Tag Archives: environment

A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

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A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Magpies
Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Magpies
Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.

 

A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.

 

Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

Common Beauty in the Margins

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I was on a walk yesterday around my running path – a walk, not a run, due to a tumble taken on a mountain hike, and two damaged wrists. One broken, one sprained; a full cast and a metallic brace. It’s slowed me down, but at least I can move my fingers and still type. And I can walk.

The slow pace going around my regular loop was an excellent opportunity to take in some of the smaller sights. There were butterflies, too many for me to photograph in my clumsy phase, but I did get a shot of this little beauty, one of a pair (the other flew off as I crashed along the shoulder of the road).

A female Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus), no less beautiful for being common.

Photo: PKR

The butterfly’s flower head was in an interstice between the road and an apple orchard, the slender line along the fence posts between the mown grass of the agricultural land and the trimmed green shoulder of the road. These flowering lines, miniature hedgerows, do better now that road maintenance no longer includes spraying herbicides.

As to that name, ‘Common Blue.’ It caused me to reflect on how we evaluate the life around us. Mostly named in times of abundance, many of these species are now less common than they once were. The Common Blue was named back in the 18th century and has been a regular part of the scenery for so long that we might assume its commonness is an unwavering constant.

Sparrows, starlings, pigeons, all disdained by city and country dwellers alike as common in the sense of being ordinary and undistinguished (to the point of being undesirable), are in decline in many regions. In some cases, the population loss has been precipitous and sudden.

Kind of like my mobility. Something I usually took for granted until I found myself in a completely new and uncomfortable situation in the blink of an eye.

As for the Common Blue, it seems to be a robust and adaptable species that is anything but common in its lovely colors and grace. As long as it continues to find sustenance in the margins, it might do just fine.

Dusk Reflection

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​​​It’s been a long week of heat.

A massive storm blew through, the crashing wave of a  weather front, flooding streets and downing branches in just a few minutes. It feels like the weather is echoing current events.

Now, at least, a bit of evening quietude as the thunder moves on down the road, leaving only rain in its wake.

A bit of water for the dry plum tree and the rest of the thirsty garden.

It’s A Hot One

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The little digital thermometer on my window here in south-eastern France read 50.1°C (122.2°F) yesterday. Today it’s even higher.

55.3°C (131.5°F). I definitely need to move this device. The actual temperature is 32°C (89.6°F).
Photo: PKR

Not that the outside air is really that hot. It’s just the sun heating the glass of the window to that searing temperature. Until I get around to moving the thermometer to a location that offers more accuracy, there’s not much point in panicking about the numbers on the display.

Still, according to Meteo Swiss, yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far in our region, 35.5°C (95.9°F). These days, the announcements of monthly, yearly or all-time heat records being broken beat down with the worrying regularity of a leaky faucet.

It’s not just a subjective feeling that the summers are getting hotter and drier, the winters shorter and warmer. When we moved to this area of high mountains and lakes, winter meant thigh-deep snow at least three times per season. Now it’s knee-deep once a year. And summers?

Hm. Let me go have a look at that thermometer again.

There’s a pretty video making the rounds this week, a striking representation of temperature anamolies over the past hundred years or so, broken down by country.

It starts off as a rayed sphere of blue, yellow and orange, showing average highs and lows above a baseline. By 2000, it’s a pulsing sun of spiky red lines.

Antti Lipponen, a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, created the visual using publicly available data from NASA earth sciences programs. These are the very programs that have had their budgets cut by 9% under the new U.S. administration, in favor of planetary science programs.

Unlike my window thermometer, this climate data is accurate. Ignoring it won’t make the raw information change, and it won’t change the fact that anyone and everyone with the means needs to act now to make Lipponen’s visual – and our planet – stay in the safety zone.

Swift Moment

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A cloudless evening and the shrill cries of a small group of European swifts on an evening hunt for insects.

A summer concert told in sharp notes.

The swift has a wide range and enough numbers to be merit a population status of Least Concern from the IUCN. Considering the slow but persistent declines in common birds such as house sparrows due to habitat loss, it’s good to see a familiar bird adapting to changing circumstances.

The old farms in our French village all have ledges placed between the beams of barns for to support nesting birds (and to keep the floor beneath somewhat cleaner), a nice old habit that made space for wildlife in a way that modern garages and houses don’t.

Our own garage is still open and has old beams, home to several swift nests every year. Seeing them whisk in and out of the buildings at breakneck speeds is a thrill that never gets old.

A few of the many ledges for nests in the barn next door.
Photo: PKR

 

I found this interesting clip on the extreme lifestyle of the European swift – it can stay aloft for up to ten months of the year, and naps while gliding. Swifts might be common, but they are very special.

Summer Field Moment

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I was out running yesterday and there was a cushion of sound, a papery hum, that accompanied me for a long stretch.

At first I thought it was the standard ambient noise of my run: a bit of mountain wind, shards of birdsong, maybe an underlying rush of water from the creek in the middle of the nearby forest (but only if it’s just rained). And then there’s the busy road at the lower end of our village, and the occasional plane above. It’s a familiar palette.

But this was closer, and I was pounding along and breathing heavily, so the soft crackle carpet of this sound took a while to push through to my awareness enough to make me stop and take a detour into the neighboring field.

I should have known all along. A field of rowdy insect song, full of hidden animals drunk on the heat of a summer morning.

So I thought I’d share it.

Root Migration

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What do a rare high-altitude Alpine snow flower and a sturdy South African cousin of the daisy have in common? They aren’t related, they look nothing like one another, and they are natives to completely different habitats in different parts of the world.

But over the past few years, they have both been on the move.

Rockfoil – Saxifraga androsacea
Source: Wikimedia

The saxifrage species, also known as rockfoil, is a tenacious ground plant with that waits all winter under snow cover before bursting forth with a graceful stalk and small blossoms. It’s a plant of extremes – extreme cold, extreme altitude, it thrives in rocky soil where little else grows. But the temperatures for which it is adapted are becoming more seldom, and with them, so is the plant.

Meanwhile, the South African ragwort (Senecio inaequidens), a tall herbaceous plant with bright sunny blossoms, is happy to take up the space. Able to survive higher temperatures and unfussy about altitudes, it is adapting well to Alpine heights. The ragwort’s seeds arrived in exports of South African wool, and are proving very comfortable in a number of regions across Europe and the rest of the world.

South African ragwort – Senecio inaequidens
Source: ResearchGate

According to a long-term study of one Italian region, Alpine winters are rapidly becoming warmer, up to 1.2°C (2.16°F) over the past 20 years, with tourism and skiing heading ever higher in search of winter sports, impacting the environment. And while both tourists and ragwort are happy at a variety of altitudes, saxifrage is running out of places to go.

What the two plants share mobility, but are separated by the extent of their comfort zones. With climate change, the ragworts will settle in, the saxifrages will be unsettled. Whatever other plants or animal life that relied on an ecosystem that includes this little saxifrage species will change along with its disappearance.

It’s a sign of profound transition that a plant native to South Africa is growing on Alpine rock faces. What we know of this ancient landscape as it has always been will have to be altered.

For the moment, the plants have movement and terrain in common. Their destinations, however, won’t be the same. One will likely adapt and move onwards, the other will likely move into memory.

Rockfoil
Photo: Florasilvestre

Cartography of Extremes

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Maybe it’s the instinctual part of humans that makes us obsessed with the biggest, the strongest, the highest, the illustrious measurements that dazzle. Whether it’s the highest mountain, the broadest lake, the longest river, we look for inspiration in extremes.

Whether it’s justified or not, we do the same in societies. The biggest economies, the loudest voices, the heaviest sticks get all the attention. The heavyweight nations win the privilege of gathering together and trying to coordinate the world’s economy and, to a certain extent, its immediate future. To the extent that it’s possible during a few short days, a summit like the G20 in Hamburg promises an opportunity for representatives from the largest 19 economies, plus the European Union, to sit down together and talk about the world.

A cartography of the G20 might look a bit like this map from 1849, all the biggest players in the same place, at the same time, a landscape of superlatives.

A combined view of the principal mountains & rivers in the world (1849)
Image: J.H.Colton via David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

This Group of 20 nations holds 85% of global GDP, 80% of world trade, and 75% of the world’s population. Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of host country Germany, has promised to put climate change at the top of the agenda as the world’s most pressing issue. In response to the United States leaving the Paris Agreement, she stated, “We cannot wait until every last person on earth has been convinced of the scientific proof.”

But what does that mean? The countries most impacted by climate change, by and large, are not the largest economies, and are not present at the G20. The countries that are at the G20, by are large, are the large economies which – through industrialization, consumer and disposable economies and resource exploitation – are the main contributors to climate change in the first place – and likely ones that will have to contend with climate-based migration.

Even if they’re all in the same room and have the best intentions, are they the top team to undertake wrenching challenges to institutions and economic assumptions in order to avoid further temperature and sea rises? After all, the G20 was created in 1999 to promote global economic stability, not to promote radical restructuring.

Because as we’re seeing with every passing year, there all kinds of new extremes to be charted, and we’ll need everyone at the table to navigate them.

All Abuzz

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A friend challenged me to take nature photos for a week, and it resulted in several very nice shots of our garden, if I do say so myself.

But one of the most enjoyable aspects of the exercise took place when I went to take pictures of the two lavender bushes in front of our house. I planted them a few years ago, replacing ones that had gotten woody and sparse. These two bushes are veritable pollen engines, and the air around them is usually humming.

Photo: PKR

But it was only when I leaned in to take photos that I realized just what a busy miniature ecosystem these two plants have become. There were at least three different bee species in addition to the humble honeybees I usually see there – unfortunately, I couldn’t get all of them to pose for me. Several of them kept insisting on harvesting from lower branches, out of easy camera range.

And then there were the hummingbird hawk moths, the closest thing we have here in France to hummingbirds, at least in terms of size, movement and preferred food source.

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).
Photo: Wikipedia

There were several other small pollinators, flitting black creatures I couldn’t catch on camera, as well as wasps, which I left alone. And then there are the lizards that lurk on the stone wall and the countless birds in the branches of the climbing vine, all waiting for an easy meal.

Photo: PKR

All this around two lavender bushes, a small world on our terrace. One more argument, if any were needed, on the value of planting for pollinators, even in limited spaces.

Photo: PKR

Heating Up, Cooling Off

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It’s a paradox of life that what gives us pleasure in moderation often gets us into trouble when we get greedy.

I’m not talking about food, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or any of the other things that might come to mind. Because the second-highest heat index ever recorded in a city was marked today in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran – a mix of high humidity and soaring air temperatures yielded a ‘feels-like’ of 74°C (165°F).

So I’m talking about air conditioning.

Air conditioners in Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo: PKR

Modern air conditioning, the kind that transforms vast stretches of hot agricultural land into productive cities with office buildings and booming economies, was only invented in 1902. Before that, the height of technology when it came to cooling was the rotary fan, which was used as far back as the 2nd century in China (only for the very wealthy).

So what’s the paradox with air conditioning? Well, there are a few. For one thing, that delicious cool air comes at a price. It’s considerably more expensive than your average table or ceiling fan when it comes to electricity, because it needs a lot more power. A ceiling fan uses 25 to 90 watts of energy; central air conditioners can use as much as 2500 to 3500 watts. Even with increasing efficiency in AC units, and the expansion of renewable power generation, AC is still an energy intensive alternative.

Old-fashioned air-conditioning in Dubai. The tower catches wind from four directions and channels it down into the house.
Photo: Denise Chan/Flckr via The Ecologist

And then there are the ozone-depleting refrigerants. CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs used for cooling are all greenhouse gases. The worst of the coolants have been banned in western countries (starting in the 1980s with the Montreal Protocol*). HFCs were banned in a 2016 treaty signed in Kigali, Rwanda, with phase-out starting in 2019 in the United States and then gradually for other countries, notably China (2024) and India (2028).

Meanwhile, AC use is rising rapidly in these countries as the middle class expands. Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that about 1.6 billion new air-conditioning units will be installed by 2050. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that we went for millennia without it, or have architectural techniques for coping with heat without AC – methods both ancient and new.

The more we use air conditioning, the hotter we make the planet, and the more we need air conditioning.

So get out your hand fan, crank up your ceiling fan (or in my case, table fan), and get ready for the next heat wave.

*Reagan signed the Montreal agreement with the words, “The Montreal protocol is a model of cooperation. (It) is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”

Although President Donald Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, there is little worry he will do the same for the HFC agreement – the phase-out is supported by the two U.S chemical companies that make HFC alternatives, the DuPont spinoff Chemours and Honeywell International.