Rethinking weeds

I wrote in previous posts about “lazy gardening” for the benefit of biodiversity. Here’s another post on the subject. Perhaps leaving a few weeds behind is good for the soil.


Phenology mismatch

Phenology mismatch means that migrating animals are missing the window of abundance for their food. This is due to climate change that is making springs come early for plants and insects, and the animals that consume them that are migrating from the south are unaware. Now we know that this is affecting populations of birds.

Observation affects reality

A nighthawk female defends her nest from me.

That which we study is inevitably affected by our presence. This is something that I considered when setting my nest check protocol. The typical interval for checks is 3-5 days. However, nighthawk rooftop nests are visited frequently by maintenance workers, construction workers, window washers and helicopters. So, instead I opted for the 6-7 day interval and left nest cameras to monitor the time between my visits.

This concept, that observation affects reality, is nothing new. Physics has a long history of addressing this.

Magpies and ticks

Magpies in the South Dakota Badlands

Once on a visit to a friend’s ranch, I marveled at the Black billed magpies. Despite her degree in wildlife management and knowledge to the contrary, she chuckled and declared that she was certain that hunting magpies is legal. I gently reminded her that unless there’s a formal hunting season, all native birds are protected under the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Act. I wish I had known then what I know now and added that magpies often consume ticks on livestock.

Good news!

Turkey Vultures encircle Devil’s Tower

We as biologists often report on bad news. This is the anthropocene, a time of rapid change akin to a geologic era. Animals cannot respond to change that fast. Restoring populations can feel like a Sisyphusian task. So, we must feel joy when small victories strike, like the story of the Northern Bald Ibis, despite the many obstacles. One of these is the lack of aesthetic beauty most people attribute to these birds. Me? I find them intrinsically gorgeous, proud and strong and ecologically important, much like my beloved Turkey Vulture.

Getting close to wildlife

This is a bird we caught for research and not an endorsement of handling wildlife for funsies.

We’ve all noticed crowds of spectators at national parks getting dangerously close to wildlife just for a great picture. Or people who race up to grab a snake to get a good look. These interactions, while memorable for the human, can be stressful for the animal. Ever notice the snake voids its bowels? Baby birds in my studies have done the same when I’ve picked them up. That is a defense mechanism to lose some weight and distract the predator so that the snake can escape. But, there’s a cost. Voiding the waste before the animal can retain the fluids in their GI tract can cause the animal to lose some hard fought for and critical resources. This process is effective if the threat is real. Surviving in the moment is more important than nutrients and fluid balance.

Similarly, tourist attractions that collect wildlife for the selfie business have a dark side. And Instagram has rightly taken a stand against it. Huzzah!

Aquatic life

Mississippi River side channel at La Crosse, Wisconsin

I often think about how to connect people to the underwater ecosystems and its many micro habitats. It’s far more intuitive for us to identify with the terrestrial world. We stride across the land, we watch birds streak across the sky, and we enjoy the rabbits frisking across our yards. When I studied Nighthawks, I often thought about how to engender interest in a bird that becomes active at sunset, and I marveled at the life that came alive at night on my drives home from field work. Now I think about the life aquatic and how people care about it, especially as the primary form of engagement, angling, dwindles in our country as an activity. This writer has elegantly described this phenomenon.

#Field Work Fail

Biology is not always glamorous or dignified. Check out this Twitter feed for a collection of our tales of woe. Me? Early on when I was practicing my bird ID skills, I and another birder once stopped our car to view a flock of geese in a field. We thought we had found a rare migrant species of arctic waterfowl (since we couldn’t identify them). As we studied them with our binoculars, our view was suddenly blocked by a farmer who casually leaned into my car window to ask us why we were staring at his domesticated (and to be fair, exotic) geese.