On New Year’s Eve, 2019 we left for a 3 month journey, mainly to Arizona, but to included other parts of the magnificent American Southwest.
Shortly after we crossed the American border I was shocked–absolutely shocked. You won’t believe this. I saw wildlife! For the first time in our annual trips to the southern US we actually saw wildlife. We saw a small herd of about 7 white-tailed deer in a farmer’s field.
At one time North America had more wildlife than Africa! Now most of that has disappeared largely as a result of western “progress.” As we all know the 60 million bison were driven to very near extinction from which only heroic last minute efforts saved them.
The most dramatic story is probably the story of the North American Passenger Pigeon. In the 19th century the most common bird in North America was the Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). It may have been the most numerous bird species in the world. Many people described the vast flocks that flew through the sky.
Barry Yeoman described how one aboriginal youth encountered on such flock:
In May 1850, a 20-year-old Potawatomi tribal leader named Simon Pokagon was camping at the headwaters of Michigan’s Manistee River during trapping season when a far-off gurgling sound startled him. It seemed as if “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me,” he later wrote. “As I listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm, and beautiful.” The mysterious sound came “nearer and nearer,” until Pokagon deduced its source: “While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”
Actually many people described encounters with passenger pigeons and all of us moderns find such report unbelievable, because we have never seen anything like it. Yeoman described one such report this way:
Throughout the 19th century, witnesses had described similar sightings of pigeon migrations: how they took hours to pass over a single spot, darkening the firmament and rendering normal conversation inaudible. Pokagon remembered how sometimes a traveling flock, arriving at a deep valley, would “pour its living mass” hundreds of feet into a downward plunge. “I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America,” he wrote, “yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”
One of my favorite writers, Aldo Leopold referred to their flocks as “a feathered tempest.” An observer from Columbus Ohio said one day he saw a “growing cloud” that caused children who saw it to scream and run home for safety. They could not understand what it was, for nothing else compared ot it Women also hurried home at the sight. Horses ran for cover. Some people considered it a portent of the approaching millennium. Many dropped to their knees in prayer at the sight of a flock. Some flocks required more than 2 hours to fly by. In one case after a flock few over a town, when it was finished the town looked a ghostly white in the now revealed sunlight because it was covered in white pigeon poop.
Even when the numbers of the pigeon began to plummet the relentless attack was not stayed. In a fact according to Peggy Notebaert of the Nature Museum and the Field Museum, as the pigeons’ numbers crashed, “People just slaughtered them more intensely. They killed them until the very end.”
I love to travel through the North American plains, but it always makes me sad too. Thinking about what might have been. But, as they say, extinction is for ever.
Professor Pearson said that although humans have caused incredible damage on wild life, not all species are in decline. Why is that? Dr. Pearson finds this important. So do I. The fact is that some species have adapted to life on a planet dominated by one species, Homo sapiens. They seem to like us! Can we learn something from the adaptable species?
Pearson said that scientists have learned that some species in urban environments have experienced accelerated evolution. For example, cockroaches and pigeons have changed their behaviors to live and even thrive in urban environments. How did that happen?
Scientists have been studying a species I am very familiar with. It is called Crepis setosa, or Hawksbeard. It was originally brought over to North America by Europeans and now is common all over North America including Manitoba. Scientists have learned a very surprising thing about this common plant, namely, that it has evolved its method of propagating seeds. Instead of sending them in the wind it is now tending to drop the seeds to the ground instead. What is remarkable about this evolution is that it has happened in 15 years! That is an astonishing rate of evolution.
Coyotes in cities have also been evolving to live alongside humans. As a result coyotes have learned to hunt deer in packs, they are less shy, larger, have different teeth, and have larger territories than they did a short time ago. Again they adapted and then evolved in very short periods of time. That is why coyotes can now be found in nearly every major city of North America. I have seen them in Vancouver.
European Blackbirds have first adapted and then evolved to sing louder songs. They have done that of course to compete with noises humans have brought to cities.
30 years ago Anna’s Hummingbirds did not fly to Arizona. At least they were very rare. Now they are common. At this time of year where we live they are the most common hummingbirds. Why is that? Do they love the feeders that humans put out all over? Has the climate changed enough to attract them? Now these hummingbirds have found that they likelife in the city. People plant flowers all over the place just for them. So it must seem. The heat island effect of cities is also likely attractive to Hummingbirds. They seem to like cities, and who can blame them? Maybe they even like us!
Neo-tropic cormorants are not common to the Phoenix area, but there were virtually none here 15 years ago. Things have changed enough that these birds have learned to adapt to the city, even though they must share it with about 5 million other people. Now these cormorants are common.
These are examples of species that are managing to adapt to live and even thrive with humans. Can more species do this? Are there things humans can do to make adaptations by other species easier? These are all questions that Professor Pearson raised.
The problems of species decline are massive. We will need more knowledge. Knowledge is more important than money. Though it costs money too. We will have to work together, collaborate, to get more knowledge. All of that knowledge, experience, and wisdom will have to be shared so that we can attack the problems ahead.
Further changes in the urban ecosystem can be expected. Change is the only constant. Social, economic, and cultural changes are all important. Their impacts will be important. The continuing rise of the numbers in the middle class will have a major impact on the world. As the numbers of the middle class rise, their impact on the environment will grow exponentially. There will be greater consumption, more cars, greater waste, increased pollution, expanding extraction of resources, and always, more degradation of the environment as a consequence. This is what we can look forward to if we’re lucky!
Yet again there will be positives too. It won’t be all bad. We can expect people to have fewer children and that will mitigate environmental impacts. Education will improve and that will improve the lives of millions. People will have more free time. People will have more hobbies. All of this will bring about more citizen science. It is a sad fact that there is not enough money, even in the richest country in the world, to fund all the research that is needed. Pearson believes, citizen science will help reduce the harmful effects of this omission.
Of course people must learn to do more than play with their phones, iPads or watch their various monitors. People will have to learn to enjoy learning. Private citizens who become bird watchers are good examples of the new citizens that will be needed. Scientists will use these people to help them do science. The professional amateur will be a boon to society. More and more researchers will look to them for help in many disciplines.
Scientists will have to learn to collaborate more, use social interaction to a greater extent. A good example is how Scientists will learn to use crowd sourcing to a greater extent. Many use it already. If a scientist puts a question ‘out there,’ it is amazing how many responses the scientist will get and how many creative solutions or proposals. Businesses will learn to do this too. A business has a problem, it asks the world to comment, suggest, and help. This will become much more common. Perhaps the best solutions will be rewarded.
All of this can help to create a new ecology, including urban ecology. That does not mean the Grand Canyon won’t be important any more. It does mean we won’t be able to rely solely on such iconic places. The urban landscape might become more important than the Grand Canyon from a conservation perspective.
The key question will be: how do we work with nature manage and control the new world that is rapidly approaching? It will be vitally important for us to learn to adapt. Species will be lost. What can we do to minimize the losses while fostering the gains? What will be the future of biodiversity in the cities in 2090? Will we recognize them? We will need big parks in the city. Parks like Central Park in New York City, or Hyde Park in London, or Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg. Politicians a century ago had foresight. Those parks were very expensive but those leaders found the will and the money to do such great projects. We will need such forward thinking from our current crop of political leaders.
Things won’t be easy, but we have a chance. We must take that chance with eyes and minds both wide open.
We drove to Gilbert to participate in the monthly meeting of the Desert Rivers Audubon Society. We went last year to one of their meetings and really enjoyed it. Tonight they had a talk by Arizona State University Professor Dr. David Pearson. His topic was “Birds and the Anthropocene: The Future of Biodiversity”. It was fascinating. Dr. Pearson looked at the issue from a new perspective. In other words, he wanted to beyond the doom and gloom of species loss. It is easy to go down that path. I know, I do it all the time.
The notion of the anthropocene is designed to capture the fact that the era of human impacts is upon us and we as a species have had such a profound impact on the planet that our impact is comparable to the global geological forces of the past. I recently blogged about the precipitous decline in animals (not just birds) The numbers are stupefying. The big question though is what can we do about it?
Dr. Pearson began with a startling proposition: “Don’t dwell on the past if you want to conserve the future.” That is not intuitively true. After all should we not learn from the mistakes of the past? Of course we should, but that does not mean we have to be stuck in the past. We need a new approach. The problem that we have to take into consideration is that so much has changed that we must learn to adapt.
Pearson suggested we consider conservation and ecology but with a new focus. We have to change our focus. The most important first step is to realize that we must give up our search for the pristine. The pristine no longer exists, and it ain’t coming back any time soon. That is why we have to forget about the past. It will only serve to depress. There is no pristine left anywhere on the planet. Human impacts can be seen on every continent. Even in Antarctica the human effects are obvious and easily discernable.
What worked 50 years ago won’t necessarily work today. Too much has changed. So we have to change too. So we have to forget about the pristine and forget about achieving it. Think outside that box. We need a new ecology. We cannot fix the past. We need knowledge. We have to be smart. Yes we have to avoid the mistakes of the past, but we also need to learn new ways of doing ecology. We have to realize that we can’t save everything. We need triage. Really that means we must prioritize what needs to be done and what can be done. We must also understand that money is always a factor. It is never unlimited. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, we have to practice smart ecology. We have to practice ecology that knows its limits too.
We have to work with the state of nature that we have, even though it is far from the pristine nature we would like to have. We can’t undo the past so what do we do?
Around the globe the number of species that have been lost for good and the habitat that has been lost for good are staggering. But concentrating on this doom and gloom won’t be help. It might even make things worse, because if things are hopeless people tend to give up.
Even in Kruger National Park, one of the finest national parks in the world, they have had to adapt. As a result much of it is now fenced! I remember when I was there, only a few years ago, they were just talking about fencing it. The notion seems abhorrent, but they had to adapt. We will have to adapt too and accept some things we don’t want to accept.
We have to reconsider what is natural. The natural is what is caused by nature, not by humans. But humans affect everything. Humans everywhere affect everything.
One of the things Pearson emphasized is that we can’t just concentrate on National Parks. We have to do conservation work elsewhere as well. We have to look at secondary habitats. In some of these places we can actually make a difference, and sometimes at a surprisingly small cost.
Since no habitat is able to escape human influence we have to be willing to go where humans have already had an effect. For example, we must look at urban ecology. This may sound counterintuitive, but we have to be willing to work in areas where humans have already had a profound impact. We have to practice ecology in our cities.
A single generation from today, by 2030, the population of the world’s cities will likely grow by 2 billion more people. That will be nearly 10 billion people. At present, about half of the humans on earth live in urban areas.
In short, the entire planet is becoming more urbanized, a phenomenon which is already having a profound effect on the natural systems that maintain breathable air, drinkable water, and fertile soil for agriculture.
But large areas of green spaces exist within cities. Lawns, parks, golf courses, and nature preserves created decades ago and now surrounded by development help filter pollution in air and water, produce oxygen, mitigate heat absorption by asphalt and concrete, and provide habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.
In the past quarter century, scientists have recognized that understanding the interactions of the living and nonliving components of these urban ecosystems is vital to the future of all life on earth, including ourselves.
Dr. Pearson said one day he took his students at Arizona State University on a walk through their campus. They were amazed by the wildlife they found right there. He said before they were done 50 other students joined his class, intrigued by what they were looking at. We all have to take a fresh look at the environment. Even the environments in our cities.
We have to look at the costs and benefits of urbanization. There are a lot of hidden costs. They are only hidden though until we look. The costs of urbanization include the following: pollution has increased, more floods have been created, water has been affected, air quality has been affected and that has affected people living in cities, people’s stress has been increased, people have become alienated from nature, and garbage has accumulated. The list could go on and on.
Of course there are benefits to living in cities too. Otherwise so many people would not live there. Many people think the costs are worth the price. In fact since more and more people live in cities that must mean that more and more people think it is worth living in cities, notwithstanding the enormous costs. The benefits include better access to education, jobs, entertainment, culture, sociability, and efficiency of services, to name again just a few. Often life is just plain more comfortable and for many more enjoyable than outside the cities. Apparently the benefits outweigh the costs. At least to many people. That’s why so many choose to live there. We have to work with that.
One of the facts about living in a city is the presence of heat islands. It is hotter in the city than outside the city. People must learn that green islands in the city are not a luxury. They help modify the ill effects of city living.
Humans in cities have to do things to improve city life. Cats are a good example. Every year in the United States domestic cats kill 2 billion birds. This is contributing to the serious decline of bird populations. Humans should keep their cats inside or tied up. Cats can learn to accept that. Cat owners must be responsible. I admit to some guilt here. I used to have cat pets and always let them roam around the neighbourhood and I knew that my cats killed birds. I did not like it, but I let them out. If someone complained I promised to speak to the cats. Attitudes like mine have to change.
Riparian areas are marvellous adaptations inside cities. There are 2 astounding examples very close by–the Riparian Reserve at Water Ranch (where I took the photograph of the owl., though it is captive) and the Veterans Oasis Park. Both are wonderful green areas inside the city. And both help recycle water in a region that badly needs clean water! This is win/win at its finest. Dr. Pearson said he proudly shows pictures of these 2 places around the world when he gives presentations at conferences. I have been there many times and am always amazed at the wildlife inside a major city.
As Dr. Pearson repeated over and over, he did not want to concentrate on the gloom. He wanted to concentrate on how we should adapt to these horrid facts. If we can’t adapt we will suffer the same consequences as other species that fail to adapt when challenged. We will disappear–forever.
The entire story is not grim. For example, in the past hundred years in Arizona perhaps only 1 or 2 plant species have gone extinct as far as we know. Even though many exotics have been introduced they have not muscled out the locals. Plants have been able to survive.
Next I will blog about species that are not declining. How is that possible?
Chris and I went to hear a Professor from Arizona State University talk about the amazing decline of birds and what we can do about it. Before I bog on what he said, I wanted to give some information, about the general problem of species decline. It is not a pretty story but the Professor did not concentrate on doom and gloom. He actually had some suggestions.
We all know birds (and other animals) have been seriously impacted by human activities inside and outside cities. The Living Planet Report of the World Wildlife Fund of 2018 delivered shocking news. It reported “On average, we’ve seen an astonishing 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years.” You have to be careful in interpreting such figures. They are more complicated than at first they appear. But it is not difficult to understand we are losing a lot of wildlife. In addition the report said, “The top threats to species identified in the report link directly to human activities, including habitat loss and degradation and the excessive human use of wildlife such as overfishing and overhunting.”
As Damian Carrington reported in the Guardian, “Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, …, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.”
This is an incredible report and not many people are talking about it. They are talking about Trump and the Mueller report, but that is not nearly as important as this. As Carrington said,
Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.
The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by the WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.
“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”
“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
According to Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, “We are rapidly running out of time.…The Living Planet Index has been criticised as being too broad a measure of wildlife losses and smoothing over crucial details. But all indicators, from extinction rates to intactness of ecosystems, show colossal losses. “They all tell you the same story,” said Barrett….”
Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.'”
However, as Professor Pearson repeated over and over, he did not want to concentrate on the gloom. He wanted to concentrate on how we should adapt to these horrid facts. If we can’t adapt we will suffer the same consequences as other species that fail to adapt when challenged. We will disappear–forever.
Next I will blog about how we should react to this decline. Besides crying that is.