Join the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend!

Join the Audubon Society Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend, Feb. 13-16, 2015!

Your backyard bird feeder is an easy spot for counting the birds in your neighborhood. Photo courtesy of the Wrenaissance Man.

This weekend, February 13–16, is the American Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count, and you are invited to join in the fun! You don’t need to be a professional ornithologist or even a geeky, hard-core birder to participate. Simply spend 15 minutes this weekend counting and identifying the birds in your backyard, local park, or other favorite outdoor spot and upload the results to the project website.

Last year, 19,363 lists were submitted, with more than 2 million birds of 2,754 species counted during the big weekend. The GBBC website provides instructions on how to make a count list, a dynamic map of submissions made during the weekend, more maps showing the birds seen by region and species, and a very helpful “tricky ID” page to help tell the difference between species that look almost the same (like red finches).

You don’t even have to be a big outdoorsman to participate! If you have a bird feeder set up outside your window, simply take 15 minutes at feeding time to count the birds showing up to eat. This is an easy and accessible way to take part if the weather isn’t cooperating, or if you’re a shut-in.

This weekend is a great opportunity to introduce your children or grandchildren to the nature that surrounds us all every day. I hope you’ll join me!

Provocative hypothesis proposed about non-native plant species

Many of today’s gardeners prefer to plant species native to their location in their yards and gardens. Nurseries and garden magazines alike tout the natural superiority of native plants to exotic imports, whether it concerns drought and pest resistance, or whether it revolves around the aesthetic philosophy of creating the most “natural” look possible on a cultivated patch of ground. Gardeners are also cautioned against the dangers of planting invasive exotics, such as the infamous kudzu or notorious water hyacinth.

Mark Davis has co-authored an article in Nature that challenges this current orthodoxy. As the Boston Globe summarizes the argument, imported plants (and even animals) should be judged by their performance in the local ecosystem, rather than by some arbitrary criterion of arrival date to the location.

Davis, et al, correctly point out that species migrate and go extinct even without the influence of man, so that to gauge the original status of a local ecosystem by what was observed and recorded when historicizing humans arrived on the scene is to use a false standard of measurement. Instead they urge scientists to examine how the new plants interact within the ecosystem as a whole before deciding to root out the presence of an exotic.

This more cautious approach is perhaps similar to the development of the current practice of wildfire management on public lands. Early in the US National Park system’s history, wildfires were viewed as unequivocal disasters, and every effort was made to prevent them from occurring. When a blaze did spring up, the Park Service fought it aggressively. Today, environmental scientists know that much of the Great Plains prairie ecosystem was the result of managed burns by the American Indians, who took advantage of local fires started by spring thunderstorms to clear out sapling growth and maintain the grasslands needed by the vast herds of buffalo, antelope and elk. Park Service policy is now to allow natural fires to burn within park boundaries, while maintaining enough control to keep them from reaching private lands.

While Davis and his co-authors seem to have been careful to describe their observations in fairly neutral terms, other recent writers on the topic have not been so circumspect. Hugh Raffles of the New School for Social Research compared the antagonism to introduced species to that suffered by human immigrants. Michael Pollan, the food and gardening writer, has even used the term “xenophobia” to describe the fashion for native planting among gardeners.

The new hypothesis has provoked a powerful response from other environmental scientists and botanists. University of Tennessee-Knoxville biologist Daniel Simberloff and 140 others published an impassioned critique of the article in the Letters to the Editor department of the following issue of Nature. And of course, the history of conservation biology is littered with examples of invasive species taking over a local environment when released from the control mechanisms found in predators and diseases of their former homeland.

As the Boston Globe points out, this academic battle is so acrid because it is a war over the rhetoric describing the way species grow and interact, rather than the actual mechanisms of species change in the environment. He who controls the terms wins the war of words.

Nabokov’s butterfly research validated at last

Carl Zimmer at the New York Times has written an article about the way recent DNA analysis has validated Vladimir Nabokov’s research on New World butterflies.

Nabokov, the author of Lolita, was also curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He especially studied the family of New World butterflies known as Polyommatus blues and devised a classification system based on differences in the butterflies’ genitalia. He hypothesized the butterflies migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait in several waves, accounting for the basic differences between the major groups of the blue butterflies. Current DNA sequencing technology by scientists at Harvard and Texas State University has proven his concept to be correct.

Nabokov’s scientific reputation is now beginning to take on a luster that approaches the shine of his literary fame!

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