Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

Jul 22 2013

Unexpected Consequences

Black rat snake looking for birds' nests (photo by Jarek Tuszinski via Wikimedia Commons)

The headline read: Snakes devour more mosquito-eating birds as climate change heats forests.

Oh no!

In a recently published study, University of Missouri biologist John Faaborg analyzed 20 years of nesting data in the Missouri Ozarks forest and found a direct correlation between hotter nesting seasons and nest failure.

The reason?  Snakes.

Twenty years ago the Ozark forest was cold enough that bird-eating snakes were less active and hungry but hotter years have changed that.  Among others, acadian flycatchers and indigo buntings have borne the brunt of the snakes’ new-found activity.

Faaborg’s finding is bolstered by a University of Illinois study published last January that predicts increased nighttime snake activity as an outcome of climate change.

University of Illinois researcher Patrick Weatherhead and his students studied black rat snakes in Texas, Illinois and Ontario as a proxy for hot, moderate, and cool climates.   They fitted the snakes with tiny temperature-sensitive radio transmitters which enabled them to know the snakes’ location and the ambient temperature.  Temperature is important because snakes are cold-blooded.  The researchers also placed cameras on hundreds of birds’ nests so they’d know exactly what happened and when.

The results were frightening for birds.  In Texas the days are too hot for black rat snakes so they’re mostly active at night.  Unfortunately this is very bad for nesting birds because they can’t see the snakes coming.  Not only do the snakes eat the eggs and nestlings but they often eat the female parent because she’s caught on the nest unawares.

In Ontario the nights are too cold for snakes so they’re only active during the day.  When snakes approached nests in daylight, the adults left the nests and raised alarms which attracted hawks to come eat the snakes.  Nesting birds had a better chance for success in this cooler climate.

Illinois’ moderate climate showed that black rat snakes are adaptable.  When nighttime temperatures were warm enough the snakes came out to hunt.

So climate change won’t just be hotter, stormier weather.   Its unexpected consequences are not fun at all:  More snake activity and fewer mosquito-eating birds.

Oh no!

(photo of a black rat snake from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Jun 30 2013

The Value of Species

turtle_woodturtle_rsz2_wikiWood Turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend two pieces of a puzzle came together for me.  I saw an endangered turtle and I read a thoughtful book, The Value of Species, that describes how our values shape his plight.

The wood turtle is approaching extinction because of bulldozers and collectors — habitat loss and the pet trade.  He’s one of many species in this human-induced predicament.  In fact so many species are declining now that scientists say we’re heading into a great extinction, perhaps on the scale of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event that killed the dinosaurs.

Our actions cause decline and extinction yet we continue to do them.  We’ve saved some species like the peregrine falcon with spectacular results but our overall track record is poor.  New problems arise faster than we can stop them.  Why?

In The Value of Species, Edward L. McCord explains that our values get in the way.

  • Human population growth is crowding out other species but we avoid thinking about our role in this problem.
  • We gladly protect an individual animal from harm but find it hard to protect an entire species.
  • We understand the monetary value of species but not their intrinsic value.
  • It’s hard for us to connect the need to save habitat (land) in order to save species.
  • Protections on land owned by the state for the common good can be trumped at the state level.  (The book discusses mineral leases on national land in Mongolia.  Marcellus leases in Pennsylvania’s State Forests is an example close to home.)
  • The common good erodes easily when people don’t trust that others will obey the rules.  When a society lacks trust species are vulnerable.

Chapter Three, The Fate of Life on Earth Hinges on Property Values, is especially apt this week.  On June 25 the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District made it harder for the common good of living things to compete with property values.

The short time span of property ownership is microscopic when weighed against species who’ve been on earth for two million years and could disappear in a matter of decades.  “Still, many people are inclined to give individuals the right to reduce the living heritage of the earth for all future generations no matter how briefly they own a piece of property — even if only for a week.”(1)

McCord describes a new and deeper way to see the intrinsic value of all species. When we do, we can change the trajectory of extinction by “drawing a line in the sand, something we do all the time to protect important values.”(2)

What will be the fate of the wood turtle?  The Florida grasshopper sparrow?  The red-breasted goose?

Ed McCord’s The Value of Species shows us the way to a brighter mutual future.


(photo of a wood turtle from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Quotes from The Value of Species (1)page 51, (2)page xvii
Edward McCord is the Director of Programming and Special Projects at the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College

p.s. Ed McCord gave a talk about the book at the University of Wyoming in April 2014.  Click here for the video.

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Apr 13 2013

Bird In A Window

Published by under Musings & News

A hole that looks like a bird (photo by Tim Vechter)

This broken window caught Tim Vechter’s eye the other day.

Once you see the bird, it’s hard to see the window.


(photo by Tim Vechter)

p.s. I just noticed that the paint is worn off the windowsill where the opening meets the sill.  Something is going in and out of that hole.  Hmmm… !

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Mar 20 2013

Unnatural Selection

Cliff swallow like a butterfly (photo by Chuck Tague)

Cars and trucks have changed the cliff swallow.

For 30 years Charles Brown and his wife Mary Bomberger Brown have studied cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southwestern Nebraska.  They’ve meticulously monitored, measured and banded the birds at their nests under bridges and overpasses and they’ve counted and measured the road killed birds.

Their attention to detail has paid off in an unexpected way.

Cliff swallows attach their mud nests to cliffs or bridges.  In Nebraska where there are few cliffs, the swallows use busy highway overpasses.   If the swallows aren’t quick to fly up out of traffic they become road kill.

When the Browns began their study in 1982 they typically found 20 road killed cliff swallows per season, but since 2008 they’ve usually found less than five.  The traffic has remained the same while the swallows’ population has more than doubled, yet the road kill numbers dropped dramatically.

What changed?  The swallows changed!

The Browns’ data reveals that thirty years ago Nebraska’s cliff swallows had longer wingspans.  Today’s shorter wings allow the birds to maneuver more quickly and turn away from oncoming vehicles.  In fact, the few road killed birds they find today have longer wings than the rest of the population.

The shorter-winged birds survive to breed, the long-winged birds do not.  In only 30 years, traffic’s unnatural selection has forced cliff swallows to evolve.

If traffic can do this to cliff swallows, I wonder what it’s done to Pennsylvania’s white-tailed deer.


Read more about this study in ScienceNOW.

(photo of a cliff swallow near the Rt. 528 bridge in Moraine State Park by Chuck Tague)

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Mar 12 2013

The Importance Of Fire

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in California, Oct 2007 (photo by FEMA via Wikimedia Commons)

Early this month it was scary to read Chuck Tague’s account of a brush fire that came within two miles of his Ormond Beach home.

While the fired burned in Florida I was in another fire-prone place, San Diego, listening to a speech by Dr. John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in which he touched on how important fire is for scrub habitats and for the survival of the Florida scrub-jay in particular.

To most of us wildfire is rare but it’s a natural cycle in scrub communities where plants, animals, and birds rely on its regular occurrence.   “Regular” is important.  If fire happens too often or too infrequently that’s bad too.

It has taken a while to learn this.  Dr. Fitzpatrick described how they studied fire and birds at Archbold Station in Highlands County, Florida.  For two decades Archbold suppressed fires and watched the scrub-jay population surge then dangerously decline.  After 20 years scientists burned small tracts and watched the scrub-jays surge again.  They learned that the Florida scrub-jay’s optimal habitat is at 5-15 years after a fire.  At 15 years the scrub gets too tall, the jay’s predators increase and the birds decline.

Fire is necessary.  The trick in populated areas is to manage it so it happens only when and where it’s needed.

In San Diego the local government conducts brush management programs to protect homes and businesses.  According to San Diego Audubon, these programs sometimes make matters worse.  If workers clear away native chaparral, it not only destroys endangered bird habitat but results in fire-prone grassy weeds that burn more easily. Proper management of native habitat actually lowers the risk of explosive fire.

So though we fear it, fire is important.  Without it we wouldn’t have Florida scrub-jays, California gnatcatchers and coastal cactus wrens, to name a few.

(photo of a helicopter dropping water on a California wildfire, by FEMA via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Mar 05 2013

The Triple Fence

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

Border Fence at Canon de los Sauces, 2012 (photo by Jill Marie Holslin)

Travel is very educational.  Not only are there different birds in San Diego but the threats those birds face are different from what I’m used to in Pittsburgh.  One issue particularly grabbed my attention because we never have to deal with it at home.

Where I come from it’s hard to imagine the wall that defines the southern edge of San Diego County.  Like the Berlin Wall it’s patrolled by armed guards, edged by cleared land for easy enforcement, and in places triple-fenced.

The border has been patrolled for a long time but the Real ID Act of 2005 mandated the border wall and exempted its construction from every environmental law including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.  Exemptions like this bring to mind mountaintop removal in West Virginia.

During design of the Triple Fence, San Diego Audubon and other groups tried to prevent the worst environmental damage but it was impossible to stop the juggernaut.  Now that the wall is up, they’re working with California State Parks and the Tijuana National Estuarine Research Reserve to monitor the wall’s effect on sedimentation, erosion, and invasive plants.

There are lots of problems to monitor.  Here are just two examples.

The fence through Yogurt Canyon, shown above, disrupts the natural drainage into the Tijuana Estuary to the north.  This affects everything that depends on the water, including birds.

At Border Field State Park, shown below, the wall’s construction leveled Litchy Mesa and filled Smugglers Gulch.  There used to be a single fence.  Now there’s a massive valley-fill and all the issues that come with it.
Smugglers Gulch before and during the Triple Fence project  (photos by Jill Marie Holslin)

Ironically, the wall has an unintended consequence.  In the old days workers used to migrate back and forth like the birds — north for planting and harvesting, south to their homes in the winter.

In his 2001 book, Crossing Over, Rubén Martínez described how the patrols even then were ending the return migration.  It’s now so dangerous at the wall that those who get here can rarely leave.

I’m sure that’s not the result the wall’s proponents had in mind.

Read more about the border fence and how it affects the land and people of Tijuana and San Diego in Jill Marie Holslin’s blog, At The Edges.

(photos used by permission of Jill Marie Holslin from her blog, At the Edges. Click on each image for more information.)

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Feb 28 2013

Romancing The Wind

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

My love of birds has me fascinated with almost anything that flies.  Perhaps this is true for you too.

Last month my sister-in-law sent me a link to this 2004 video called Romancing The Wind.  Produced by Robert Holbrook, it shows professional kite flyer Ray Bethell flying three kites simultaneously in an aerial ballet.  Music from Leo Delibes’ The Flower Duet complements the kites.

Ray Bethell is an amazing man.  Over 80 years old, he’s a Multiple Kite World Champion from Vancouver, Canada who holds world records in endurance and number of simultaneous kites flown.  Here you see him flying three kites at Vanier Park, holding one in each hand with a third tied to his belt.  He’s used this same technique to fly 39 kites at the same time!  Read more on his website here.

Like the falcons, Ray Bethell’s kites court in the wind.


p.s. The kite model Ray is using has a falcon name:  Kestrel.

(video of Ray Bethell by Robert Holbrook on Vimeo)

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Feb 27 2013

A Victory For Birds In Canada

Published by under Musings & News

Yonge Corporate Centre (photo from Yonge Corporate Centre)

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ve been here with me when I’ve mourned the loss of yet another juvenile peregrine who died by hitting a window.  We lose at least one of Pittsburgh’s young peregrines this way every year.  Windows kill but now there’s a ruling in Canada that gives me hope this will change, even in the U.S.

This month Judge Melvyn Green of the Ontario Court of Justice ruled that two laws that protect birds in Canada, EPA and SARA, “are properly interpreted to prohibit the emission (intentional or unintentional) of reflected light where that reflection causes the death or injury of birds.”

In other words, massive window kills count just as much as if you’d shot the birds.  Your windows are breaking the law.

The buildings that prompted the ruling are Yonge Corporate Centre, pictured above, one of many corporate centers in Toronto where thousands of birds are injured or killed each year.  To their credit Yonge Corporate Centre had already begun to mitigate the problem with window film, due in part to a lawsuit by Ecojustice Canada and Ontario Nature against another deadly corporate center, Consilium Place.  Click here for a photo of Consilium Place and information on the lawsuit.

“The law is now clear that owners and managers of buildings with reflective windows that kill or injure birds must take action. This is a major success, even if it’s not a complete victory,”said Ecojustice lawyer Albert Koehl.

So a big thank you goes out to Ecojustice Canada, Ontario Nature and the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) for this victory!  I hope it ripples southward and prompts a change in the U.S. too.


Read more about the ruling in the American Bird Conservancy’s press release, source of the quotes above.

(photo of Yonge Corporate Center from the media page of Yonge Corporate Center website. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Feb 04 2013

Which Kills More Birds?

Published by under Musings & News

Windmill and Cat named Lilith (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

In case you missed it last week, the numbers have changed.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a mathematical model, used data from 21 of the most rigorous cat-wildlife studies, and ran the numbers on cats.

The results were quite surprising.  2.4 billion birds are killed by cats every year in the U.S.  That’s two to four times the old statistics.

Compare this new data to other human-induced causes of bird mortality(*) and cats are now on top.

  • Cats: 2.4 billion
  • Windows: 1.0 billion
  • Power lines: 0.174 billion
  • Communication towers: 0.051 billion
  • Windmills: 0.0004 billion

So you can stop worrying about windmills.

If you want to save birds’ lives, keep your cat indoors.  I do.


Read more about this study including information on feral and pet cats in the New York Times.

(photo of windmill and a former stray cat named Lilith, both from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the imbedded links to see the original photos)


(*) p.s. I’m not sure where habitat loss fits in now, but it has always been the leading cause of human-induced bird mortality.

p.p.s. I love both birds and cats.  Here are two posts about my beautiful indoor cat, Emmalina:  Mouse in the House and Animal, Vegetable.

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Jan 31 2013

Walking Down Vortex Street

I know almost nothing about fluid dynamics but my article about wingtip vortices two weeks ago piqued my interest in the subject.

Last weekend I learned about this amazing phenomenon, the von Kármán vortex street, animated above by Cesareo de La Rosa Siqueira.

Von Kármán vortex streets occur when a fluid flows past a stationary object and generates a long line of vortices that swirl in opposite directions.  The phenomenon was named for Theodore von Kármán, the man who described it, and is probably called a street because it looks like one.

We usually don’t see von Kármán vortex streets in the wind, but it’s important that engineers plan for them.  If a tall structure is uniformly straight the vortices can make it fall down.  Click here to read about a famous mistake.

On a small scale, von Kármán vortex streets make telephone wires sing in the wind.  On a large scale they’re visible from outer space when clouds blow past a tall island.

Here’s a picture taken from the space shuttle that shows cloud cover blowing past Rishiri Island, Japan.  When the wind encounters Mt. Rishiri the clouds form a von Kármán vortex street on the downwind side.

Pretty cool, huh?

There are more than twenty islands that reliably generate von Kármán vortex streets.  Click here to see more pictures from NASA.

(Vortex animation by Cesareo de La Rosa Siqueira via Wikimedia Commons.  Space shuttle photo from NASA via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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