Poo-Poo Project Prevents Bird Deaths


LEOW_poopoo original
A very lucky, but unhappy, Long-eared Owl that was rescued from a vault toilet by the BLM. Once this bird has been cleaned, it should recover quickly. Many other birds are not so fortunate. Image courtesy of the Teton Raptor Center, Photo Credit BLM Lakeview District Office.

Anyone who has visited public lands in the west will be familiar with the boxy brown vault toilets stationed at trailheads and parking lots. These facilities provide welcome relief for trail-users and travelers while reducing the impact of human waste on the environment, but they have a hidden downside for birds.

The toilet’s ventilation pipe, which extends from the roof of the building like a chimney, can be a death trap for curious birds. Many species, including several types of owls, Kestrels, Flickers and bluebirds, nest in cavities. Typically, these are natural cavities, like holes in dead cottonwoods. But natural cavities are a limited and valuable resource, and cavity nesting birds will check out any hole, even man-made ones, that might make a suitable nest site.

A vault toilet ventilation pipe is one such cavity. When birds fly into the pipe, they can become trapped in the vault of the toilet with the human waste. Usually these trapped birds die due to stress and starvation. If someone happens to see them in the vault, and the facility’s manager is able to get them out, the birds can be cleaned, rehabilitated and released.

Wildlife rehabilitators at the Teton Raptor Center, located in Wilson, Wyoming, had

Laura Johnston
Laura Johnston holds a “Poo-Poo Screen” that can be installed on the top of a vault toilet ventilation pipe to prevent cavity nesting birds from entering it and becoming trapped. This screen is specially designed to allow for proper ventilation, even when covered by snow. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnston.

treated many birds rescued from toilets, and decided that prevention was the best medicine. They started the “Poo-Poo Project” in 2010 to find a practical solution to the problem. After trial and error, they designed a screen to fit over the opening of the ventilation pipe and found a company in Idaho Falls to manufacture them at a cost of about $30.00 per screen. The Poo-Poo Project now raises money to purchase screens and coordinate with local, state and federal land agencies to get them installed. As of 2017, about 5,000 “Poo-Poo Screens” have been installed in 29 states.

Grand Junction resident Laura Johnston led the Poo-Poo Project charge locally. Johnston works as a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park during the summer, which is where she first learned of the project. “I felt like for five months of my life, this concept of stewardship was front and center and then I come home and it just goes away. And I thought I need to have something that keeps this idea of stewardship going for me personally.”

When she returned to Grand Junction at the end of the summer in 2015, Johnston applied for and received a Rich Levad Research Grant from the Grand Valley Audubon Society to purchase “Poo-Poo Screens.” With this grant and donations from individuals, Johnston raised about $3,000 and purchased screens for vault toilets in the Grand Valley. She coordinated with the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the

CPW screen
Trina Romero, Watchable Wildlife & Volunteer Coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, holds a “Poo-Poo Screen” about to be installed on a vault toilet on CPW property. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnston

Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies to get the screens installed. According to Johnston, all of these agencies were happy to install the screens on their vault toilets. “So far, we have installed 166 screens and the Grand Valley is done basically,” says Johnston.

Now Johnston hopes to get screens installed on all the public vault toilets in Colorado. She continues to volunteer her time to raise money to purchase the screens, and get them delivered and installed where needed. Thankfully, newer models of vault toilets on the market come with ventilation pipe screens. But there remain many older facilities that are yet to be screened. Thanks to the hard work of Johnston and the folks at the Teton Raptor Center, the toilets that provide much needed relief at the end of a long hike won’t lead to a very unpleasant end for local birds.


An American kestrel, trapped in the vault of a toilet, finds an unpleasant perch. Photo courtesy Cameron Collins and Clay Stott/BLM


If you’d like to help Johnston purchase Poo-Poo Screens for facilities in Colorado, you donate to her effort via the Grand Valley Audubon Society. They accept donations for her Poo-Poo Project work on their website, audubongv.org or you can mail a check to the Grand Valley Audubon Society, P.O. Box 1211, Grand Junction, CO, 81502. Please be sure to write “for Poo-Poo Project” on the check. If you’d like to get in touch with Johnston about the Poo-Poo Project, you can contact her via the Grand Valley Audubon Society at gvas.executivecoordinator@gmail.com.

Vault toilet ventilation pipes are not the only man-made cavities that can be hazardous for birds. Virtually any vertical open pipe can trap a curious bird. Once they fly in, tight confines prevent them from opening their wings, and unlike in natural cavities, the slick surface inside pipes prevents birds from getting a foothold to climb up and out. One survey of over 800 open pipes used as mining claim stakes in Nevada found the carcasses of almost 900 birds. A single defunct irrigation pipe in California contained the bodies of 200 birds. You can prevent unnecessary bird deaths on your property by capping or covering vertical open pipes. The cap or screen need not be expensive, as long as it is not easily dislodged by wind or other disturbance.


(This article was originally published in the March 25, 2017 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, as Life-saving Screen)



Poo-Poo Project Prevents Bird Deaths

Best housemate ever: The Bold Jumping Spider

What a face! The bold jumping spider’s large eyes provide keen vision. Its striking iridescent green fangs are likely for show. Photo by Opoterser, Wikimedia.

Most people don’t welcome spiders in their home, but once they get to know the bold jumping spider, they might change their minds. Don’t grab the nearest shoe to smash it, don’t be put off by its looks. Despite having eight fuzzy legs and large iridescent green fangs, this spider is a helpful, tidy housemate.

Bold jumping spiders are pretty big– their bodies are about a quarter to a half-inch long. And though they may look fierce, they are harmless to humans. According to Penn State entomologists, your chances of being bitten by one are “slim to none.” The rare accounts of jumping spider bites suggest the bite causes a reaction similar to a mosquito bite.

But if you are an insect, these spiders are the stuff of nightmares- a lion stalking you in tall grass, poised to pounce… Unlike many spiders that spin webs, sit back and wait for insects to fly into them, bold jumping spiders are active hunters. In fact, they don’t spin webs at all, which means they won’t leave dusty cobwebs in the corners of your home.

Jumping spiders hunt during the day in open areas, such as walls and windowsills, using their keen eyes to spot their prey. Unlike other types of spiders, they have excellent eyesight and an almost 360-degree field of vision. The bold jumping spider will pounce on any insect smaller than itself, including houseflies, mosquitos, small crickets and other uninvited guests in your home.

Once prey is spotted, jumping spiders sneak up within striking distance– which for a jumping spider is pretty far. They owe their astounding jumping ability to hydraulics, not solely muscle. These spiders are able to rapidly increase the internal fluid pressure in their legs, propelling themselves 10-50 times their body length and pouncing on their insect victims. US Track and Field athlete Mike Powell, who holds the world record in the long jump, can jump less than 5 times his body length– and that’s with a running start.

Though bold jumping spiders don’t construct webs, they do make spider silk. They use a single line of silk as a tether to catch them in case they make a bad jump, kind of like a rock climber’s rope or bungee jumping cord. The female bold jumper also uses her silk to make an egg sac and small “den” where she hides with the sac and then her spiderlings when they hatch.

Jumping spiders are fun to watch– scientists who study their behavior believe they are screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-3-17-06-pmvery “intelligent” given the size of their brains. Most jumping spiders perform courtship “dances.” A couple of years ago a video of a colorful dancing spider went “viral” on the internet. The species shown in the video was the Coastal peacock spider from Australia– a species of jumping spider, just like our very own bold jumper.

Like a good guard dog, the bold jumping spider defends your home from intruders, albeit very small ones. But unlike a dog, that sheds hair and tracks in dirt, jumping spiders don’t leave a mess. So next time a jumping spider has moves into your home, consider letting it stay. While it can’t be counted on to help out with the rent or mortgage, it may still earn its keep.

This article originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in September 2016.

Best housemate ever: The Bold Jumping Spider

The scorpion’s softer side

Northern Scorpion. Photo by Meredith Swett Walker

It is hard to think of a creature less likely to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings than the scorpion. They have pincers, an intimidating stinger, and are rumored to hide in shoes. Plus, they are hard to categorize and this makes humans uncomfortable. Is a scorpion an insect? Is it a crustacean like a crab? They look “crunchy”, “pinch-ey” and “stingy” all at once.

It turns out that the unlovable scorpion– which is neither insect nor crustacean– has a softer side. These creepy crawlies turn out to be caring mothers. Their venom may help scientists develop important medications. Though they cause many people to shudder, scorpions deserve a second look.

Scorpions are arachnids like spiders, and like spiders they have eight legs. The two front limbs that bear their pincer claws are technically “pedipalps,” not legs, and are not used in walking. While scorpions may look like an alien visitor from a chilling sci-fi film, they have walked the earth longer than almost any other animal. Scorpions evolved at least 430 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs. In fact, the oldest known fossil of a land dwelling animal is a scorpion found in 2013 in South Africa.  Modern scorpions are found on every continent except Antarctica.

Clearly scorpions have mastered the art of surviving on planet Earth and the secret of their success may be their low-key lifestyle. They are nocturnal and hide from daylight under rocks or in burrows, emerging at night to hunt insects. But scorpions are essentially “couch potatoes.” They have a very inactive lifestyle and a low metabolic rate which means they require very little energy or food. Unlike human couch potatoes, scorpions can go a long time without a meal. Some species have been reported to go up to a year between feedings.

Yet scorpions are not slackers in the parenting department. Female scorpions give birth to live young rather than lay eggs. The newborn scorpions are defenseless– their screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-12-23-12-pmexoskeletons do not harden until they are older so their pincers are soft and useless and their stingers are blunt. To keep them out of danger, mother scorpions carry their babies around on their backs until they are old enough to defend themselves.

Scorpions sometimes use their stingers to subdue prey that they catch with their pincers. They will also sting in self-defense, and if they feel the need to defend themselves from your incoming foot– you may be in for some pain. Most scorpion stings are no more painful than a bee sting and ultimately harmless. Only one scorpion in the U.S. has venom powerful enough to cause life-threatening illness in humans. The Arizona bark scorpion, which is found in the Sonoran Desert, has a neurotoxin in its venom that can cause extreme pain and numbness. But fatalities due to its sting are rare.

Scorpion venom may turn out to provide more benefit than harm to humans. The venom contains a number of different chemicals that have potential as drugs. Scientists are currently investigating components of scorpion venom that may be useful in treating brain tumors and malaria. Who knows what other secrets may hide in the scorpion’s stinger?

Though there are plenty of scorpions in the Grand Valley, they keep a low profile and are seldom seen. If you do encounter a scorpion, before you run away shrieking or stomp it to smithereens, take a breath and consider letting it go its merry way. These secretive creatures are less menacing than may they appear.

This article was originally published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in May 2016

The scorpion’s softer side

Spotted in Fruita- the elusive Spotted bat!


Friday morning I got a call from my friend Dan Neubaum, “You home? Want to see a Spotted bat?” And I thought, “That is a waste of a question mark Dan,” but I said “Heck yeah!”

A gentleman in my little town had found this bat on his front porch when he headed out in the morning. A bit dumbfounded, as you would be if you found this fantastical creature on your doorstep, he searched the internet and somehow stumbled across this article I wrote on Spotted bats for the local paper about three years ago. In the article I described how biologists were on the lookout for this species and provided Dan’s contact information. Dan is a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Dan loves bats (he did his Master’s research on them), and upon receiving the gentleman’s call he quickly hustled out to Fruita to pick up the bat. It was unable to fly but appeared uninjured. Since the bat was found just a few blocks from my house, he very thoughtfully swung by so I could get a look at it.


Spotted bats are uncommon and rarely recorded, but this is actually the second spotted bat reported to Dan as a result of my newspaper article. Soon after it was originally published, a local resident contacted Dan to report he had seen one in his yard- and had pictures to prove it! That newspaper assignment paid peanuts, but I consider it one of my best successes in my (very limited) writing career.

Even more exciting, Friday’s Spotted bat was a lactating female. This is exciting because it means that they are breeding in the area (yay!) It’s also exciting if you’ve been wondering what bat boobs look like (but were afraid to admit it). Apparently they look (disturbingly) like human boobs. I guess a boob is a boob- we’re all just mammals.


Thankfully, Dan said that at this time of year, this mom’s pup was probably flying and feeding independently (though still nursing some) which means that if she recovered they could reunite and mom’s absence wasn’t necessarily a death sentence for her pup. Dan took mama Spotted bat back to his house and let her crawl up in his bat box to rest for the day.

At dusk, mama bat flew out of the box and Dan said she looked pretty strong. Hopefully her weekend turned out better than her Friday. While I enjoyed the experience of “meeting” her, I am sure it wasn’t how she planned to spend her day. Still I am very thankful Dan thought to bring her by so I could check her out. Look at those crazy ears!


Spotted in Fruita- the elusive Spotted bat!

The Showgirl and the Amazon

The eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) ranges in length from 8-14 inches and is found in rocky canyons, pinon-juniper woodlands, and shrublands. (Photo by Brett Walker.)

The warm sunny days of early spring make me feel like a lizard.  I just want to lie on a rock, bask in the sun and thaw out my bones.  The (mostly) warm sunny weather that we have enjoyed the last couple of weeks brought out the lizards in the Grand Valley.  Many of us are familiar with the iconic collared lizard, which graces Colorado National Monument t-shirts.  It is probably one of the most spectacular lizards in North America, and a friend of mine dubbed it “the Vegas showgirl of lizards.”  With their bright yellow heads, speckled blue bodies and striking black neck bands, collared lizards are pretty razzle-dazzle.  Even their behavior is showy- they often perch on prominent sunny rocks as if posing for the paparazzi and have been known to run on their hind legs.

While the collared lizard attracts a lot of attention, the other lizards in our area often go unnoticed, or barely acknowledged as a small dark shape scurrying under a rock as we hike past. At least nine species of lizards live in the Grand Valley, and are most often seen in the red rocks of the Colorado National Monument or McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.  And while none are quite as eye-catching as the Collared Lizard, they are worth a second look.  The most interesting, to my mind, is the plateau striped whiptail (Aspidoscelis velox).  If the collared lizard is the Vegas showgirl of lizards, the plateau striped whiptail is the Amazon.

The plateau striped whiptail lizard (Aspidocelis velox) is distinguished from other local whiptails by the 6-7 light stripes on its back. The long bluish tail is brighter in juveniles and paler in adults. Adults range in length from 8 to almost 11 inches in length. Although plateau striped whiptails may be less skittish and thus easier to catch than other lizards, when captured, they may play dead or whip their heads around to bite their captor.
(Photo by J.N. Stuart)

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of women warriors who isolated themselves from men, except for an annual visit to a neighboring tribe for the purposes of reproduction.  Any male babies that resulted were killed, abandoned or given to a neighboring tribe- only females were allowed to remain in Amazon territory.  Plateau striped whiptails take this “no boys allowed” policy to an even greater extreme- there are no male plateau striped whiptails at all.  The entire species is female and they don’t even need males to reproduce.  These lizards reproduce asexually, via parthenogenesis, a process in which an egg cell starts dividing and produces an embryo without being fertilized by a sperm.  Because there is no contribution of genetic material from a male, the offspring is genetically identical to the mother and therefore a clone.  Parthenogenesis is actually very common among the different species of whiptail lizards- the Colorado checkered whiptail, which occurs in southeast Colorado is also parthenogenic. Scientists believe that these parthenogenic whiptail species arose when two typical sexual species hybridized.

As bizarre as it may seem, parthenogenesis is not as rare as you might think.  It is actually very common in plants.   All ants, bees and wasps use parthenogenesis to produce male offspring.  It has also been known to occur occasionally in sharks, turkeys and chickens, though usually the embryos that result are usually not viable.

Some of you may remember the excitement (and some anxiety) in 1996 when scientist cloned a sheep.  The animal, which they named Dolly, even made the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Will There Ever Be Another You?”  Many people think clones were creepy and they are a major theme in science fiction novels and movies like “The Stepford Wives,” “Blade Runner” and “Gattaca.”  But for those of us here in the Grand Valley, we needn’t turn to novels or films to find clones- a casual hike up a local canyon might grant us an encounter with a clone in the flesh.  In the case of the Plateau Striped Whiptail, or “Amazon” lizard, reality is stranger than fiction or, in this case, Greek mythology.

This article was originally published, in an edited form, on Wednesday April 24 in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.  You can read it in the Sentinel here.  

The Showgirl and the Amazon

Invisible Birds


A murmuration, or flock, of European Starlings  Photo by Walter Baxter
A murmuration, or flock, of European Starlings Photo by Walter Baxter

The human mind gets bored easily. When you smell something for long enough, you stop noticing it. We are equally inattentive to things we see routinely- our eyes see them, but our brain doesn’t pay much attention and we sort of look right past them as though they were invisible.

The same holds true for common species of birds.  I am willing to bet that on most days that you step outside in the Grand Valley, or even look out your window, you see at least one of the following three bird species:  House Sparrow, European Starling and Pigeon.  These birds are commonplace around cities, suburbs and agricultural settings.  Some birders call them “trash birds,” because they are like visual trash that your eyes have to sort through to pick out the unusual or desirable birds.  I am starting to think that term is a little unfair.  I now like to think of them as “invisible birds”- they are so common you look right through them.

These birds deserve a second glance.  Like them or not, their ability to adapt to the habitats that humans create has allowed them to hitch a ride with us as our settlements expand around the globe.  Now House Sparrows are the most widely distributed bird species on the planet. The European Starling, first introduced to this continent about 120 years ago, now ranges across North America and numbers over 200 million.  Pigeons are now so associated with cities, that when we see them in places like the Colorado National Monument they may seem out of place- even though their natural nesting habitat is cliff faces rather than tall buildings.

Many bird-lovers dislike these species for more legitimate reasons than simple commonness.  House sparrows and European Starlings prefer to nest in cavities, such as tree holes or nest boxes.  Cavities are a limited resource and these two introduced species often displace struggling native birds.  Bluebird lovers may despise House Sparrows in particular as these birds will destroy nests and forcibly evict bluebirds from the nest boxes the birders install for them.   I don’t believe pigeons directly compete with any native species, but many city dwellers, perhaps annoyed by their droppings, refer to them as “flying rats.”

Personally I would prefer a pigeon to a rat any day.  Were it not for abundant pigeon prey, Peregrine Falcons may not have made a comeback and established themselves in many large cities.  Even here in Grand Junction, I have seen Peregrines perched on the tower on the corner of 8th and Main Street.  European Starlings may be a dime a dozen, but take a moment to listen to them.  These relatives of mynah birds are accomplished mimics, and can do convincing impressions of hawks and other birds.  The cheeky House Sparrow is easy and fun to watch as it squabbles over nest sites, and takes dust baths.

It is easy to disregard these “invisible birds” because they are common or to dislike them when they displace native birds.  But don’t blame them.  After all, we brought them here and created the conditions that have allowed them to thrive.  Take a moment to admire the boldness that allows them to live amidst a large, noisy  creature like humans.  Or the cleverness that allows them to exploit new food resources like French fries, and habitats like highway overpasses.  Have a little empathy for these immigrants whose fate has been so tied up with our own.

Pigeon Photo by Alexander Gamauf
Pigeon   Photo by Alexander Gamauf

Pigeon (Columba livia)

Domesticated pigeons were introduced to North America by European Settlers around 1600 and some then established feral populations.  These birds have been bred by humans for over 5,000 years for meat, as a hobby, and to carry messages.  Carrier pigeons have served militaries for hundreds of years.  In WWI, a pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for carrying a message through enemy fire that saved the lives of 194 American soldiers.   Pigeons may have served in war as recently as 2008, when the New York Times reported that they were being used by Iraqi militia.

Male House Sparrow  photo by Joaquim Alves Gaspar
Male House Sparrow   Photo by Joaquim Alves Gaspar

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The House Sparrow has long been associated with humans and agriculture.  It spread from Middle East, where agriculture originated, into Europe and North Africa and was later introduced to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other islands.  It is now the most widely distributed wild bird on the planet.  European immigrants, who wanted to see birds from their homeland, introduced the birds to North America in New York City in the early 1850s.  It was also believed that the sparrows might help control insect pests.  It is now considered an agricultural pest in many places, but in Britain where it is a beloved native, its numbers are declining as farming practices change.


European Starling   Photo by Pierre Selim

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Starlings were brought to New York City in 1890 by a Shakespeare fan who wanted to see all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays introduced to the U.S.  The Starling’s talents as a mimic are mentioned in the play Henry IV.  Starlings get their name from their appearance in flight where their short pointed wings and short tail make them look like a four-pointed star.

An edited version of this article appears in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s Outdoors Section, February 17, 2013.  You can read it here at http://www.gjsentinel.com/outdoors/articles/urban-birds/

Invisible Birds

Listening to Spring

Photo by Alan Vernon
Western Meadowlark            Photo by Alan Vernon

(I wrote this short article about bird song for our local website Fruita Pulp.  Check out the local talent (poetry!) and information (mountain biking!) at http://www.fruitapulp.com/)

The temperature has finally clawed its way back above freezing (during the day at least), the sun is showing itself again, and in honor of Valentine’s Day the Eurasian Collared doves are putting the moves on each other.  If you squint into the distance, you can see spring meandering our way.  Finally.

In my opinion, one of the best things about spring is the way it sounds when you wake up in the morning.  Sound is seasonal- it is an important cue to time and place. When I first wake up, before my eyes even open, I start listening.  My brain is groggily trying to figure out where I am in time and space.  In my case, the first thing I usually hear is cries of “Mommy, Mommy!” but in between summons, I become aware of the background noise.  Cars starting, a passing train, but there are sounds that change with the seasons.  On a snowy winter day, all noise seems muffled by the insulation of the snow.  But if you hear exuberant birdsong, you know it’s spring.

For me spring always brings a burst of energy and ambition.  I want to take on new challenges.  Last year this involved putting in a garden and then starting more seeds than I would ever have room to plant.  This year I challenged myself to show restraint when placing my seed order.  If you are looking for a new challenge this spring, why not learn some bird songs?  Learning birdsongs will certainly help you become a better birder, because you can often hear more birds than you can actually see.  But even if you don’t plan to take up birding as a hobby, there is something about being able to give a name to things that allows you to notice.  I think we could all stand to do a little more noticing of the world around us in this age of distraction and hurry.

Learning birdsongs may appear to be an arduous task, especially to non-musical folks like me- but it doesn’t have to be a chore.  I used to be a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ornithology course.  This course involved a LOT of memorization and the students were often overwhelmed, so I only asked them to learn 10 of the songs most commonly heard on campus.  Ten songs are not a lot, but it can really open a door into the world of natural sounds. You may find yourself noticing sounds and creatures that have been around you, unseen, all along.    If you can identify these common songs, when you hear something that is not in your “top 10” you know it may be something unusual and worth tracking down for a better look. At the very least you can impress your friends, or embarrass them, depending on how cool a crowd you run with.

Here are Fruita’s “top 10” in no particular order.  (The birders who are reading this will surely quibble with my list, but trust me it was REALLY hard to cut down to only 10.) If you click each name, you will be taken to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website where you can listen to each species’ songs and other sounds and see pictures of them.  There will be a quiz on Monday (just kidding.)

  1. Eurasian Collared Dove– these large, pale doves breed pretty early here in the Grand Valley and have already started calling to mates- a classic “koo-KOO-kook.  They also make a really ugly “hwaah” call when alarmed that sounds like a cow in pain to me.
  2. House Sparrow– a commonplace but cheery “cheep, cheep, cheerup”
  3. House Finch– a jumbled warble usually with a slurred “zree” note somewhere near the end.
  4. Starling– an accomplished mimic, the Starling can impersonate other birds like Red-tailed Hawks.  Their song is complex and almost mechanical sounding.
  5. American Robin– the happy classic “cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily!”
  6. Northern Flicker– our most common woodpecker.  Listen for it’s loud “Keeeer!”  call
  7. Western Meadowlark – A beautiful, flute-like melody often heard in pastures and fields.  One of the best sounds of spring.
  8. Mourning Dove –  a softer “coo-oo”, than the Eurasian Collared-Dove, often mistaken for an owl.  (For a great musical tribute to this dove, check out the song “Mornin’ Dove” by Robinella and the CC String Band.)
  9. Common Raven – one of the most intelligent birds, they make a wide variety of sounds including a  loud“Croak!” which can be heard for more than a mile.
  10. Bullock’s Oriole – listen for these near large cottonwoods where they like to build their sock-like nests.  The Oriole’s song is a whistled melody that sounds a bit like the Robin, but has a richer tone and is less repetitive.

The Eurasian Collared Doves have already started calling to mates, but the rest of the gang won’t really get going until April- so you have about 6 weeks to study.  If you learn these, you may then be able to pick out a Lazuli Bunting along the river or a wash.  These small birds are a spectacular blue, orange and white and worth tracking down for a look.  Another bird you’re likely to hear nearby water is the bold Red-winged Blackbird.  Take a hike in McInnis Canyons and you may hear one of my favorites, a Canyon Wren, echoing from the canyon walls or a Black-throated Sparrow singing from atop a four-winged saltbush.  Close your eyes, smell the mud and the fresh leaves, feel the sun warming your face. Be still for a moment and open your ears.  You may be surprised what you can hear.

Listening to Spring

I Touched the Cuttlefish

Friends on Facebook turned me on to this thoughtful article, “Look, Don’t Touch”, by David Sobel in Orion magazine.  He argues that environmental education has embraced the “Leave No Trace” philosophy so wholeheartedly (in addition to the fear of litigation) that it may actually be turning kids off of nature, rather than getting them excited about it.  Trees are not to be climbed for fear of falling, frogs are not to be caught for fear of injuring them and forts are not to be built because they leave evidence of human interference.  Nature might as well be behind glass in a museum display and we all know how much kids love that.

When I was a child, I left a lot of traces. Which is not to say I had no respect for nature.  I lived in mortal fear of accidentally littering and I developed a knack for rescuing injured wildlife- defending killdeer chicks from marauding 6th grade boys on the soccer field, bottle-feeding orphaned squirrels, etc.  At age 10 I could identify more birds, mammals and tropical reef fish than most of the adults I knew, but I did not come by this knowledge by treading lightly.  Many bivalves were harmed in the making of this future biologist.  A favorite summer activity of mine was to hang out on the jetty at the beach, smashing mussels, tying their meat to bits of fishing line, dangling it in front of an underwater crevice and yanking up green crabs (Carcinus maenas).  These were smaller, but feistier, than the showy lady crabs (Ovalipes ocellatus) which I more often found on the mud flats and carted back to the beach in buckets.  I admit to torturing earthworms in my backyard, cutting them in two to marvel at how both pieces seemed to live  (I now know that the tail end dies eventually.)  In the spring, any skunk cabbage I found in the woods was whacked with a stick to smell the stink and  I eagerly hunted, and temporarily held hostage, red efts.

Most of the field biologists I know were kids like this:  caring and enthusiastic explorers who probably did some damage along the way.  I think the reason that most of us are biologists is because we delight in catching and handling animals.  Now we have a license to do it and it is for a good cause.  If you know a wildlife biologist, ask them and I’ll bet you good money they have a collection of photos of themselves holding a variety of study organisms and grinning like kids in a candy store.  I believe that knowledge brings appreciation and in order to truly know something you have see it, hear it, touch it and smell it.   Heck, my ecology professor insisted that to truly know your study organism you had to eat it!  While I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, I can see his point.

I spent the majority of my early adulthood observing and catching birds in far-flung locales for various scientific research studies.  Did this disturb the birds?  I am certain it did.  Did it contribute to our knowledge and respect for these species?  Again, I am certain it did.  Will that knowledge and respect help improve conservation efforts in their behalf?  I hope so.

It has been a few years since I got my hands on a bird and I miss it.  My wildlife handling lately is confined to the canine, feline and toddler variety.  But on a recent snorkeling trip at the Great Barrier Reef I spied a cuttlefish, drifting lazily above the sandy ocean floor.  We had been warned by the tour boat staff not to touch anything on the reef, but a childish impulse overtook me.  I dove down and briefly touched the cuttlefish with the tip of my finger, just to see if I could tag it before it darted off.  Was I scolded by the strict matron in the bathing cap?  Yup.  Was it the best part of my day on the reef?  Absolutely.

I Touched the Cuttlefish