This morning Sue and I got up to run five miles together. The rains had struck with ferocity the night before. There were worms all over the road. Crawling worms. Crushed worms. Worms so soaked they seemed stuck on the road.
Even the robins ignore such worms. One would think the roads would be rife with robins gleaning such easy prey, this smorgasbord of wormage. After a few hundred yards of regarding the state of the worms, the mind begins to ignore them. There are so many worms the human mind cannot conceive of their multitude. They outnumber us. So do the ants.
Keeping up with birds. And vice versa
And the birds? Well, they’re just trying to keep up in this world. Hold their niche in the north when they breed and hang out where they can in the winter. It isn’t always an easy gig. Fortunately the earth is still a place of such abundance that the human race has not been able to wipe out every corner or put every species under pressure. Yet we certainly seem to be trying.
I recall a morning in the 1970s when my brothers and I were out birding at 7:00 on a May morning. The trees canopy was literally crawling with warblers eating the larvae that emerge in oak buds. There were so many birds we got giddy from trying to identify them all. Our necks were sore and we were basically AFO’d on birds by the time 8:00 a.m. rolled around. In terms of birding, that was a lot like being fucked hard and put away wet.
Many species of birds have declined in total population numbers since then. Having participated in many annual bird counts since the 1970s, I can testify to the fact that some species have actually rebounded in populations while others, especially grassland species that once thrived in farm meadows, have suffered in recent years.
Anecdotally, I also conduct daily surveys during my runs and rides. While others might be dwelling on their cadence or their heart rate, I’m often surveying bird calls. When I’m alone, I even talk to birds, imitating their calls with a few whistles. And they often talk back. Screw you if you think that’s weird. Until you’ve whistled a call to an oriole and had them return the exact same whistle in reply, you haven’t lived like I have lived.
And why is that? Because some people consider nature a nuisance more than a keen reality. They don’t have a head for nature. Which means they don’t understand some very critical relationships about how the world operates.
I can tell you the relative health of a forest or about any other habitat on the North American continent just by listening to the bird calls that emanate from the bushes, trees or grasses. And I can do that on the fly, as it were, with the merest twit from a yellowthroat lurking in a wetland or the flat chirps of house sparrows clinging to the spidery ridge of an abandoned factory. These are all signals of habitat quality. You can tell a lot about a natural community by the signal species that occupy it.
There are many confusing signs these days. Thanks to legislation passed thirty years ago to protect species and reduce the amount of certain devastating pesticides in the environment, species such as the bald eagle, osprey, cormorants, egrets, herons and wood ducks have made effective comebacks. Yet here we stand at a juncture in history where the United States government may choose to eliminate such protections, and what will it do to our national symbol when rivers choke up again from pollution and our coastal areas get degraded because there is reduced enforcement of chemical and industrial regulations. We may be facing a regressive period in history. Going backwards does not make America great again.
Everything seems fine
But what about all these Canada geese? Aren’t they a sign that nature’s doing alright? Well, Canada geese did not used to spend much time in the lower 48 states. Typically they migrated from the southern coasts to their breeding grounds in the pothole country of central Canada. But now they have learned how to exploit the monotony of the human environment down here in Golf Course Land. Canada geese absolutely adore the homogenous areas of turf grass on golf courses, corporate campuses and city parks. The same goes for starlings, grackles, red-winged blackbirds and robins. All are adept at living in the vicinity of human beings. But that does not mean “everything’s fine.”
Because species that seem to interfere with human progress are likely to suffer dire consequences, and the human race is better than ever at killing what it does not care about. Such is the case with monarch butterflies, a formerly multitudinous species that stands at risk of eradication due to multiple layers of human impact on their lifecycle. Their host plants include various forms of milkweed, which tend to propagate in rural places. Some types of milkweed invade crop fields. That makes it a target for agriculturalists who don’t want weeds in their fields of beans or corn.
To fight this problem, they’ve contracted over the last 20 years with giant chemical companies to create herbicides and pesticides that are chemically and genetically engineered to knock out milkweeds and all sorts of insect pests. And it works so well that monarch butterfly populations began to fall, precipitously, over the last 10 years.
Add in the fact that their wintering grounds in Mexico have suffered intrusion by loggers and by shifting weather patterns where heavy, wet snows have fallen in mountainous areas where the insects hang in thick bunches taking advantage of a torpid state and the relative warmth of bundled occupation.
These cycles are at once robust and delicate. They have evolved over millions and even billions of years. But when humans barge in and snap one of the links in monarch migration or their safe haven during the winter, the entire species is at risk of toppling.
Perhaps you never think about these things while you’re out running or riding. But as a person attuned to the sight of milkweed plants along the road, I recognize the potential value of those supposed “weeds.” Yet there are threats beyond our scope of understanding as well. As a family we ranch monarchs by collecting milkweed leaves on which eggs are laid. We bring those leaves inside and let the caterpillars hatch and grow. Then they make their chrysalis and hatch in a couple weeks.
The reward of releasing such butterflies is special, because when you see what happens to monarchs that are parasitized by natural enemies such as wasps, it rents the heart in two. That’s nature’s way as well, and normally monarch populations are robust enough to withstand the predation. But when they are additionally whacked by human intrusion, natural predation can be the tipping point.
Like I said, not all of you possesses a head for nature. But I ask you to simply pay attention to what you do see on the Internet about the effects of everything from lawn chemicals on wetlands (too much phosphorous creates oxygen-choking algae) to the crushing effect of habitat destruction in marginal areas such as the suburbs.
And then I invite you to simply get out into nature without your running shoes or your bike. Go for a walk on a local bike path where the woods are thick. Or hike up into the desert mountains, or along an ocean or lake edge. Give yourself a head for nature whether it is five minutes or five days. You may be surprised how much it talks to you. And it’s okay if you talk back. Nature likes that.