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!
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.
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.
My friend, Tori, had a great idea, which is to provide a platform for conservationists (and anyone can be one!) to share their stories.
Here she states her goal:
“I want to give faces to the conservationists of the world. Their stories, their situations, the sacrifices they make to do this work, and the rewards of it. It’s not a revolutionary notion by any stretch, but we need to be part of the global conversation on environmentalism. We, as biologists, need to know our worth. We need to contribute to the wildlife blogs of the world, the authors and journalists shedding light on the work of scientists working to better the natural systems of the planet. Everyone can be a conservationist. I want to knit together a picture of what that means and could mean in the future. We need to engage with each other to enthrall others.
I sent her a story about one of my most memorable field experiences (which involves wolves near Yellowstone!). That story can be found here:
Working with Florida Scrub-Jays is far more entertaining than any soap opera I’ve seen (admittedly, I have not seen many). Being a biologist who studies scrub-jays, though, naturally causes one to compare a day’s work to witnessing a soap opera, considering the drama that is seen every day. I have heard the phrase, ‘Jays of Our Lives’ used independently by a couple of my co-workers, in reference to the popular soap opera, ‘Days of Our Lives.’ So, I thought that I would describe some of what I have seen! I will do so in a series of posts, highlighting some of the interesting events and/or dramas that I have witnessed in the scrub, usually in relation to scrub-jays.
First off, you should know that Florida Scrub-jays are, appropriately, based on their name, only found in Florida. They are well-adapted to survive in ‘scrub,’ which primarily consists of oak species that are less than 2.5 meters tall. Florida is called ‘the lightning capital of the world,’ which historically caused regular wildfires, therefore maintaining habitat conditions that scrub-jays depend upon. However, we human beings have suppressed natural fire cycles and have converted much scrub habitat into housing developments, etc. Thus, Florida Scrub-jays are federally recognized as being ‘threatened’ due to the isolation of their existing habitats, which makes movement from one patch of habitat to the next very difficult for these birds that have short wings and a natural tendency to stay put. Therefore, I am part of a team that has been working to experimentally translocate these birds, so that we can understand if doing so will be an effective way to protect their genetic diversity (which is crucial step towards protecting scrub-jays from extinction). My job, as an employee of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is primarily to monitor how the birds we moved are doing. So, I get to spend a whole lot of time with scrub-jays!
You should also know that Florida Scrub-jays are ‘cooperative breeders,’ which means that offspring (most of the time) stick around to help their parents raise their siblings. Sound familiar? We humans, of course, have a similar life strategy. Just over 3% (or maybe slightly more, estimates vary) of bird species are currently known to be cooperative breeders. A similar percentage of mammals (humans are mammals) breed cooperatively. Therefore, both humans and scrub-jays are in the minority in this regard. Also, scrub-jays are in the ‘Corvid’ family, which includes ravens and crows. These birds have been described as ‘primates of the bird world,’ due to their large brains and impressive intelligence (see another post: ‘Bird Flew By: Thoughts on Consciousness’). This is yet another reason that these birds are similar to us humans. So, yes, scrub-jays are special! Of course, every species is special in some way….
Most of the birds that we are studying are uniquely banded so that we can tell who is who. Here is a picture of a color banded Scrub-jay:
Also, most of the birds that we moved to the new location have radio transmitters on them, so I can always find them (assuming that they have not gone on an adventure). Because of the transmitters and color bands, I can know ‘who is dating,’ ‘who is arguing,’ ‘who has died,’ and all of that other stuff that some people like to watch soap operas to see.
So, now that I have the background information out of the way, I will begin the story of Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Azure (a dashing male) and Black/Silver – Red/White (a beautiful female).
This pair is tough. We know that they have been together since 2013, and that Hot Pink/Azure is at least 6 years old and Red/White is at least 4 years old. Before they were translocated together, over 80% of their territory was deemed mostly useless to them by people who were trying to promote sand pine growth so that the pulp of these tress can later be harvested. The habitat that we moved them to is, as far I as I can tell, much better for scrub-jays than the habitat that they were taken from. We housed them in a cage for just under 36 hours before releasing them, so that they could become somewhat familiar with their surroundings before trying to settle in.
Initially, they refused to leave the cage, and stayed a night longer than we had wanted them to. When they finally did leave the cage, I followed them, and was pleased to see that they were behaving normally. Like usual, they were taking turns watching out for each other, while the other bird foraged. They did not seem to be bothered by their transmitters (no pulling on the antenna, no difficulty flying). All seemed well, until, 30 minutes after release, they wandered into the territory of another scrub-jay group. This was going to happen sooner or later, but luckily, I was there to see what happened. After I heard the first territorial calls, I saw Hot Pink/Azure and Red/White flying back towards the cage, with two other birds, a father-daughter pair, in hot pursuit. Soon, three other birds (a breeding pair and their helper) from a neighboring territory joined the chase, which noisily lasted for over an hour. Eventually, I saw Hot Pink/Azure, the male, chased to the northwest while Red/White was chased to the south. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, 40 minutes, passed. I was surprised, and a bit worried, to see that the pair were not reuniting. Because of their radio transmitters, I could tell that they were separated by about 400 meters. I needed to go check on another pair that we had recently released, so I had to leave. When I returned a couple hours later, they were still separated. They both, it seemed, were hiding alone, in foreign land, with hostile neighbors.
Will they reunite? Will they be able to form their own territory? Will they fly away and leave me with no idea where they went? Will they make a nest and lay eggs?
A ‘controlled burn’ in the field of ecology is a management tool which can help to, for example, maintain a prairie by removing trees that have encroached in an area where a land manager does not want a forest. A wildfire, of course, is the exact opposite of a controlled burn. I believe that these different types of fire are metaphorically related to the way that we as individuals view the world and interact with one another.
Wildfires are not necessarily bad, just as burning, uncompromising passions in the minds of individuals are not always bad. In fact, both are sometimes needed to cause a desired outcome. Some ecosystems rely upon wildfire, such as the lodgepole pine forests in Yellowstone National Park, which depend upon fire to open pine cones to regenerate the forest. Many important societal movements, such as the on-going struggle for the establishment of civil rights, would be impossible without a leader who possesses a fiery, hyper-focused mentality, which I think could be compared to a wildfire in the context of this essay, as I will explain. Sometimes, though, the goal is to keep control. Because, for example, if the fire that you have started to maintain a prairie gets out of control, an entire town could be burned down. Similarly, an idea that you have whole-heartedly embraced without first carefully considering alternative ideas could aide in the destruction of our society.
I was part of a team who helped to administer a controlled burn at Prophetstown State Park, to maintain prairie habitat, a few years ago. In so doing, we first made a detailed burn plan, and had to wait for the precise wind conditions so that we did not lose control of our fire. Here is a picture of me with a torch, helping to maintain the prairie in a responsible way.
Our minds are not much different than this fire was, and can also be influenced greatly by ‘the wind.’ Any interest or inclination begins as something like a tiny flame on a candle stick. Then one will feed the flame through a given source (say, the opinions of Rush Limbaugh, Carl Sagan, Bill Maher, Pope Francis, Che Guevara, Bernie Sanders, etc.) to the point that he/she can, if not careful, become possessed by a raging inferno which they no longer have any semblance of control over.
In simpler terms, our thoughts are directly related to our experiences. If, for example, someone looks outside to watch the falling snow and thinks, ‘human-caused global warming is a hoax,’ they may be inclined to do a google search with those same words. Before that person knows it, they have followed fifteen different WordPress sites which agree that the damned scientists have made up the idea of human-caused climate change to help the Chinese economy, whose government secretly pays all of the world’s climate scientists large sums of money in order to control them. And ‘evidence’ for this notion could be provided daily, via, for example, the followed sites. This example may seem absurd, but I believe that similarly groundless beliefs are held by many people who don’t understand that certain interest groups know how to take advantage of them, and do, or at least try to, every day. The frightening thing is that many of us ‘like’ or ‘follow’ only ideas which are in line with the way that we want to see things. It is far too easy to cocoon ourselves, be it by what stations we listen to on the radio, what WordPress sites we follow (mine are rather eco-protection-oriented, I admit), what church we attend if we attend at all, etc., so that we may ultimately lose, at least to some degree, the ability to make thoughtful decisions due to ignoring alternative points of view. I know from my own biases that exposing oneself to contrary ideas keeps the decision-making process alive, and helps one to avoid becoming rather mindlessly dedicated to a cause which may not be the best one.
The presidential election in the United States seems to be a great current example of the danger of raging, out of control, emotional fires. It would be interesting to know what would have happened if all American voters had been required to study an objective report about all of the candidates and what they represent before voting in the primary elections. So, speaking of feeling the Bern by setting aflame Bushes, ask yourself if we would have nominated either of the candidates that we did if such research had been done? Maybe, maybe not. Ask yourself honestly, and look at the actual evidence before deciding, which candidate, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, is more likely to be so incompetent that they endanger life on Earth? Which candidate is more likely to greatly harm our country and the world due to their actions? This is an open-ended question, and the decision is yours to make. I hope that you wouldn’t vote for that person, despite their incompetence and harmfulness, just because they represent the political party that you generally associate with. Might unquestioning allegiance to that party have been burned into your mind by, say, biased hosts of political commentary shows who spread misinformation and discourage critical-thinking skills in order to advance their own careers?
Though I don’t like politics, I felt as if I should present my thoughts because, unfortunately, this election could have dangerous environmental repercussions, which is an issue that I care deeply about. So, while voting in this election and making daily decisions in general, I think that it is important for us all to consider very carefully the conditions which control our ‘mental flames,’ and tend to our fires carefully, or we may well become a flaming disaster that we can’t understand, which ultimately burns others as well as ourselves.
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.
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 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.
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!
Eshel, G., and Martin, P.A. (2006). Diet, energy, and global warming. Earth Interact. 10, 1–17.
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.