Things with Feathers: Living with our winged urban neighbors

I’ve been finding this series difficult to write in a way I hadn’t expected. Finding information to write about is fairly easy. Being excited about it is also easy. But I have to restrain myself from writing it up and adding “but” statements to it all. The thoughts come up: “Here is this awesome thing BUT isn’t it awful how we came to a state where this needs to be done” or “here is this thing which is great BUT so much still needs to be done” and/or “BUT here are ways in which these aspects of it could go wrong.”

And I want to focus on just the positive aspects of what some people are doing to make the world a better place. It is really hard. Due to a combination of learned social behavior, my own critical tendencies, and a desire to present a full picture of a situation, it is really hard to JUST be happy about things instead of downplaying them; it is hard to focus on just the potential in them and recognize them as indications that things can be even better than they are. Finding the not-so-great among the good is really tiring. I can prevent myself from writing the critical statements; I wish I could convince my mental habits to let it go, too.

Well. With that out of the way (this kind of hope is hard), here are this month’s examples of positive trends in the world.

Fastest animal in the world making a comeback – in cities, no less

Early last week, during a lunchtime walk, I heard some rapid, high-pitched chirping sounds, begging sounds, and trying to locate the bird, saw what I hoped might be a falcon. It was too far off for me to be quite certain, but . . . it could be. The flight pattern didn’t match other birds I know I’ve seen here. There were two of them, near the big bridge carrying the interstate across the river. Could it be a peregrine falcon youngster and a parent? Oh, I hoped! Peregrines have nested on the bridges here in Portland since the 1990s; I’ve known this for a while, but (frustratingly) never sighted any.

The next day, I again saw a bird shaped much like those, flying much closer – smaller than I expected, but with the right shape to be a falcon; it headed off towards the bridge and seemed to fly under it and then slightly upwards. After that sighting, I felt more confident believing I had finally seen one of the inhabitants of the local bridges.

Peregrines  – which are relatively small, about the size of a crow – can reach 200 mph when they dive on prey, making them the fastest animal in the world. Like many other predatory birds, their populations were devastated by DDT – which lingers in the environment, and still causes eggshell thinning and other problems. By the 1970s, they were all but gone in the United States.

The banning of DDT and captive breeding programs, to boost the wild populations, started to pay off in the 1980s, when wild pairs were seen nesting successfully in Oregon. They ignored nest boxes, however, but in the 1990s, they started rearing young on bridges in Portland. They’ve been quite successful – on average, more successful than parents out in the wild: “Portland’s nests appear to be more productive than average nests statewide and nationwide, with an average of 2.3 chicks a season. Elsewhere, nests produce 1.6 to 1.8 chicks on average. ” (Read the source of the quote for more great Portland peregrine facts.)

They do face hazards that birds outside the city do not: falls from a bridge nest can land a juvenile in the river, or on a busy street, or onto railroad tracks, or in front of a bicyclist. Human activity of various kinds can also upset nesting parents enough that they’ll abandon a nest. Audubon and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started a program called the Portland Peregrine Watch Program. Members of the program not only monitored the nest activity, but helped keep people from disturbing the nesting falcons (which might cause them to abandon it), protected just fledged young when they are on the ground learning to fly, and provided rescues for birds in need. Many fledglings have ended up needing medical care and rehabilitation, before being released. (For more, see Audubon’s pages on Portland peregrines.)

Look at that face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge - Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)
Look at that cute face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge – Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)

Since 1999, the peregrines are no longer on the Federal endangered species list in 1999; they were removed from the State of Oregon’s list in 2007. Last week, officials in Illinois announced they had removed the birds from their state list, too. In Chicago, peregrines have found success nesting on high-rises and bridges, and dining on the ample supply of pigeons.

Aid for butterflies and bees

Another winged creature that was thought gone for good in Portland is the monarch butterfly. With little to no source of their larval food, milkweed, there have been few if any sightings for long enough that the common wisdom was that you shouldn’t even bother planting it, since the butterflies won’t come.

Last month, I found an article that disproves that common wisdom: Monarchs reappear in Portland, reinforce need for milkweed

Experts say Portlanders shouldn’t bother planting milkweed – the monarch butterflies won’t come. But one woman found 30 eggs on her two plants this month, and she’s urging others: “If you plant it, they will come.”

. . .

Patti Farris, 58, incorporated milkweeds in front of her house three years ago. She hoped monarchs would appear, but didn’t exactly expect it.

On June 4, she noticed a butterfly circling her plants. Generally a monarch will lay one or two eggs per plant. This one laid 30 between two.

Tom Landis, a retired nursery specialist from the U.S. Forest Service, called this unusual.

. . .

Using his knowledge of native plants, the Medford resident said he began growing milkweed and raising monarch caterpillars. He now travels all over the region and gives workshops on caring for the plants and bugs.

Landis said he considered leading a workshop in Portland, but local experts told him it was a lost cause.

Farris found Landis online, and taking Landis’ warning about the low survival rate of eggs to adult (5%), Farris took in the leaves with eggs, raising the caterpillars in an enclosure (and keeping them well-supplied with milkweed) to keep them from becoming dinner for something else. As of the article’s publication, the caterpillars were pupating, possibly to return next year to the milkweed they grew up on.

There have been several other monarch sightings in the northwest recently, which has surprised a number of people, due to general loss of milkweed in the region. But apparently it doesn’t take much to encourage them to show up after all! (Plant more native milkweed! The Xerces Society can help you determine what species is best for your area.)

On the other side of the world, the city of Oslo is taking a city-sized approach to helping out bees, by creating a series of green spaces filled with habitat and food (via Oslo creates world’s first ‘highway’ to protect endangered bees.):

“We are constantly reshaping our environment to meet our needs, forgetting that other species also live in it,” Agnes Lyche Melvaer, head of the Bybi, an environmental group supporting urban bees, which is leading the project.

“To correct that we need to return places to them to live and feed,” she explained, sitting on a bench in a lush city centre square bursting with early Nordic summer growth.

. . .

Oslo’s “bee highway” aims to give the insects a safe passage through the city, lined with relays providing food and shelter – the first such system in the world, according to the organisers.

Government groups, private companies, and individuals are among the people working to create the bee highway, which includes replacing some areas of grass with flowers, increasing green roofs, as well as adding bee hives in some areas.

The mass destruction of bee populations around the world has already forced farmers in the Chinese province of Sichuan to pollinate plants by hand, and in the US some farmers are left with no choice but to rent hives transported cross-country by truck to pollinate crops.

But in Abel’s Garden in Oslo, Agnes Lyche Melvaer says she has faith in the “butterfly effect”.

“If we manage to solve a global problem locally it’s conceivable that this local solution will work elsewhere too.”

That about wraps it up for this month, evidence that with some careful thought, and with intentions of care, wecan have cities that are good habitat for other animals, too.

Bonus feature: Biodiversity in cities

This isn’t so much “look at how we’re doing things to make the world better” as “LOOK AT THIS COOL THING,” but it’s also about insects in cities, soooo I’m going to stuff it in here.

Via the awesome BiodiverSeed blog, a quote from Stephen Fry (QI, G-series, Episode 1 “Gardens”):

Now where’s the best place in the world to discover an entirely new species?

Basically, your own garden. You may say, “Ah ha, there won’t be anything in my garden that hasn’t been discovered.” You would be amazed. In 1971, Jennifer Owen, a biologist, did a very long-term study of her ordinary garden in a suburban house in Leicester. She discovered 533 species of ichneumon wasp, just that family of parasitic wasp. Fifteen of these had never been recorded in Britain; four of them were completely new to science. In a suburban garden. So, in your garden, if you have a garden, there will be things.

Gilbert White, the naturalist, said that nature is so full and so varied that if you want to find the place with the most variety, it’s the place you most study. It almost doesn’t matter: Just take a piece of land and look at it hard enough.

This one’s much more recent:

In 2013, Brian Brown, the curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told one of the museum’s trustees that he could find a new species of insect practically anywhere he looked. Her cynical response was, “Can you find one in my back yard?” Brown accepted the challenge, setting up a large, tent-like Malaise trap—named not for the emotion on which certain bugs seem to thrive but for the Swede who invented it—in the trustee’s Brentwood garden. After a few weeks, he brought his haul back to the museum, where he began by examining the phorids, a large family of tiny, humpbacked flies that he has spent much of his career studying. The very first one that Brown put under a microscope turned out to be previously unknown to science.

Since then, with a larger and more organized effort, they’ve found another 30 suspected new species of phorids. (That’s what they were focused on – what if they broadened their search??!?!?)

It seems to me like most of the talk about biodiversity talks about remote forests – how much more is out there to discover and get to know? And much closer to what is home for most of us? A lot! And it’s so exciting!

Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. –Herman Hesse, from Narcissus and Goldmund

7 thoughts on “Things with Feathers: Living with our winged urban neighbors

  1. I marvel at the biodiversity of cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam in my own country. I like the countryside, but the range of species is often significantly smaller than in cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, due to intensive agriculture.

    Everything seems dire at times, but in my immediate environment there is improvement. Deer were spotted in a newly planted forest near my suburban home. My own modest garden, after 8 years of guided wilderness, is teeming with life. We should face reality head on, the ugly stuff, but recognise the hope too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been so excited with the number of different bird species I’ve seen here in Portland (Oregon) – I think I must be up to about 3 dozen now!!! In just 2 years living here. (Which is significantly more than I saw in Boston.)

      The thing about insect diversity makes me happy in part because I’ve always felt so frustrated with insect guidebooks NOT having so many critters I was finding, and now I understand a bit more why 😉


  2. Peregrines are making a comeback just north of you too (BC Interior). And we planted a wildflower garden this year. No monarchs yet, but you’d be amazed at the different species of bees and butterflies we got! At least four different types of bees to the untrained eye. (Now that I know about the milkweed, I’ll be planting some of that too.)


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