can be made about the state of birds. Land managers and policy-makers can use this information to make informed decisions, and maybe even save a species from extinction and/or prevent an ecological community from collapsing.
I have been lucky enough to be one of the many people out in the field collecting the data. This is my fifth summer conducting what are called point count surveys (I’ve done this in Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho). A point count survey is a commonly used method to determine bird densities. Groups of points are randomly chosen within a given area (say, the state of South Dakota, or in a specific national park) so that statistically valid inferences can be made about bird populations in that area. This random-choosing of point locations means that my work could be done 20 miles from the road in a wilderness area (which makes the job an adventure, to say the least. See one of my videos below to see a recent adventure) or in the parking lot of a shopping mall (which rarely happens).
I prefer angry rattle snakes to angry shoppers. The latter are more dangerous than the former, in my opinion. This video was a surprise for you, Mom – Love You!!
When I conduct a point count survey, I spend six minutes at a spot marked by GPS. Here I record all birds that I detect (mostly by their vocalizations) and note what minute each bird is detected in, as well as how far away it is from me when detected, what sex or age it is if I know, and if it was with other birds. Individual birds are not counted twice. Here is the datasheet that I use to record bird data.
I also record vegetation information at each point, so that statisticians can later see if there is an association between certain types of vegetation and the presence of certain bird species. Managers can then use this information to manipulate vegetative communities in ways that are good for birds. From the data that I collect, bird densities are determined. When I conduct a point count survey, I am essentially standing in the middle of a ‘bull’s-eye.’ It is expected I detect 100 percent of the birds that are in the exact center, and a smaller percentage of the birds present as distance from the center of this bulls-eye increases. Different ‘detection functions’ are used for each species, based on how easily detected they are at a given distance. For example, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is less likely to be detected 200 meters away than is a noisy bird like a Western Meadowlark (which has a code of ‘WEME’ – we use four-letter codes when recording species). With this information, estimates of bird density can be made and the birds that I don’t count are, in theory, accounted for. Each morning (I start about 30 minutes before the sunrises and stop no more than five hours later than sunrise) I collect all of this information at as many as 16 points spaced 150 meters apart, which covers a square kilometer (if one considers the edge of the grid to be delineated by the 150 m radius of the points on the outside).
There are many exciting/interested uses of the data that we collect, as the Bird Conservancy is contracted by many entities (such as the National Park Service), but I will give only one example for the sake of brevity. The World Wildlife Fund is developing a program which would allow beef to be certified as ‘bird-friendly.’ This would allow consumers, who selectively buy with an environmental conscience, to feel assured that the beef that they are consuming is derived from cattle which were raised in an environmentally-friendly fashion. I am helping to collect the data to determine if this certification is worthwhile, i.e. if the ranchers who are embracing these practices have better bird (and therefore other wildlife) habitat on their property. Here is a link to the World Wildlife Fund website, where they briefly describe this project: http://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/beef. Incidentally, as I was working on this project, my vehicle got stuck in the Sandhills of Nebraska, on this trail:
A couple of wonderful ranchers saved me, after over four solitary hours of futilely trying to dig myself out! I could write an entire book about the adventures that I have had doing these bird surveys – and maybe I will someday. But that is for some other time. As for now, I hope that you understand a little bit more about how point count surveys are conducted, and why doing so can be important. In a future post, I plan on describing just how important other species are to our own survival. And it is by way of conducting biological surveys that we can take steps towards better protecting and understanding the wonderful diversity of life which we are a part of.