Monday, April 30, 2018

Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff


Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff (Illustrations by Jack DeLap). New Haven CT. Yale University Press. 2014. 301pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-19707-5

While reading this book I wished I was across the table from Marzluff, drinking a beer or a coffee (for me the former but I am amenable to my guest’s wishes). That meeting is not likely to occur but I’ll tell the reader why I wished it would later in this review.

Marzluff’s book is essentially about changing ecologies of the places where we work and live. He uses local bird life as his main vessel for telling the story but he does include a chapter on other species and how they adapt to increasing human encroachment.

With the loss of natural environments, birds are finding ways of exploiting suburban lands for their own benefit. Murzluff describes the famous University of Michigan basketball sobriquet, “The Fab Five” to inform readers of the types of birds that have done well in suburban locales. They are: House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock Doves, Mallards and Canada Geese. These are all regular habitu├ęs year round, nearly everywhere in this country. There are seasonal and migrating birds but those 5 are pretty much standard. They have adapted well to living amongst us.

He also described birds as falling into a couple of categories that are also easy to identify with, for all of us humans interested in doing so. They include “exploiters” who are able to make use of the constricted environments to their own advantage. Crows are obvious examples as are their cousin corvids. Blue Jays on the east coast are adept at figuring out ways to extrapolate food sources where other avian cannot. While living in the mid-Atlantic I watched a Blue Jay while preparing my garden one spring. The bird left its perch to grab a garter snake who was basking in the warmish afternoon weather.

There are also “adapters” who may prefer a different environment for eating, mating and nesting but have learned to change their preferred conditions and accept what can be provided in the suburbs and exurbs which keep expanding despite the tenuous relationship that exists between population growth, weather conditions and infrastructures required to accommodate the new conditions.

There are “avoiders” who essentially seek an escape from the environmental factors of suburban expansion. They would be in more perilous species conditions due to loss of their own preferred ecology.

Marzluff discusses the ability to stave off encroaching ecological doom-he, is pretty optimistic. He provided several options that humans can take in order to preserve conditions for the many bird populations that are affected by “Subirdia”. Some include preparing large windows with decals in order to keep birds who see those windows as flyways and then crash into them. He talks of culling over-grazing deer in areas where they have become problematic. Entire neighborhoods have become overtaken by expanding deer populations causing more problems than can be described here.

Having trained hunters thin the herds would alleviate many of the issues presented by deer but also would provide meat to programs for needy humans as well as leather for many uses. He suggests the biological poverty needs ecological restoration which is hard to argue with. He calls for an ecological Golden Rule-“do unto your land, and the natural web of life it sustains, as you would have the land do unto you.”

The book is pretty compelling for its information but also for style. There is not a lot of jargon required for papers and academic pursuits. The book is designed for interested party who does not have solid academic credentials in areas that the book is concerned with. He refers to the citizen scientist and the many programs available to them such as the back yard bird survey from Cornell University’s ornithological program. He also suggested the Public Library of Science’s (PLOS) citizen science web page as a source of information and techniques for improving the quality of life for animals as well as humans.

But the reason I wish I could talk to Marzluff face to face is that he brought up several things that are very personal to me. I’ll only include a few here.

The last house I lived at in Baltimore is located in an old suburban part of town. It was for many years, considered an Audubon Sanctuary and housed breeding grounds for Red Headed Woodpeckers which are harder to find every year. Several years prior to my being there the lot was halved, trees cut down and a monstrosity of a house built on the new lot. No more woodpeckers, far fewer trees (i.e. habitat) and no more sanctuary designation.

He discussed groups that are existing and cropping up new in all of North America to collect dead and injured birds in downtown areas of cities. These would be the results of window strikes. I was a volunteer for Baltimore’s “Lights Out Baltimore” and the work has many benefits. It is a public advertisement for making businesses aware of the problems for migrating birds who navigate the glass and lights of urbanity, too often at their own peril.

This activity not only informs its volunteers much about birds but it gives them the opportunity to safely transport injured birds to sanctuary sites where trained staff attempt to restore the bird to its natural state and return it to the wild. In the central Maryland area the success rate is well over 50% so a benefit is obvious.

Another benefit is the ability for dead birds to become fodder for scientific research spanning a wide array of studies. Ours were given to colleges and the Smithsonian (for legalistic reasons that were never explained, we were not to know where they were going or what was being researched) and those institutions were able to make use of the carcasses.

He also cited Maryland as an example state where streams were being studied for their current conditions as well as the viability of restorative measures that could be taken. I worked as a volunteer on such a project and learned much more about environmental conditions as well as potential needs to be resolved. It was a great experience for me though it would have been better were I in my mid-20s instead of being 40 years beyond that. Stream ecology in practice is for the young as I found out.

I would have loved to converse with the author about those things as well as many other notions that he wrote about the hit a cord with me. I would even treat.

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