Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The End of Spring, But a Sustainable Future

How quickly a season ends.

The ornamental plum that burst into bloom has quickly progressed to add leaves.

And now to be devoid of flowers.

Will the flowers of ideas, pollinated with effort and intention bear fruits of change?

During this month I have tried to change daily habits toward more sustainable behaviors – Green Action #3.
While it is impossible to sustain spring, it is possible to accept the natural cycles of nature. I can prepare for summer and support the natural systems that will bring spring back again with a healthier and more sustainable yard and future.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Repurposing - Building a Nest

This month as I've tried to take my Green Action #3 by living sustainably everyday, I've also been watching the Allen's hummingbirds building their nests.

These tiny industrious birds are models of sustainable living. When the female builds her nest she gathers a variety of natural materials: new and old spider web, plant fiber and animal hair, feathers and twigs, grasses and bark. She is reusing what others have discarded.

She also frequently recycles materials from previous nests.

This fuzzy tuft of debris is a nest built last summer that was destroyed by winds. Despite winter rains, the basic building materials, fibers and organic matter, are still attached to the branch. One of the females in the yard, Pop, has been building a new nest. She has been actively reclaiming these materials.

The actions of these creative girls inspired me to refurbish my own nest. I've decided to reupholster my dining room chairs. If the hummingbirds can do it, so can I. The basic structure of my chairs are sturdy oak. There is not need to waste the resources that a tree has already provided. I'm working on this new project a little bit each day just like the hummingbirds.

This Allen's hummingbird nest started with a base of materials attached to a branch and a fork created by two leaves.

Over the course of a few days, Pop built up a cup-shaped nest about the size of 1/2 cup.

But I've noticed a possible problem. If you compare Pop's nest (above) to the nest DR has built (at the very top and below), you might see it too. Pop has found a source for polyfiber stuffing. Probably a neighbor's patio furniture cushion. She used some of these fibers last year in the nest that failed. The white man-made fibers don't compress like natural fibers. They make a looser, fluffy nest that lacks structural integrity. A few of these fibers might be alright, but I am concerned that this nest might not survive long enough for chicks to mature. It also might not breath like natural fibers or stretch like spider silk.

If you look closely at DR's nest, you can see a strip of plastic that she has used on the outside of her nest as camouflage. Our synthetic materials are invading animal homes as well.

Reusing materials helps save resources. But we all need to increase our awareness of how synthetic materials are affecting the world around us.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rescuing Baby Hummingbirds

Spring is definitely here. Baby birds and nests are everywhere. Currently, there are two active Allen's hummingbird nests in the yard. (A-1 has two chicks and DR-2 still has eggs. The third nest, D-1, was abandoned after the female broke one of the eggs.)

The other day I had a comment from someone saying that they had a baby hummingbird and they didn't know if they should leave it alone or call for a rescue group to pick it up.

The baby Allen's hummingbird pictured here is still downy and can't fly. It is out of the nest, but its mother is still taking care of it. The chick calls to the mother and she only appears for short bursts to feed it. It does not need to be rescued.

Here are some key points to remember regarding baby birds.
  1. No one can take better care of a baby bird than its parent. Young birds with feathers usually have NOT fallen out of a nest, but are learning to fly. Some species like hummingbirds and California towhees leave the nest before they can really use their wings. They hang out in shrubs for a few days learning to fly. BEFORE you try to save a baby bird, watch it for a while. There probably is a parent bringing it food. This spring the Bewick's wrens brought one of their young fledglings to the yard like it was day care. The young bird could barely fly. It poked around the patio and the planters all day. In the evening the parents came and took it home. This went on for 3 or 4 days. A few years ago a young crow spent about a week in the yard. It couldn't fly. Parents and siblings brought it food and usually, a family member was stationed to watch over it. In both cases, we did nothing but provide a safe place. Most birds are good parents. Rarely, do they abandon a chick.
  2. Sometimes baby birds do fall out of a nest. The first step is to PUT THEM BACK. Most birds do not have a sense of smell. You are not going to scare off the parent.
  3. Older chicks may push a younger or weaker sibling or out of the nest. If this is the case, there may be a reason. Perhaps the parent only has resources for one chick. In some cases, cowbirds will lay their eggs in other species' nests. The cowbird chick will push out the owner's chicks. This seldom happens in Southern California. I did have a situation in 2008 when very hot weather caused an older hummingbird chick to push its younger sibling out of the nest. In the photo, you can see the mother, "P" is perched on the nest. The larger chick, Pop, is in the nest. The smaller one, Peep, is on a branch beneath the nest. These chicks were only about a week from fledging, so they were mostly developed. We replaced the smaller chick, but it was pushed out again. We made a small replacement nest, put it about 8 inches from the original nest and the mother bird continued to raise both chicks successfully.
  4. Parent birds typically leave their chicks while they go off to get food. Sometimes they stay away from the nest so that they don't attract predators. But parent birds come back to their offspring. A few years ago a friend had a fledgling CA towhee get stuck in her garage over night. She was concerned she was going to have to call a rescue person. In the morning we opened up the garage. The parents waiting outside, calling for the chick. It took a few hours, but the parent birds lured the chick out of the garage. Family reunited.
I can't say it strongly enough. The best way to rescue a baby bird is to reunite it with its parent.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

CA Slender Salamanders and Conserving Water

The yard is filled with life and each living thing is offering wisdom for sustainable living.

As I’ve m
entioned before, the return of winter rains brought out our California slender salamander population. But this was the first time that we have actually found a nest of youngsters.

When you think salamander, the first thing that probably comes to mind is water. But the slender salamander belongs to a family known as lungless salamanders. They have no gills and breath entirely through their skin. Yes, they depend on moisture to maintain their dermal respiration, but they do not live in water. Instead they frequent moist places and during the dry summer and fall they retreat underground.

Their offspring are born alive. If you were taught in school that the trait of live birth (viviparous) was a hallmark of mammals, you were mislead. Live birth has evolved numerous times in various forms throughout the animal world, from fish to amphibians, even lizards and snakes. Species have adapted toward live birth where it offered an advantage. For the lungless salamanders it provided the ability to reproduce away from a water source, giving them a survival edge and the opportunity to access resources beyond the range of other amphibians.

The salamander nest was a cocoon of adobe clay, much like the mud cocoon of an earth worm or a terrestrial grub.

The mud structure was secured to a block wall and sandwiched against one of the sand bags we had put down to stop mud flow from reaching the house.

The cocoon appeared to have an opening through which the youngsters could exit and return. Inside this dime-sized cradle were four young slender salamanders.

You can see that the smallest offspring was about an inch long.

Water is vital to these creatures, yet they have found a way to survive in a landscape that is dry over 90% of the time.

We have been fortunate this year that our rain level has been closer to normal. Storm. But it doesn’t mean water is in abundance. The human population in Southern California continues to grow. More people are drawing on the same limited resource.

Every ounce of water that goes down the drain is water that came from some other living things’ habitat. When you see water being wasted, think of the salamanders and turn it off.

Here are the three water conservation actions we are taking:

  1. replacing water hungry plants with native plants
  2. replacing old toilets and fixtures with low flow fixtures
  3. never leave the water running

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Dirty Story of Soap

It is a funny thing about soap, it is a dirty product with an environmentally dirty history. This month while I have been reevaluating the sustainability of the products I use everyday, soap has become a challenging topic.

Soap is not a “natural” product, it is a creation of civilized humans. You can’t grow it in your garden. You won’t find on a hillside. We probably associate cleanliness with civilization because making soap requires a complex processing of ingredients. And the primary ingredient is fat. Fat lubricates and aids in washing away dirt, bacteria or any other substance that is stuck where ever you don’t want it to be.

Over the course of human history the “fat” ingredient has changed, but to be successful it must be abundant and cheap. Typically that fat source has also been connected to energy production. For example, the Greeks and Romans used olive oil to make soap and to burn in lamps. Around the Mediterranean, forests and woodlands were cut down to cultivate olives. As the increase of production became limited, olive oil became more expensive. Medieval Europeans moved toward a fat that was more available for them, animal fat or tallow. Every grade-school student in California knows that the Spanish established their missions and ranchoes here to raise cattle. We gloss over the fact that these huge tracts of land produced cattle not for beef, but for their hides (leather) and their tallow (candles and fat for soap). Hides and tallow were shipped back to Spain at a sizable profit.

In the late 1700s, a new fat source became available because shipping technology had developed faster, larger ships. Whale blubber became the next cheap fat. Whale oil burned bright in the oil street lamps of the world’s developing cities and fueled the industrial revolution. After WW2, cheap abundant fat from blue whales was the main ingredient in mass-produced soaps. Major international corporations covered up the fact they were using whale oil. Most consumers didn’t know what they were washing their hands with the lives of the great whales.

Petroleum-based products became the next cheap and abundant fat and energy source. Chemical manipulation of fossil fuels created man-made "fats." All you have to do is look at the price you are paying to fill your car's gas tank to know that another resource had to be found.

Today most soaps have moved toward the latest cheap and abundant fat–plant oils. When I bought two bars of my favorite low cost “pure vegetable” soap, I thought I was buying an environmentally friendly product. No animals were tested. No animal fats were used. There are no synthetic petroleum-based chemicals. But, here is the problem: palm oil and soy oil.

Two plant crops are being raised around the world to mass produce the amount of plant oil fat that the growing human population wants to eat, burn and wash with. Yes, plant oils are more sustainable than some other fat sources, but remember back to the Greeks and Romans and how they changed natural ecosystems by replacing woodlands with olive orchards.

Palm oil plantations of the 21st century are huge areas of land carved out of Indonesian rainforests. Industrialized soybean farming in South America is plowing into the Amazonian forests. Such vast areas of the world’s tropical ecosystems are being farmed that the plants and animals that naturally live there are being threatened. To put a face on this natural crisis look to the orangutan. In some areas endangered orangutan populations have declined by 50-90% because of palm oil plantations that have replaced their forests.
orangutans and palm oil plantations in Borneo

So look at the ingredients on your hand soap, shampoo, body lotions, cosmetics, even dish soap and laundry detergent. Reconsider products with:
  • palm oil
  • sodium palmate
  • sodium palm kernelate
What price are you willing to pay to be clean?

Look for palm oil in your food too.

Green Action #1 Sustainable Food

Monday, March 08, 2010

Talking About Island Foxes

One of my professional hats has ears, island fox ears.

Since 2005, I have been the V.P. of Education for the non-profit organization Friends of the Island Fox, Inc. I recently sat down for an interview on the EverGreen Show on California State University, San Bernardino's Internet radio station.

My interview on the EverGreen Show airs:
  • Tuesday, March 9 from 6-6:30 PM
  • and replays Thursday, March 11 from 6-6:30 PM.

We discussed the endangered Channel island fox and the important role this tiny carnivore plays in the island ecosystem. Follow the link below and listen over the Internet.

CLICK HERE to HEAR the Interview (30 mins.)

CSUSB Coyote Radio Station http://coyoteradio.csusb.edu/

For more on the Channel Island fox: www.islandfox.org

Allen's Hummingbird Nest

Our little Allen's hummingbird, DR-1, was a NestWatch Highlight for February. It was one of the first reported fledglings of any species for 2010. The record of its hatching and successful fledging will provide scientists with important data regarding climate change and bird reproduction. More on NestWatch

As of March 8, 2010 we have 3 active Allen's hummingbird nests in the yard.

No one is better at recycling than a female hummingbird. This Allen's hummingbird's nest is finished and waiting for its builder to return and lay her two eggs. You can see that it has bits of plant matter and feathers woven together with spider web. The fuzzy white material appears to be polyfiber stuffing that the little hummingbird probably harvested from someone's patio furniture. She may have reused some materials from last year's nest. Because building materials are valuable resources, it is best to leave an old nest in place. Either the same bird or others will usually reuse the nesting materials.

Some Allen's nests, like the one in the video below, are camouflaged with chips of white paint that the female gently lifts off of the wood trim around our patio. Why they decorate their nests with the paint chips, I'm not sure. It may be a substitute for lichen and help make the nest water resistant.

Watch Allen's hummingbird "A" on her first nest of the season in the video below. First egg laid March 1st, second egg laid March 3rd.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

California Natives in Spring

The ceanothus is blooming in bursts of blue-purple flower sprays. This lovely California native is green year round but is shows off in the early spring. Throughout the Santa Monica Mountains large specimens are edged in purple to white blooms, giving them the common name California lilac.

There are a variety of cultivars and this Yankee Point ceanothus hugs the ground, making it perfect along the walkway up to the house.

Meanwhile, the spring rains and the increasing sunlight have awoken the slumbering redbud. While I love our flowering ornamental plum, the tree is older and suffers from termite damage. It is at the later part of its life. Beneath it we have planted a young redbud, a native species that will one day replace the plum. The redbud also blooms and the seedpods it produces are a food source for a variety of birds. Succession is a normal cycle in a habitat and we have chosen to let the plum nurture a native tree to eventually replace it in our wildlife habitat.

Planting native plants doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. Gradually adding natives allows you to learn where different species will be successful.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Spring Blooms in California

There is no doubt spring has arrived.

Not only have two baby hummingbirds hatched and fledged.

The ornamental plum tree has burst into bloom.
It isn't a native tree, but it is frequented by a wide range of creatures. Bees and hummingbirds visit the flowers while others, like the northern mockingbird, will wait for the summer fruit.

This is FIK's birth tree and the center of his domain. FIK is a male Allen's hummingbird that was saved by our dog Inali and who spent three nights in our house after his natal nest was destroyed. The Whole Story.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Green Cleaning Products

I love it when technology actually gives us positive choices for the environment.

I received an e-cloth as a gift over the holidays. The UK-produced glass-cleaning cloth claims to clean glass surfaces using only water and IT DOES!

I was skeptical, but the fine fibers of the cloth pick up grease and dirt. Even the toothpaste spatters on the bathroom mirror were removed without leaving a smear. When the cloth gets dirty, you wash it and it is ready to use again.

No more chemical glass cleaners and no need for paper towels. Yes, the cloth is made from a petroleum fabric, polyester, but it is a multi-use item with a long life. It is a good trade-off.

You can find out more about E-cloth products at their website www.ecloth.com.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Everyday Sustainability - Green Action #3

How can I change my everyday behavior to live a more sustainable life?

In January I focused on eating sustainably - Green Action #1. Sometimes I slip up on my Veggie Tuesdays and Thursdays, but on the whole I have found that I have reduced my consumption of meat products. We've moved toward simpler ingredients and locally grown produce.

In February, my Green Action #2 was to increase my understanding of our local biodiversity. I participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count and documented bird species through Project FeederWatch and E-Bird. Yesterday, hummingbird A laid her first egg of the season and it was recorded via NestWatch. (the first baby hum of 2010)

Over the last two days I’ve been researching socially responsible and environmentally responsible investment mutual funds. It has made me realize that there is a great deal of confusion about products and producers and what is actually environmentally sustainable.

So for March, my Green Action #3 is to look at what I buy and use as a consumer. How can I make better choices regarding what I purchase?

If you have found a product or a company that helps you to live greener and cleaner, drop me a line at 4animalbytes@gmail.com. Changing our resource-hungry ways can be difficult. We all need to share our successes.