Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Backyard Biodiversity Project

Summer is rolling across the Southern California landscape. Mornings are cool, but the clouds burn off to a haze by midday.

Like a seedling feeling the sun’s warmth and pushing up to the surface, I feel like June is time to do a little growing. So I’m bursting out of my shell and plunging forward with a project that is near to my heart.

The Backyard Biodiversity Project

For the past couple of years I have kept track of plants and animals over, on, in and under the ground here at Hummingbird Hill in Woodland Hills, California. Some of these records have been detailed, others have been sporadic. For example:

  • My record of bird species visiting our yard goes back 7 years. Originally, it was simply noting on a pad which birds I had seen during a month. Now I know which week in May to expect the hooded orioles to return. I know that a year ago today the red-shouldered hawks were just about ready to leave the nest (hawklets). As of May 2007, 64 different avian species have lived at or visited Hummingbird Hill.
  • I’ve identified 13 species of spiders, including our colony of trapdoor spiders. (trapdoor spiders)
  • We have a breeding population of California slender salamanders. Our only amphibian species.
  • We’ve seen three species of lizards, eight species of butterflies and four different species of bees.
We don’t live in the wilds somewhere, we live in suburban Los Angeles. We are close to the Santa Monica Mountains, but only two blocks from one of the busiest freeways in the U.S.

In June, I am going to do what I’ve wanted to do for years. One quadrant at a time, I am going to inventory the plants and creatures on our .75 acre of property. I think the diversity of insects, worms, arthropods, birds, reptiles, and even mammals will surprise you.

Here’s a taste of the creatures I’ve mentioned before:

Creating a Garden that Attracts Wildlife

Urban Wildlife

Native bees; Trapdoor spiders; Jerusalem cricket; gray bird grasshopper; mourning cloak butterfly; monarch butterflies

Reptiles: western fence lizard; spur-thighed tortoise, Turkey; starred agama lizard, Turkey

Birds: goldfinch; red-shouldered hawk; crows and owls; white-crowned sparrows; Bewick's wren; CA quail; Allen's hummingbirds & babies; bird houses.

Mammals: desert cottontail; mule deer; bats; harbor seals.

Native Plants: frost and CA natives; autumn

Cambria Audio Adventure - elephant seals, Elfin forest (podcast)
Bolsa Chica Wetlands - Part 1
Bolsa Chica Wetlands - Part 2 (podcast)
Solar Eclipse 2006 Turkey

Counting starts tomorrow. Get ready for a June of DISCOVERY.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

“Survival of the Sickest” by Dr. Sharon Moalem

Book Review -

“Survival of the Sickest”
by Dr. Sharon Moalem

HarperCollins Publishers, New York NY 2007

Evolution is a long process played out over multiple generations. Not necessarily.

Dr. Moalem’s book “Survival of the Sickest” touches on a number of evolutionary adaptations in humans which allowed populations to survive catastrophic disease. But there is a price to pay for this protection–in the absence of these environmental challenges or malevolent diseases such adaptations can result in chronic health conditions.

Do you believe that as a human you are on an elevated position on the evolutionary web of life? Then pay attention the next time you sneeze. Are you sneezing by choice or is a microbe manipulating your behavior for its own purposes?

Moalem also challenges common thinking about how animal populations adapt to survive by discussing the field of epigenetics. Scientific evidence is building to show that dramatic physical variances can occur from one generation to the next by means of genes that are turned on and off. Behavior of the parent, before and during fetal development and at certain specific windows after birth, can actually change which genes are activated. Such changes can then be passed on to later generations.

Moalem’s “Survival of the Sickest” is thought provoking science presented for a lay audience. He explains complicated ideas clearly and challenges you to think outside the box. For me, I was making connections to how individuals from a single finch species on the Galapagos Islands can have completely different beak structure from one generation to the next in response to environmental changes in food supply. Biologists are trying to understand how a specific Asian wolf population made the leap from wolf to dog. Perhaps epigenetics played a role.

There is growing evidence that major evolutionary changes happen in bursts. Epigenetics seems to support these theories. If so, global warming may be a catalyst for dramatic change in the natural world as species must adapt quickly or perish. If indeed evolution can happen over the course of just a few generations, the changes that occur my shock us all.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Beneficial Wild Creatures In Your Garden

When my friend Douglas Welch of A Gardener's Notebook read the post about the benefits of western fence lizards in our garden, he proposed a joint effort on beneficial wild animals you should attract to your garden.

To find out why it’s important to attract this valley carpenter bee to your yard, read my post Beneficial Wild Creatures In Your Garden on A Gardener’s Notebook.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Creating a Garden That Attracts Wildlife

For many people the idea of wild creatures in their garden means rabbits and deer eating plants to the ground while birds and squirrels pilfer the fruit trees. While this can definitely be true, if you create a balanced ecosystem in your yard, the plant eaters will be moderated by the predators.

Get Clean and Green
Before you can think about attracting beneficial wildlife, clean up your act. If you wouldn’t drink it or eat it - Don’t Put It On Your Yard. “But there are aphids on my roses,” you say. Spray and the aphids become resistant, their numbers wax and wane. You continue to spray and take on the mindset of a Four-Star General mired in a losing battle. STOP!

No one wants to eat an insect packed full of insecticide. If the aphids get really bad spray them off with the hose. Aphids are not transportation wizards. Knocked off their home plant, many won’t survive. I noticed a group of aphids starting to flourish on my roses the other day, but so did the bushtits. These small birds, the size of a hummingbird, are voracious insect eaters. They scour my roses every few days and voilá, no aphids. I do nothing but watch. Did this happen all a once, NO. So get started today. Stop with the insecticides and herbicides, no one wants to live in or eat at a toxic waste dump.

When Reestablishing An Ecosystem Start Small
Think of your yard as an island, an oasis. As on all islands, the foundation of an ecosystem is the plants. Go Native with your plantings, like this beautiful Fremontia or flannel bush. You will save water, avoid frost damage and begin to attract the smallest wild voyagers, insects and spiders.

If your first response is “No way, insects mean infestation,” let’s talk. White flies infesting your favorite hibiscus? Japanese fruit beetles on your apricot tree? I have two things to say: nonnative insect on a nonnative plant. Native plants have evolved to defend themselves from native insects. Infestations typically occur on plants that have no natural defenses and with insects that are out of control because they have no predators.

If your response is “Uck I don’t want insects, I want to attract birds and real animals,” Let me give you a moment to rethink. A yard without insects and spiders is a Dead Zone.

Arthropods, the class of animals that includes insects, spiders, millipedes, crustaceans, etc., make up 85% of known living animal species. Their biomass is greater than ALL other animal species combined. That’s right, all the whales, elephants, fish and people in world do not weigh as much as the ants, flies, bees, beetles, spiders and krill. You can not have an ecosystem without them.

Open for Business
Think of your island of habitat as a resort with a reputation to maintain. You need three basics: clean water, safe food and safe living quarters. Water can be as simple as a low dish on the ground rinsed and refilled every other day. Moving water is more visible, but not necessary.

For shelter, provide rock mounds or logs for reptiles. Trees are a must for birds, but shrubs are important too. Many native birds, prefer to nest at a mid-height 5’ - 20’ off the ground. If trees aren’t possible a perch that offers height and a good view will help birds feel safe. (Trees provide roosts for birds of prey also.)

Native plants and insects will provide food. Adding a bird feeder or bird house bumps you up from a four to a “five-star” habitat, but they aren’t necessary. A bird feeder, however, will quickly bring seed-eating birds. Bird activity attracts insect-eating birds. They know the seed-eaters will watch for predators. Besides, it’s like choosing between a restaurant that is busy and one that is empty. Which one would you tend to try first? Fruiting or nectar-producing plants will also add to the variety of your visitors.

Safety is a priority. If you want lizards, amphibians or birds you can’t have an urban tiger, a domestic cat, prowling the grounds. Most dogs have less of a need to hunt and can get along with non-mammalian wildlife. Our dog actually watches the hummingbirds at the feeder.

Like any resort, word of mouth, can make or break you. Stagnant water, poisoned insects or a cat lying in wait by the bird bath can turn visitors away. And they will tell their friends. Here again, when you have a bad experience at a restaurant, you think twice before returning.

Something Furry
This is where a backyard habitat becomes more complicated. Humans have reduced native mammalian predators because of our own fear. These larger predators are frequently our predators. Wolves, bear, mountain lions, heck even bobcats and coyotes scare us. I’ve had a coyote looking in my French doors and one night while I was home alone, I could sense something was watching the house. It was a coyote out front.

A coyote is generally not a threat to humans, but it can be disconcerting to have something fairly large hunting in your backyard. However, without these predators rabbit and deer populations can get out of control. We are just in that foothill zone where we occasionally have a rabbit and it is typically preyed upon by someone’s dog or one of the hawks or owls.

Bats however are mammals you can attract to your garden without worry. As insect predators few birds can match them. To attract bats, open water, like a pond or pool, is a plus. Nocturnal insects often fly over water. A bat box or large trees can provide shelter.

Nonnative brown rats and mice can be a problem. They depend on human castoffs, but rats will also prey on the eggs and young of reptiles and birds.

Raccoons, skunks and introduced opossums can also be a challenge. As occasional visitors, raccoons and skunks are valuable snail and grub predators, but you don’t want to feed them. They will be healthier and live longer as wild creatures. To ensure that you aren’t feeding them or attracting coyotes, feed your pets in the house. Pet food bowls can be very attractive to wildlife.

Saving the World
When you create habitat in your backyard I believe you are helping to save the Earth one small piece at a time. Global warming, species extinction and toxic pollution seem insolvable problems, but look out at your yard, the solution starts RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. Restore the native habitat in your yard and help save the world.