Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Asphalt Cage

Every morning I have an hour-long commute from rural central Maryland to rural south-central Pennsylvania. This morning I began, as always, with a 10-minute stretch on I-70 East, blinded by the morning sun, battling seemingly angry and demoralized commuters heading to D.C. and Baltimore, before blessedly turning off on back roads, where the mountains and trees soften the sun and the few drivers on the road are a little slower and more relaxed. As I drove past all the familiar forests and pastures and streams and cows and goats and sheep and geese, my body and mind began to relax.

The great German social theorist Max Weber wrote of the “iron cage” of modernity. He was writing in the early 20th century, trying to envision where Western, capitalist, industrial society was heading. In part, he argued, it was headed toward further and deeper bureaucratization, efficiency, rationalism, and so forth. Where we become social security numbers instead of people, census and poll takers rather than citizens, and people whose time and ability to navigate life are in the hands of low-level state bureaucrats rather than family and community members. Eventually the iron cage will imprison us, Weber argued, taking away our freedom, autonomy, and joy. I think we can all feel that iron cage at times.

But this morning I was thinking of a cage made of asphalt rather than iron. How much of our lives do we spend hurtling down an asphalt road to hell, in danger from the crazy drivers around us, our backs hurting from sitting too long, our only window on nature the little blur of trees and mountains we can see through our windows and windshield? And have you noticed how complex parking lots have become, with divisions and subdivisions and stop signs and arrows marking the direction of traffic? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been trapped in a shopping center parking lot, unable to figure out which of the exit-like turns is actually an exit that will finally allow me out of the shopping center!

But this morning I was concerned even more with how much of nature is now carved up by asphalt. Take a look at how wide some of our multi-lane roads are now: much too wide for most birds to traverse, too dangerous for deer and other mammals to cross, and effectively cutting an ecosystem into pieces. I just googled some best guesses as to how much of the U.S.’s land surface is paved, and it’s probably around 61,000 square miles: about as much land area as the state of Georgia. As for the portion of the planet’s land surface that is paved, probably around 0.2%. That is small in quantity but potentially huge in effect. And I cannot imagine that this percentage will do anything but grow rapidly as populations swell, development of infrastructure increases around the world, more goods need to be trucked to more places, and urban centers require greater connection to each other and their hinterlands.

A part of me loves to get out in my car and drive. It feels like such freedom! But I fear that the asphalt cage, in addition to its negative effects on us and our lives, is gradually imprisoning nature, taking away its freedom, autonomy, and joy.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Cute - or Deadly?

It’s a beautiful week in central Maryland, and I’m on spring break, which means I’ve been out a lot, looking at birds. As I walked along the Potomac River yesterday morning, there were Eastern bluebirds everywhere, one of my favorites. I love that flash of blue in the sunshine, that bit of chestnut brown on the breast, their big, round cartoon eyes, and their perky little song.

But these particular birds were not being cartoonish and perky; they were fighting. There were eight total, four males and four females. They seemed to be fighting over territory, with each pair trying to run off the other pairs. However, it may be that they were fighting over each other. It’s early in the mating season, and pairs may not yet be securely established. Plus, although most songbirds are generally monogamous, both male and female Eastern bluebirds always look to get a little action on the side. (This article provides a concise summary of bluebird mating habits with more such fascinating information.)

Whatever the reason, the fighting continued for the entire twenty minutes that I stood there watching. The birds chased, dove, flapped, and pecked - and they were so caught up in their actions that they were oblivious to my presence there, flying past me several times and letting me get pretty close to them. It struck me that they were wasting an enormous amount of precious energy on this process. Cold winters are hard on bluebirds, which generally stay put in our region for the year, and many of them die in the early spring because they are starving and weak and food resources have not yet picked back up. But here they were, willing to spend such long periods of time in the energy-sapping process of fighting.

This morning I had the thrilling opportunity to see two Northern flickers do their mating dance. (You can watch a quick video of this neat little dance here.) Another energy-intensive process, it went on for minutes and was followed by quite a bit of flying and chasing and chirping. Northern flickers are another year-round bird that can be exhausted and weak by this time of year, yet every year they summon up the energy for this elaborate mating process.

I often hear people talk about how “sweet” the sound of the birds is, how “happy” they sound when they sing or “cute” they look when they zip around our yards. I have used this language myself! When we hear birdsong, it makes us feel sweet and happy, and so we assume that those nice emotions must be shared by the pretty, energetic, brightly-colored birds around us.

But there is nothing sweet or happy about these springtime behaviors. These birds are in a fight for their lives and the right to claim the best territory, find the best mate(s), and raise the best brood. Those beautiful songs contain threats to competitors and lures to potential mates. Many of the males will lose out and be resigned to a life on the margins, trying to mate surreptitiously with an unattended female or move in on another male’s territory when he dies or is injured. The females will wear themselves out with raising brood after brood and helping to defend their territory against predators, other birds, and those marginal males. By the end of the nesting season, toward the middle to end of summer, all of the adults will be looking ragged and worn.

As I finished my walk this morning, I saw a male song sparrow, singing his heart out in an evergreen by a creek - the ideal spot for a song sparrow to claim as his territory. So tiny, singing his beautiful little melody - the words “cute” and “happy” definitely came to mind. Funny to think that, in his own mind, he was being “fierce” and “threatening” and asserting his “masculinity” - perhaps not too different from the young man who then drove by in his huge dually truck with double exhaust stacks.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Birds on the Move

March 1: a big day for me because March is the month when many songbirds start their migration north to their breeding grounds. I am so ready for them! I am ready for their dawn song, their frantic nest building, the hatching of the eggs, the fledglings making their way around my yard, the parents flitting back and forth between food sources and home.

There are amazing technologies out there for tracking the migration of birds - and a lot of information about migrants gathered carefully by everyday citizen scientists who go out birdwatching and record their data online in various forums. will soon begin weekly forecasts of bird migrations. It is so much fun to read their forecasts and then watch them come true in your yard that week. If Birdcast says you will see a grey catbird in your region by early Tuesday, you can bet you’ll hear its iconic mewing sound on that day. But these forecasts are not only for our delight as birdwatchers. They are essential to persuading wind farms to shut off their turbines during certain days or times of day to avoid grinding up millions of migrating songbirds. Big building lights can also be dimmed strategically so that the birds are not confused by the lights, which can get them off course or lead them to crash into the buildings as they fly. is also a useful resource. Individual birders record the species they observe in particular areas - and the data is coming in from all over the world - so that you can figure out where to go to see a migrating species arrive to stay or to fly through quickly on their way further north. This tool helps a lot during warbler season especially. A lot of warblers remain in our area only for a few weeks, and this tool helps me know where I am likely to find them. Over time, these recorded observations (coupled with radar, which picks up flocks of migrating birds) can also help scientists track how arrival and departure dates for certain species change from year to year, which could be useful in determining the effects of weather, climate change, food source availability, and other phenomena on bird migration. Apparently scientists are still using Henry David Thoreau’s carefully recorded observations of weather, nature, and wildlife as a baseline for comparison with later years in the area around Walden Pond!

Such tools can help us learn about and enjoy nature, and they are also an excellent way to participate in science as a non-scientist. Please write in the comments if you have another tool that helps you enjoy the migration season.