“Where have all the birds gone?”

This post was originally titled “A Dearth of Birds,” but at first glance “dearth” looked like “death” on my home page. So I changed it, deliberately borrowing from John Terbough’s classic collection of essays (now 30 years old?!).

Robin in sumac (?), Tallmadge Meadow, January 2019. Photo by Marilyn Matevia

I have been trying not to panic about the absence of birds and bird sounds around my usual lunch-time walking trails since the descent of the Great Polar Vortex of 2019, but it unnerves me. Today I did hear a couple of jays, a handful of robins, one singing cardinal, a tufted titmouse, and – possibly – a pileated woodpecker. Then, at the very end of my short walk, I heard the soft, high-pitched whistles of cedar waxwings. I looked around and finally spotted almost a dozen of them, arrayed across the otherwise bare crown of a tree near the parking lot. I literally gasped with excitement, raised my camera… and they vanished; they took off across the meadow – followed by a second, smaller group I hadn’t seen – and settled at the other end. I had no time left to pursue them.

The polar vortex effect is on Margaret Renkl’s mind, too:

It’s too early to say what effect this year’s polar vortex and extreme flooding have had on bird populations, but in January 1977 an ongoing survey of the bird population in southern Illinois inadvertently became a case study in avian survival rates during brutal weather. Researchers conducting a bird census in the area were forced by heavy snowfall and extreme cold to stop collecting data. What they found when they were able to resume the count nearly a month later was astonishing: Whole species of birds had simply disappeared from the survey area. Carolina wrens, gone. Eastern bluebirds, gone. Hermit thrushes, gone. Two different species of kinglets, gone. Many other species were decimated, with populations reduced by up to 80 percent.

Like Ms. Renkl, I’ll be adding data to the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. You can, too.

If you are also suffering a dearth of birds, savor this wonderful short documentary produced by Fauna Creative, “The Fight for Flight:”

And this one produced by REI, “Sky Migrations:”


Birds, bees, butterflies, and bulldozers

Butterfly image (“queens” or “soldiers” – not sure – but not monarchs) used with the generous permission of Krista Schlyer.

The last entry I made on this blog before letting it go radio-silent for four long (complicated) years was a review of Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall – a stunning collection of photographs and essays about the US southern borderlands – and an interview with its author and photographer, Krista Schlyer. Ms. Schlyer is a tireless advocate for the ecological and cultural diversity and integrity of the borderlands, and her work has perhaps never been more essential. The unique and critical habitat in those regions is under constant threat from construction and maintenance of the wall (for which the US government routinely waives and ignores environmental regulations, including the Endangered Species Act), but the current administration’s bizarre obsession with lengthening the unwanted wall means that even more habitat, more creatures, and more livelihoods are in imminent danger.

I’m going to repost, right here, a recent, urgent Facebook post from Ms. Schlyer. Bold/italic print is mine:

“Using funding Congress provided in the 2018 budget, the Trump administration has stated construction will begin in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge February 15. This tract of land is part of a tiny remnant of native habitat along the Rio Grande that is essential habitat for the most diverse bird and butterfly community in the United States. The refuge land sits adjacent to the National Butterfly Center, setting the stage for this to be a first strike of larger construction that will include the Butterfly Center, La Lomita mission and Bentsen State Park-all four locations essential to the cultural and ecological well being of the Valley.

You can help by calling your members of Congress – whether they are Republican or Democrat, because both sides voted for this wall funding – and demand they put a moratorium on wall construction. You can also use this Resistance Kit put together by No Border Wall and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.

That Resistance Kit has postcards you can print and send to your members of Congress. Do both: call and write!

Here are just a few recent articles about the ecological and cultural impact of the Wall:

Here is a short (6+ minutes) video about the impacts of the Wall, from the perspective of photographer Schlyer and biologist Jon Beckmann.

One more thing… Let’s help get this important documentary done: https://www.aymariposafilm.com/

Bluebirds (and waxwings) of happiness

72DB0C4B-F419-4C59-8995-71D3ECF91825It has been a cruddy few days from the mental health perspective… The persistent damp gray chill outside has begun to infiltrate my brain, as well, giving all my thoughts a heavy, murky, cheerless quality. Still, I decided it was better to go outside in that unpleasantness and take a short walk on my lunch break today than to stay holed up in the office the entire day. At least a brisk walk would move my blood around.

Because birds had made themselves scarce on most other days like this, I was resigned to trudging around my short park loop seeing nothing but dead or dormant meadow plants, bare trees, and the permanently leaden sky. But I carried my addled camera (its focusing mechanisms injured by several hard falls) as I always do, just in case.

Sometimes the universe seems to know when you need a surprise, and I got the first one just a few feet down the path. Bluebirds! I was so startled and delighted, I actually missed some good photo opportunities: I just stood watching them, worried that my movement might scare them off — they were THAT close to me. In the pictures I managed to get, the birds were silhouetted by the uniformly gray sky, so I tweaked the lighting levels when I viewed them in my photo editor. Here are two brightened pictures of one of my bluebirds of happiness.

I walked a few hundred feet more, toward a commotion at the other end of my loop, where I could see a large flock of birds – several dozen – swooping back and forth between a low scrubby tree in the meadow, and a much taller, larger (safer?) tree at the edge of the woods. I couldn’t figure out what kind of birds they were; I had forgotten my binoculars, and my eyeglasses were getting fogged by all the cold moisture in the air (this does not make for easy bird-spotting). The birds would land in the small tree en masse, and just as soon as I tried to zoom in on one with my camera, they flushed and swept back up to the tree crown in the woods. Back and forth. It was dizzying. And a little frustrating.

Finally I caught sight of a sharp, bright yellow tail band on one of the birds. Cedar waxwings!  My all-time favorite bird. They’re relatively common, of course, but for some reason, I see them only rarely – and almost never in numbers like this. Once I recognized them, I also heard them – that high, thin whistle, coming from everywhere around me. I was literally surrounded by cedar waxwings. So I did what any cheerless sap might do when gifted the perfect pick-me-up: I cried. That made it even harder to photograph the birds, but with the atmospheric moisture already fogging my glasses and camera lens, the pictures were doomed from the start. See below, and just imagine how gorgeous those would be if they looked clean and dry and focused.

I should be disappointed in those pictures (ok, I am a little disappointed), but the moment was absolutely magical. Thank you, universe: whether you knew it or not, or cared one way or the other, I needed that.

“Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall” – a short review and an interview with Krista Schlyer

The 700-mile long “fence” – the Border Wall – between the US and Mexico has not stopped illegal immigration, which is the purpose for which it was built by the US government.  But it is proving to be lethally effective at stopping the natural movement of wildlife along its length.  Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall, by Krista Schlyer, is a beautifully written and photographed essay on the ecological and sociocultural impacts of this preposterous wall.  I’ve been showing the book to everyone who enters our house, and now I’m bringing the enlightenment campaign to you.

In Continental Divide, Ms. Schlyer first introduces readers to the biomes of the Borderlands – the desert and grasslands, and the lower Rio Grande valley – then takes them on a tour of the Border Wall itself, describing its inception and political history, and the devastation it is already wreaking on wildlife and human families.  Her intimate knowledge of the region is evident on every page.  The photographs are stunning, and often jarring.  In one, two javelinas are shown wandering away from the Wall, back toward where they started, after walking along the fence looking for a place to cross.   This particular section of the wall is especially devastating: “The stretch of wall in Arizona bisects the San Pedro River corridor, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state and a haven for wildlife traveling north and south.”

But any stretch of impassable fencing is devastating to any creature that cannot fly over it.  As the author notes, animals of the borderlands have “a similar essential need: the ability to move freely to adapt to changing conditions.  Unlike politically imposed boundaries, natural boundaries do not begin and end at a single straight line.  Instead, they gradually blend and overlap and move fluidly with the changing climates of Earth.”  Of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or an ecologist – to anticipate the effect of placing an impenetrable barrier across a wildlife corridor. But the US government made sure these considerations would not slow construction of the border wall; it simply waived any environmental regulation in its path.  Sadly, we’ll now have plenty of empirical evidence to back up our intuitions about what happens when you prevent border animals from reaching seasonal sources of food, water, or genetically diverse mates.

Schlyer also describes and illustrates the economic and cultural impact of the Border Wall on the people of the region – where “concrete and steel” now separate communities “that had coexisted as neighbors, friends, and families for centuries.”  And as she points out, the wall has not stopped the determination of those who want to cross into the US for better jobs or the opportunity to reunite with family members; it has only made their determination more desperate and deadly.  Each year, hundreds of people die trying to make it through the desert into the United States.  Meanwhile, the business of “coyotes” (those who smuggle humans across borders) has become “almost as lucrative as drug smuggling…”

In her concluding chapter, Schlyer writes, “the wall and anti-immigrant essence of the current policy cuts to the heart of how we define ourselves as a nation and it begs an important philosophical question that we as a society must answer: What are we willing to sacrifice for the perception of safety?”  If you haven’t spent much time thinking about the Border Wall, this book will be a revelation.  If you have, it will fill your head with unforgettable images of what this “perception of safety” will cost.

I mentioned awhile back that I was reading this book, and that I hoped Krista Schlyer might agree to an email interview.  To my delight, she did!  What follows is our “conversation” about the book and her work as a professional photographer (my questions are in plain font; her responses inset in color and italics).  The wonderful photographs shown above and below are used with her generous permission.

Continue reading ““Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall” – a short review and an interview with Krista Schlyer”

A creaturely manifesto

Darkling beetle (photo by Whitney Cranshaw; used under Creative Commons license)

Recently we purchased two enormous book cases from a local bookstore when it (alas) went out of business.  The new real estate allowed me to open some cartons of stored books and bring them back into circulation.  I had been reading several of them (slowly) when I had to pack them away to move into our smaller habitat in 2009.  They stayed in Rubbermaid bins in the garage while I finished comprehensive exams and my dissertation and then started a new job.   It felt like Christmas last month when I opened those boxes.

One of the books was the marvelous Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, by Ellen Meloy.  Last night I pulled it off the shelf to read before bed, hoping to de-electromagnetize my brain after hours on the computer.  One page into the chapter called “March,” I encountered a manifesto (p142):

Wherever you are, wherever you go, there are untamed creatures nearby that need your attention.  Unplug your modem.  Slam shut your self-help books.  Quit standing around like a wall trout.  Get to work.

Invite warblers to your neighborhood with shaggy plots of greenery.  Learn everything you can about the bandit-eyed raccoon that stares at you through your sliding glass door, demanding enchiladas.

Mark the direction of jet black darkling beetles marching up a red dune like a troop of miniature helmets.  East?  South?

Let black widows live in your soffits.

Lie on your back on a breezy sweep of beach and stare at the undersides of magnificent frigate birds.  Master a hyena’s laugh and use it when in the presence of politicians.

Admire the male midwife toad, who carries fertilized eggs on its back for a month.  Understand that certain species of mollusk can change their gender.  Know that from a ball afloat on tiny filaments inside its fanned shell, a sea scallop can tell which way is up.

Crane your neck.  Worm your way.  Wolf it down.  Monkey with things.  Outfox your foe.  Quit badgering your tax attorney.

Take notes on the deafness of coral, the pea-size heart of a bat.  Be meticulous.  We will need these things so that we may speak.

I closed the book right there, hoping the words would inspire animal dreams, and clicked off the light.  (I dreamt about fleas.  Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.)

What Marius represents

(Cross-posted at The Moral Mindfield.) (Photo attribution to be determined.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning. In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable. So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats. That, of course, is equally unacceptable. But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. First, they are finite spaces with finite resources for maintaining captive species populations of relatively constant size and genetic diversity; the only effective ways to achieve this are (1) birth control, (2) euthanasia, or (3) reintroduction of “surplus” animals to protected wild spaces (the latter being the most ideal, but – for numerous reasons – least likely option). Second, the zoos’ philosophy of captive management is strictly utilitarian; individual charismatic animals might lure in the paying public, but for the purposes of captive management, their value is in their genetic uniqueness, and only as it relates to the rest of the captive population. In the words of a spokesperson from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), “the giraffe Marius, unfortunately, cannot add anything further to the breeding program that does not already exist.” (I, for one, am glad my value has not been assessed by the same measure.) And in a CNN editorial defending the zoo’s actions, the Executive Director of the EAZA, Lesley Dickie writes “While we understand that some members of the public are upset by the euthanization of the giraffe at Copenhagen zoo, the protection of the species as a whole must be our priority” (italics mine).

The event also calls attention to a philosophical difference between European and US zoos concerning avoidance of captive overpopulation and inbreeding. Zoos in the US favor birth control, while European zoos more often euthanize – after letting animals reproduce and parent young. In a New York Times article two years ago, Copenhagen Zoo’s director of conservation said, “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible… We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” It is true that manipulating hormones alters natural behavior and whatever remains of autonomy in captivity. Of course, so does euthanasia (or, as some zoo personnel refer to it, “management-euthanasia” – or as game park managers call it, “culling“) – in a decidedly more permanent way – after animals have been allowed a short but comparatively more “natural” life.

If these events and considerations bother some of us, perhaps we need to be thinking harder about the role of zoos in 21st century conservation and education, and the ethics of keeping animals in these settings. Attendance at US zoological parks and aquariums is higher than attendance for all four major league sports combined. Zoos have – you’ll pardon the pun? – a captive audience for education and outreach, and that is the often-cited rationale for their continued existence. Whether they accomplish education and attitude change in an empirically verifiable way remains open to question.

But zoos might also have a role in preserving the last of certain declining species. For example, without the breeding and reintroduction programs developed by the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos, the California Condor would be extinct. Do these trade-offs justify the unpleasant realities of captive species management? Would public interest financially sustain zoos that chose to function only as centers for the preservation and restoration of seriously endangered species?

In her CNN editorial defending the Copenhagen Zoo’s actions, Lesley Dickie points out that only five giraffes have been euthanized in EAZA zoos since 1828. She then puts that number in perspective for those protestors who might be expressing their outrage at the killing of a zoo giraffe even as they dine on beef or chicken: “Compare this to the 60 billion+ healthy, young animals killed each year worldwide for human consumption.” (For additional perspective, it’s worth noting that the “bolt gun” that was used to euthanize Marius is the same kind of device used on cattle in slaughterhouses.) Hinting at hypocrisy is a bit of a diversion (who knows? maybe all of the protestors are vegetarians), but now that she’s mentioned it: Why do those “livestock” animal deaths not raise the same degree of indignation in the public? Why is killing Marius to feed lions any different?

It’s not different. It simply points to the larger problem: the death of Marius is just one more example of how humans instrumentalize the value of animal lives.

Therapeutic links

We interrupt the seemingly relentless onslaught of depressing ecological news to bring you three happy links.

1) The Laysan Albatross nest cam.

(My “print screen” button is getting a lot of action.)

2) Truly happy cows.

3) Gorillas playing in leaves.  (The fun begins about 20 seconds in.)

Dizzy as a bee

Photo by Guerin Nicolas/Creative Commons

As titles go, that’s a bit glib for a post like this, but “the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket” seemed too obvious.

A friend forwarded this item from last week’s Huffington Post (Canada) about widespread contamination of western Canadian prairie wetlands by a class of neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids (sometimes called “neonics”).  A University of Saskatchewan biologist, Christy Morrissey, has found that neonicotinoids are showing up in wetlands in her study area in concentrations “at least three to four times higher than what has been deemed habitable for insects.”  And it is not just a regional problem; Morrissey estimates conservatively that tens of millions of acres in western Canada have been treated with neonicotinoids, and that – based on her team’s samples – 80 to 90 percent of surrounding wetlands are contaminated.

This is a really big deal.  There is mounting evidence that neonicotinoids are moderately to highly toxic to several species of bees – causing changes in flight and foraging behavior, navigational abilities, cognition (yes, you read that correctly: bee cognition), communication, metabolism, and appetite.  Not surprisingly, neonicotinoids have have been implicated in honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  From Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2012 New Yorker article:

Continue reading “Dizzy as a bee”

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