Meet Rosalie Edge

In the research I do for a variety of projects, I often come across individuals who have made a difference in conservation and environmental efforts. Surely we can all name a few. But so much of the work is done by unsung heroes, people who work tirelessly to protect simply because it’s the right thing to do and they are driven to do so.

Photo Credit – Scott Campbell (2007)

Rosalie Edge is one of those heroes. She was born in 1877. In 1934, with a loan from a friend, she purchased a ridgetop in Pennsylvania that was a regular gathering place of recreational hunters who killed thousands of birds of prey. Prior to this, Ms. Edge had garnered a reputation for going to battle with conservation organizations that did not protect wildlife, but instead conspired with developers, ranchers, and hunters, and even supported bounties in Alaska on bald eagles. Her work came at a time when over-hunting and declining wildlife populations became recognized as a growing problem. Needless to say her work ruffled feathers.

But back to the property. After she purchased it, Ms. Edge put a stop to the hunting there. She also turned the land into the world’s first nature preserve specifically for birds of prey – Hawk Mountain. The preserve has become an important site for bird counts and bird research which has aided bird conservation. Hawk Mountain is open to visitors and offers hiking, lectures, workshops, tours, and of course, bird watching.

In her day, Ms. Edge was not quiet, but her contribution to conservation is seldom celebrated as it should be. In addition to preserving Hawk Mountain, Ms. Edge was also instrumental in preserving 8,000 acres in Yosemite which helped to create Olympic and Kings Canyon National Parks. Not only that, her outspoken activism at the time forced leaders of major conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Nature Conservancy to make significant reforms and rededicate themselves to honest conservation. Rosalie Edge is an inspiration to all those wanting to protect wild things and wild places and wondering if one person can make a difference.

 

Squirrel Appreciation

Next Saturday, January 21, is Squirrel Appreciation Day. So in appreciation of my backyard squirrels (which I love watching) and all of their relatives, I did a little research. The first thing I discovered is that a squirrel is not just a squirrel – they vary greatly from the ones in the yard. There are, apparently, over 200 species of squirrels living all over the world except in Antarctica and Australia in a wide variety of habitats. They range in size from 5 inches from nose to tail (aptly named the pygmy squirrel) to one that is three feet long (also aptly named – the Indian giant squirrel). All are rodents and all have four front teeth that grow continuously throughout their lifetime because they wear down due to regular nibbling.

The squirrels that live in trees are the ones I associate with the word squirrel. They are well-adapted to a variety of habitats, including urban and suburban areas. Of course, they are good climbers. Tree squirrels eat nuts and seeds, but also eat flowers, berries, and even *gasp* baby birds! Some eat tree sap which is somewhat of a delicacy.

There are also ground squirrels. This includes marmots, chipmunks, woodchucks, and prairie dogs. These squirrels live in tunnel systems under the ground, usually in large colonies, and are the most social of all the types of squirrel. A few ground squirrel species even hibernate. They eat nuts and seeds too, as well as insects and small animals.

The third type of squirrel is the flying squirrel. They do not fly and flap in the traditional sense – they glide. These squirrels have a membrane between their front and rear legs. When they leap and splay their legs, the membrane acts like a parachute, allowing the squirrel to glide up to 150 feet between trees! Unlike ground and tree squirrels, flying squirrels are nocturnal.

It will also surprise no one that squirrels play an important role in the ecosystems in which they live. They are indeed prey animals. But tree and flying squirrels also propagate many different types of plants because they bury nuts and seeds. They also disperse fungal spores. And of course, the burrows of ground squirrels are important to their ecosystems. All squirrels should be be appreciated! Even this one on my window feeder.

Save the Eagles

January 10 every year is National Save the Eagles Day, a day meant to draw attention to the birds and ongoing conservation efforts to protect them.

Photo Credit: Andy Morffew (2016)

In the mid-1900s, bald eagles were dangerously close to extinction as a result of pesticide use, habitat loss, and hunting. In 1940, the Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed which outlawed killing or capturing the bird. But at the same time, pesticide use was increasing, which included DDT. Once sprayed to control pests, it eventually washed into waterways where it was absorbed by fish and aquatic plants. When eagles then ate contaminated fish they too were poisoned. As a result, eagles produced eggs with thin shells that broke or never hatched. By the early 1960s, fewer than 500 pairs of eagles remained down from roughly 100,000 when the bird was adopted as the national symbol in 1782.

Rachel Carson, in her 1962 publication of Silent Spring, is largely responsible, if not solely responsible, for bringing the reality and horror of pesticide use into the public eye. The book was a result of years of scientific study that withstood the wrath of both the pesticide industry and those who did not believe a woman could possibly understand such matters. DDT was finally banned in 1972.

But back to eagles. The bald eagle was part of the Class of ’67, a list of endangered species that predated the Endangered Species Act in 1973. It was later put on the ESA list. Thanks to efforts both small and large around the country, the bald eagle population recovered to the point, that in 2007, bald eagles were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species altogether. Every time I see a bald eagle, I feel lucky. And I am thankful for the combined efforts of so many people who helped the populations recover, and still work to protect their future.

New Species Discoveries

I would like to start the new year with a look at some of the new species discovered last year. Scientists estimate that there are over 8 million (some even say as many as 1 trillion) species of plants and animals in the world, but only a little over 1 million have been identified. In 2022, the California Academy of Sciences researchers and collaborators around the world made 146 new species discoveries from the tops of mountains to the depths of the ocean in locations across the globe.

One of the newly discovered scorpions, Paruroctonus soda, with 51 juveniles on her back [Photo credit – Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain]

The discoveries included new species of fish, moths, lizards, flowering plants, frogs, and even sharks! Two high school students in California were among those to make these discoveries. Working with a scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, they identified two new species of scorpion living in dry lake beds in the state. Another researcher tripled the number of identified Bavayia gecko species that live in forests on the New Caledonian islands in the Pacific; previously there were 13 identified species and now there are 41. Other fun discoveries included a tiny translucent clam thought to be extinct, a new wild onion, a sea star 1.2 miles below the surface of the ocean, a .6 inch sea slug whose Latin name means small bean, and 30 different ant species!

The result of these discoveries helps guide habitat conservation efforts and broadens our knowledge of Earth’s biodiversity. May 2023 bring you a year of your own discoveries and adventures. As Calvin said to Hobbes in Bill Watterson’s last Calvin and Hobbes comic on December 31, 1995, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”

Reindeer

Photo Credit – Frans van Heerden

I have posted about reindeer before, but I felt compelled to revisit the subject because, well, the truth must be heard.

For starters, what’s the difference between reindeer and caribou? Nothing. Reindeer and caribou are the same animal. What we call them depends on location. They are called reindeer in Europe. In North America, it gets more complicated. Wild herds are called caribou, while the domesticated animals are called reindeer. Therefore, Santa’s domesticated animals are all called reindeer.

Yet here’s where it gets interesting. Based on the story of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we have grown up thinking that Santa’s sled team is all male – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen and, of course, Rudolf. But for the record, the entire team is actually female.

Here’s why. As we know, reindeer are part of deer family. Like other members of the deer family, reindeer grow antlers. In the case of reindeer, though, BOTH males and females grow them and both shed them every year. BUT, male reindeer shed their antlers every November. Females, on the other hand, don’t shed theirs until calves are born – in May. All of the reindeer on Santa’s sled team still have their antlers at Christmastime, and therefore, they all must be female!

Like so many things in our past, it seems as though history needs to be rewritten. In the meantime, should you come across a reindeer with antlers in the coming weeks, say hello to HER.

Sunsets and Solstices

We are fast approaching the winter solstice and the day with least amount of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. The solstice officially marks the beginning of winter, though many places have felt the bite of winter for weeks. After December 21, the sun will reach a little higher in the sky each day and daylight minutes will increase.

It would make sense, then, that the earliest sunset of the year is on or near the 21st. But it’s not! In fact, the earliest sunsets of the year happen about two weeks before the solstice (for most of the US) after which sunsets start occur later and later in the afternoon. However, sunrises are later in the morning leading up to the solstice, thus the decreasing amount of sunlight each day. In addition, the latest sunrise also does not occur on the solstice, but you guessed it, a couple weeks after (around January 3).

Why don’t they line up? The answer has to do with Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun. Because of this, Earth moves faster around the sun at different times of the year. We travel faster in our winter months than in the summer months. As a result, sunsets get ahead of “schedule.” That schedule, though, is human made creating a discrepancy between anthropogenic clocks and the sun. On average, a “day” is 24 hours. But the time between solar noon one day (the point at which the sun reaches its highest point in the sky) and solar noon the next day is rarely 24 hours. In fact, the solar day is actually longer than 24 hours near both the summer and winter solstices, and shorter than 24 hours near the equinoxes. It translates this way – because solar noon occurs later each day, sunsets are also later. Anyone wanting a more details can click here or here.

Another fun solstice fact – the latest sunset in the summer is actually a couple weeks after the summer solstice!

Algae

Here’s a thought for you – algae as the next big food source. The first reaction to that might be similar to one you’d have if I mentioned cricket powder as a source of protein. Yet an ever-increasing world population (estimated to top 10 billion by 2050) coupled with climate change might force our hand. And while algae might not sound all that appealing, it does have its benefits.

Giant Kelp, Photo Credit – Monterrey Bay Aquarium

There are nearly a million species of algae some of which include the clumps you might find floating on a stagnant pond. Some are considered micro-algae such as phytoplankton, which is the base of the marine food chain. But there is also macro-algae that includes kelp and seaweed.

Growing algae does not require cultivating additional land. Nor does it require freshwater to water them, or fertilizer. It grows much faster than terrestrial plants – some species of kelp grow as much as 2-3 feet per day! If that’s not enough to convince you, consider that seaweed does a remarkable job at sequestering carbon – quite the opposite of our current agriculture industry. Research has also shown that seaweed farms greatly improve water quality.

Asian countries have cultivated seaweed for thousands of years. Not only is it a great source of protein, it also has five times the amount of calcium than milk. Algae also contains fiber and micronutrients such as iron, and it is full of vitamins. Today, the both the micro and macro-algae farming industries are thriving and expanding.

Perhaps this sustainable, nutritious crop will be the wave of the future (ha ha)!

Fire-Starting Birds

Photo Credit – Vivek Joshi

Anyone who has observed or read about birds knows that they are highly intelligent. Corvids and parrots are among the most intelligent, able to solve complex puzzles and use tools. Other bird species have their strengths too. Among them are black kites, brown falcons, and whistling kites. They live in Australia’s tropical savanna and use fire as a tool. They are aptly nicknamed firehawks.

These birds are often found on the edges of wildfires having a feast as insects and small animals try to flee from the blaze. Not only that, people have observed these birds carrying burning sticks in their talons or beaks to different unburned patches of dry grass and dropping them to start a new fire. As the fire grows, the birds wait for the panic of their prey and then the feeding frenzy begins. After an area burns, the birds move on to a new area.

Aboriginal people have observed this behavior for thousands of years. And while it is well documented that these birds take advantage of fires for finding food, some people do question whether the birds are intentionally setting the fires. Scientific data and documentation are lacking. More scientific research is underway, but my money’s on the birds.

Prairie Dogs

Photo Credit: Tracy Abell (April 2022)

There are people out there who do not like prairie dogs. You know who you are. But I’m here to change your mind. Let’s start with the fact that they are not pests or disease ridden rodents. Like the rest of us, prairie dogs do get sick. In the case of the plague, prairie dogs get it from fleas. However, they usually die quickly and transmission to humans is extremely rare. Further, while prairie dogs are indeed rodents, they do not reproduce constantly like other rodents. In fact, they reproduce only once a year, in the spring, and give birth to 2-8 pups. Females do not even reach sexual maturity until they are two years old.

People who live near prairie dogs are familiar with their barks and chirps. Those calls are actually a complex communication system used in a colony. There are a variety of vocalizations used for different reasons. One of those is the call to alert others of danger. But it’s not a simple warning to duck and cover. Instead, researchers have discovered that prairie dogs can communicate the size and threat of an intruder. The calls also tell others from which direction the threat is traveling and at what speed. When danger has passed, they will also give the “all clear.”

Prairie dogs also dig an extensive network of tunnels and chambers underground – some of these extend for acres underground. They even have designated rooms. Prairie dogs have a nursery, sleeping areas, toilet chambers, and listening chambers near the entrance to the burrow.

If you are not yet convinced that prairie dogs are amazing, consider this: prairie dogs are a keystone species. You read correctly. Prairie dogs are vital to the ecosystems in which they live, and without them the amount of biodiversity drops dramatically. To start, prairie dogs are an important food source for many other animals. Yet they are equally as important to the prairie itself. The burrows prairie dogs dig aerate the soil and let water in. The digging also recycles the nutrients in the soil. And, of course, prairie dogs help fertilize that soil. All of this activity increases the diversity of flowers and grasses on the prairie. The flowers, in turn, attract more bees and butterflies. Prairie dogs keep the prairie open and free from trees and shrubs, which further increases the diversity of grasses. The diversity of grasses attracts more prey animals which, in turn, attracts more predators. In addition, abandoned burrows provide shelter for other species, including burrowing owls, snakes, and critically endangered black-footed ferrets.

So next time you see a prairie dog, consider all they do to maintain a healthy prairie ecosystem!

Is It a Crow or a Raven?

I’ve always been a fan of crows and ravens, mostly because they are part of the corvid family of highly intelligent birds. Corvids have large brains, can recognize human faces, use tools, and are incredible problem solvers.

Photo Credit: Rawpixel

Yet unless crows and ravens are standing next to each other, they are hard to tell apart. So I did a little digging. I already knew that ravens were larger than crows, but apparently ravens are the size of red-tailed hawk, an easy comparison to remember. In addition, ravens tend to travel in pairs while crows are often in larger groups.

If you see a large black bird flying overhead, one way to tell whether it is a crow or raven is to look at the tail feathers. The tail feathers of a crow are all the same length, so when they spread out during flight they look like a fan. Ravens, on the other hand, have middle tail feathers that are longer than the others, so during flight their tails are wedge-shaped. Further, if you see one of these birds soaring for more than a few seconds, it’s probably a raven. Crows flap their wings more. Finally, if you are close enough to the bird to hear a swishing sound produced by the wings, it’s a raven. Crows flapping wings are mostly silent.

A final way to tell these two bird species apart is to listen to them. Crows make the stereotypical high-pitched cawing sound. Ravens’ calls sound more like a low-pitched croaking. While that sounds like a simple distinction, I think it will take listening to a few sound recordings to be able to learn the difference. Still, bring on the corvids. I want to see if I can now tell them apart. Of course, I can always use Merlin’s Bird ID app to confirm (or not). And the bird in the photo? It’s a crow.