Why I Care About Natural Things

The following is a draft of the introduction to a book that I am currently in the process of writing (I will share the title for this book at a later date). This excerpt explains why I have decided to take on this project, for which I have been compiling notes since the spring of 2015.  Hopefully I will have this book completed, and published, by 2018. Because I have been busy documenting a hawk migration (see my daily reports here: http://www.drhawkwatch.org/hawk-count-monthly-summary), I haven’t had much time to write much else than the beginnings of this book, which is my first non-fiction project. So, I thought that I would share a bit of it, and a picture of a group of people at the hawk watch count site scanning the sky for hawks and other raptors. Their feeling of awe towards the natural world offers daily inspiration to me.


Here is the excerpt!

I used to wonder how studying plants and animals could be beneficial to humanity, and therefore to me financially, if I chose wildlife biology as a career. Recklessly (so far as careers go), without a real answer, I chose it anyway, because it was fun, I enjoyed being outside, and believed that non-human life should be protected despite being unable to articulate specifically why. But in the process, my studies have liberated me in regard to the way that I see our world and my place in it. Further, I can now articulate why non-human life must be protected. So, the shorter answer to the question of why I wrote this book is that I am attempting to share what I have been fortunate enough to learn about the wisdom that can be attained from studying and preserving the natural world. 

Here is the longer answer (if you were satisfied with the short answer, feel free to skip ahead!):

I happen to find more joy in interpreting facts than in establishing them, which in some regards makes me less of a scientist and more of a philosopher. Given the incredible amount of scientific knowledge that has been and is being generated, I believe that people like me can help make otherwise esoteric bits of information useful. So, in relation to several different topics with a link to biology that effect the lives of many people, I will try to explain in the following chapters some of the obstacles to having, and reasons to have, hope.

A sample of the topics that I will discuss, from a naturalist’s perspective, are: evolution, understanding ourselves and others, free will, climate change, death, hostility between groups of people, (G)god(s), homophobia, and the interdependence of all life on Earth.

This book is not a technical description of the mechanisms by which the topics that I discuss work. There is plenty of literature already in existence which can supply that information. Rather, I will present ways to think about the situation that we are in, and you can choose if they suit you. I have not cloaked my writing with formality, though rather have tried to present myself just as I would if the reader was a friend who wanted to know why I care so much about things like birds and trees. I am not a world-renowned authority in biology, and don’t claim to be. I do, though, know enough of the basics to be able to see the incredible all around and within myself, which have caused endless inquiries about life, many of which are presented in this book. Some of my ideas are, I admit, audacious, but all are inspired by scientific thought. Further science could disprove what I present, which is what makes scientific thinking so beautiful. With science, we are stuck with nothing but the truth.

I consider the natural world to be much like an abstract, mind-bendingly beautiful painting (like those of Salvador Dali, for example) that tells me something about what I am and where I am. If one does not look at the exquisite painting that is life in the right way, they might miss what can be learned. And this painting is being consistently burned away year after year so that people can fuel their vanities. Imagine billions of people smoking their cigarettes in front of a Dali painting, and stamping out the flaming end on the beautiful canvas. Before long, the priceless, irreplaceable painting will be gone, destroyed by the residue of careless and ignorant people. That is exactly what is happening to the natural world that I love, and in the following pages I will try to explain what we can learn from Nature in addition to how and why most of what is left of the natural world must be protected. The only way for this to happen is if the vast majority of people change the way that they relate to the world that surrounds them. In so doing, I believe that many of them could become much happier.  

Not long after trying to describe the basics of science and how it supports the reality of evolution to my mother, I had an interesting dream. There was a grizzly bear in our front yard, and I wanted her to join me in approaching it, for a closer look. She didn’t want to, though did eventually acquiesce and drove me over to see it, on a four-wheeler. She was in the front, I was sitting on the back. Once we got close, I started taking pictures and then the bear aggressively charged toward the vehicle. I told her to ‘go!’ and she did. The bear was surprisingly fast, and had equally surprising endurance. It succeeded in scratching my hands, though we escaped. Once we reached the end of our road, somehow (due to dream logic), I was suddenly driving a motorcycle and my mother still drove the four-wheeler. I raced to the north down the road we had arrived to, leaving her at an intersection with a bear approaching. As I was speeding down a dirt road on the other side of the block, I thought that she might decide to go back toward the bear alone, ill-equipped to do so, and therefore expose herself to danger. Upon feeling very guilty, I awoke. This example of the subconscious eloquently using a metaphor (which goes to show how much the sub-conscious mind can perceive and create) is a perfect analogy for understanding other ‘grizzly bears’ in one’s front yard, in addition to evolution and its implications. ‘It’ is there, undeniable, and without the appropriate preparation can be daunting. And I felt in the dream that my mother was not prepared to think about a particular grizzly, mainly because she had not had years of schooling involving the study of evolution, such as I have.

So, I think that it is important for everyone to avoid facing grizzlies alone. There should be open discussions led by educated individuals about many such subjects (maybe dynamic and honest weekly meetings that the whole family could look forward to?). There is no reason for someone to have to grapple with such a difficult subject alone. Especially because it can turn from daunting to beautiful if approached correctly. This book is an attempt to help people turn a frightening grizzly bear (or bears) into a beautiful thing, so that an incredible painting can be saved and live to inspire others as it has so inspired and liberated me and others like me.

Vegetarianism for the Environment

Vegetarianism has, among some groups, a bad reputation.  The fact that I have chosen to not eat meat has meant that I have on many occasions been asked, ‘why?’  Here I will attempt to answer that question with a scientific basis, and hopefully provide a new, ecological perspective for those who are interested.

We are, like all animals, dependent upon the environment in which we live. Energy does not flow efficiently from organism to organism, as explained in what is called the ‘ten percent rule.’ Approximately ten percent of the energy in food that is consumed is transferred to the flesh of the consumer. There can be many herbivores in fertile areas (e.g. bison herds) because of the large amount of edible material, such as grass and foliage, which is available to them. However, in those same areas, there are by necessity less animals that eat the herbivores.  For example, imagine 1000 units of energy (created by photosynthesis) in the grass of a given area. If in this hypothetical, ultra-simplified example it takes 1 unit of energy to sustain an animal, then there can only be 100 animals that eat the grass (primary consumers), ten animals that eat the primary consumers (secondary consumers), and one animal that eats the secondary consumer (tertiary consumer). The following figure demonstrates this principle.

Rule of Tens

In this way, energy availability controls the amount of animals that can survive in an area. If hawks could eat grass (directly, rather than indirectly by eating snakes, which acquired energy from mice, which acquired energy from grass, which acquired energy from the sun), there would be a lot more of them.

Human beings are currently acting like apex predators, based upon our meat consumption, though have, in the context of the above figure, an exceedingly ‘mouse-like’ population, due to the recent exponential growth in human population.  This is a recipe for disaster.  All humans should realize this because we, like all animals, are vulnerable to massive population declines due to the starvation of many individuals if our resource requirements exceed the resources that are available.

A diet that consists of less meat and more plant products substantially reduces energy consumption. According to the June 2016 USDA Acreage report, over 10 percent of the land area in the continental US is used to produce corn and soybeans.  In my home state of Indiana, about 48 percent of the land area is used to produce corn and soybeans, according to estimates that I acquired from the Indiana Soybean Alliance and a USDA report.  The vast majority of this corn and soybeans are used to feed livestock, which we then eat.  By time that we eat a cheeseburger, 99 percent of the energy that was originally in the plants that were used to feed the animal from which the meat was acquired has been lost.

It may someday soon become necessary to replace the corn and soybean fields (see the latter below) in Indiana with crops that we can directly eat, and to therefore eat less meat, especially if we feel the moral obligation to get the most out of the landscape so that we can share our surplus food with starving people elsewhere (there are, shamefully, many such people). Further, if we used less land for agriculture, then more would be available for the many species of plants and animals which are grappling with extinction due to our grossly unnatural transformation of the landscape.


It has also been shown that a plant-based diet considerably reduces greenhouse gas emissions because less energy is required to get the food to the plate (i.e. less energy is required for farm equipment fuel, labor, and irrigation) and therefore is less of a threat to the Earth’s climate than is a meat-based diet (Eshel and Martin, 2006). These authors estimate that if all Americans consumed a plant-based diet, national greenhouse gas emissions would be lessened by six percent.

However, many scientists believe that meat consumption has been a very important part of our evolutionary past, so it makes perfect sense that we are programmed to savor the taste of meat (and maybe even make fun of vegetarians).

Consuming meat, and being predators, likely was a major cause of our large brains. Predators must be smart enough to catch their prey, whereas as herbivores need to be only smart enough to find plant material to eat (our language suggests this knowledge: ‘sly as a fox,’ ‘wily coyote’; ‘don’t be a sheep,’ ‘stupid cow’).  Having predatory ancestors likely helped us on our way to becoming human. It is likely that protein-rich diets allowed our ancestors to allot more resources to brain material, which gradually led to us and our huge brains (and our exceptional, at least on Earth, cognitive abilities). Incidentally, plant-based diets can now provide, due to our advanced technologies, more than enough protein to fuel any human mind, without the cardiovascular disease that may accompany meat consumption.

So, I am not saying that eating meat is all bad (if my ancestors hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about this stuff).  If the laboratory production of meat becomes viable, then the issues that I have overviewed will not be a major problem. That said, many people wouldn’t want to eat meat created in a lab (this decision will have to be made, probably, within the next fifty years, I’d guess). Currently, not everyone can or should be a vegetarian, and many have livelihoods that are based on meat production, which complicates matters, but all of us should consider the environmental (and therefore ethical, because we all share this environment) implications of consuming meat and other animal products like eggs and dairy. And all of us should do our best to be sure that what we eat (and the people who provided what we eat) is not abused before it is eaten, for obvious moral reasons, considering that we are all in this together.

And that is my answer!!!

If you have any conflicting or like opinions, feel free to share in the comments section!


Literature Cited

Eshel, G., and Martin, P.A. (2006). Diet, energy, and global warming. Earth Interact. 10, 1–17.

Counting Birds – How and Why

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).

Picture of a ‘WEME,’ taken by my friend Bill Farrar

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.

Thank you for reading!


To Live is to Fly

After finishing what may have been my last (and most rigorous) academic semester, I feel relieved. My thesis is written, all courses (to teach and take) are completed, and I have left the university (!!) with a graduate degree.

Two years of my life were dedicated to decoding the language of Blue Jays. Yes, Blue Jays – the bird that is probably in your back yard if you live in the United States, a species which may annoy you. What I did seems (to many people) like something that a parent would incredulously describe their child as having once done when young, rather than something an adult would do. “Do you remember when Josie spent the entire summer following those birds, and naming their calls?” The ultimate reason that this hypothetical child and I would devote effort to listening to the calls of birds is the same: fascination with the natural world. Children are natural scientists, hard-wired to ask questions and wonder why. As we age, there are many pressures (including genetics) to become more pragmatic, and to therefore ask less questions that have been deemed useless in providing benefits to humanity. There are many questions, though, which are not ‘useless’ to ask in this regard. Maintaining the ability and desire to ask questions (both questions which could benefit humanity and those that probably won’t), I believe, makes life much more interesting, and could even transform the ‘annoying’ Blue Jay into a fascinating subject of study, even for an adult. And yes, I think that better understanding birds can benefit humanity. I will explain why.

Blue Jays are in the family Corvidae, which includes the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.  All of these birds are smart. Here is a cool documentary about crows!:

In addition to being smart, most Corvids are also noisy. Some have described Corvids as having ape-like intelligence (humans are, according to those who classify the relatedness of living things, apes). To say that ‘a bird is a bird and that all are the same’ is as incorrect as saying that a ‘mammal is a mammal and all are the same.’ We are better problem-solvers than cottontails, for example, and Blue Jays are better problem-solvers than Mallards. For us to understand how another smart and noisy species can communicate vocally is important for understanding how advanced vocalization systems develop. For example, identifying factors that make it advantageous to have large vocal repertoires, by studying species like Blue Jays, may allow us to understand a little bit about why we are the way we are (specifically, why do we humans use thousands of distinct vocal signals to communicate when many other species can get by with only a few?). Certain factors have been identified. For example, the FOX-P2 gene (one of about 20,000 genes that together make us human) has been linked with our advanced ability to communicate vocally. Social complexity has been linked with large vocal repertoire sizes in some species (like Blue Jays), which is to say that species which interact more often with other individuals have a greater need to be able to make many different distinct sounds to communicate. A solitary species has little need to have a large vocal repertoire, as there is no need to communicate most of the time, while a super-social species like human beings may create a dictionary with 170,000+ words in it for just one, of many, languages.

After recording for more than 30 hours, and recording 7,213 calls, I identified 42 distinct Blue Jay vocalizations, which is considerably more than the average bird uses (5-14 vocalizations is typical). I used spectrograms (visual representations of sound) to identify the different call types. Here is an example of a spectrogram from my study:


This large repertoire size is likely due to the ability of Blue Jays to learn new vocalizations. Most species can utter only sounds that are encoded in their genes. Human beings and songbirds (which include Blue Jays) are among the few species which can learn a new sound based on experience. For example, Blue Jays in my study area that lived near Bald Eagles imitated Bald Eagles, and those that lived near Red-shouldered Hawks imitated Red-shouldered Hawks. Further, jays appeared to understand the meaning of the calls that they uttered. Only predator calls were imitated by Blue Jays (non-dangerous species weren’t), and these calls were often uttered in situations of danger for the vocalizing bird. So, rather than saying ‘look out, it might be coming to kill you!’ jays often utter a very convincing imitated predator call (for example, a Red-tailed Hawk call) to indicate the presence of danger (they sometimes use these calls when there is no apparent danger, too). This would be like us imitating a gunshot to say that a dangerous person is coming, which would be a very efficient way to transmit important information.

Interestingly, different groups of Blue Jays may have, to some degree, different languages. Different calls are learned at different locations, and those calls may be transmitted from generation to generation (culturally). Further, the same call at different locations may be used differently, which I learned by associating contexts (like predator-related, food-related, etc.) with the use of certain call types. Essentially, Blue Jays located at different places may have as hard of a time communicating with each other as a monolingual, native-speaking Eskimo would have trying to communicate with a monolingual, native-speaking Australian Aborigine. It seems that in this way, too, jays are not much different than us. Maybe understanding how amazing, and sometimes similar to us, other species are may encourage human beings to protect and respect them, and to therefore improve the situation here on planet Earth? I hope so.

Now I am travelling across the Great Plains conducting bird surveys, to help better understand how bird populations are doing in this part of the world (I will keep you posted!). Studies such as my Blue Jay project, I think, show how important it is to protect and pay attention to other species, because there is a lot that we can learn from them. Not only can we learn from other species, but we depend on them to maintain the conditions which sustain all life (more on that in another post). I will admit, it feels good to be done with the Blue Jay project (mainly because of all of the difficult steps that are required to complete a Master’s thesis), but I am glad that I took the time to observe and better understand another living creature, especially one as fascinating and misunderstood as the Blue Jay. Often when I watch birds, I’m reminded of the Townes Van Zandt song, To Live is To Fly, which I have found to be beautiful and inspiring:

And in a way, now, I do feel like I’m flying, with the wind of the natural world beneath my wings. The weight of graduate school has been cut loose, and I’m ready to soar, so that I can see, understand, and hopefully protect the wind that holds me up.