The Passenger Pigeon – book review

October 30th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

In 1800, passenger pigeons may have counted for 2 out of every 5 living birds in North America. Their flocks were in the billions. By 1914, they became extinct when Martha – the last passenger pigeon – died in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo.

On the 100th year anniversary of her death, a new book, simply called The Passenger Pigeon, is a stunningly illustrated and rich cultural memorial to Martha – the last passenger pigeon – and to passenger pigeon’s unique ecological and cultural niche in the North America. The Passenger Pigeon is filled with haunting images and references by some of the greatest North American authors – Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and others. These stories and ghostly images of a species that once numbered in the billions open up a door to time for us experience the passenger pigeon through our imaginations.

The Passenger Pigeon includes actual birdcalls written done in treble clef on a music staff and is  adorned with advertisements from 150 years ago promoting pigeons hunts and inexpensive pigeon as food.

Yet, now, as we struggle to stop a global catastrophic biodiversity collapse, are their lessons we can learn from how the passenger pigeon – a species that numbered in the billions – went extinct in a single human lifespan? When we review historical records, we can interpret how deforestation in North America, needless killing of passenger pigeons as “pests,” and the consumption of their meat led to their extinction. Likewise, in reading The Passenger Pigeon we understand the heroic efforts early pioneers of conservation went through to educate the public and conserve passenger pigeons.

Our societal hubris sent passenger pigeons by train boxcar to manufacturing plants where their feathers were plucked for mattresses and their corpses sold for 30 cents a dozen for meat .But today, scientists are debating if and should we try to bring back the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) using modern scientific techniques. While at one point in our recent history, passenger pigeons were so numerous that the sound from an unimaginably massive flock was similar to rolling thunder and pounding horse hoofs, now we need consider what are the ramifications of potentially bringing back a species that has previously gone extinct?

While I have no opinion on this, what I might suggest is that we honor Martha and the passenger pigeon this year in the 100th anniversary of their extinction by remembering their impact on us, their place in nature, and never doing this again to any other species on Earth.

How to order:    The Passenger Pigeon
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691162959
Author:                   Errol Fuller

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com.

A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring– book review

July 30th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Great Britain is known as a nation of birdwatchers – or twitchers – who will travel to great lengths to conserve bird habitat and to observe birds in the wild. Yet in certain circumstances, Great Britain’s birds of prey are persecuted. This cultural dichotomy is explored in wonderful detail in A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring.

Great Britain has 15 species of birds of prey, five of which were previously extinct and now have been successfully reintroduced with self-sustaining populations. Nonetheless, while Great Britain has a deep cultural reverence for their birds of prey, some species are still persecuted as they are seen as agricultural pests.

In A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring, author David Cobham and illustrator Bruce Pearson describe in great detail this dichotomy of Great Britain. Scientists, communities, writers, poets, and artists have worked diligently to improve public perception of birds of prey while at the same time some of these same birds of prey are threatened by British perception as pests.

Rich in cultural detail, descriptive illustrations, and personal recollections, A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring paints a canvas demonstrating how cultural perceptions can be changed to improve conservation outcomes.

How to order:
A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691157641
Authors:                David Cobham with Bruce Pearson with a foreword by Chris Packham

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley – book review

July 28th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

 

Cover art courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley is another Adam Scott Kennedy tour de force! Following up on the Kennedys’ series of bird and mammal books for Kenyan and Tanzanian travelers, previously described here on Mongabay.com. The Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley is ideal for the traveler on safari visiting the Rift Valley’s national parks, such as Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Mount Longonot, and Hell’s Gate.

The value of a book like the Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley is that it lends itself to easy interpretation and use by those who are interested in birdwatching, those who are interested in conservation, and those who care about biodiversity in general.

Similar to the previous guidebooks by the Kennedys, Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley includes over 300 image collages of the most common regional bird species in their various plumages for each identification. Birds are organized into sections broadly defined by the ecological zone they reside in. A useful scientific checklist of names is included as an appendix.

I highly recommend the Kennedys’ series of bird and mammal books for the casual traveler looking for a good, easy-to-use set of guidebooks for the Kenya and Tanzania region.

How to order:
Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9781400851379
Author:                   Adam Scott Kennedy

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

Sparing a thought for maleo birds on World Egg Day

October 10th, 2013

By Simon Bradley / Save Our Species IUCN

Friday, October 11th is World Egg Day, when agribusiness promotes the consumption of eggs as a healthy source of protein. When it comes to one of Indonesia’s national icons however, the Endangered maleo bird (Macrocephalon maleo), conservationists such as the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo) an SOS – Save Our Species grantee, are trying to discourage the practice of eating its giant eggs for special occasions.

Maleo digging. Photo by ALTO – Kevin Schafer

This distinctive megapode – about the size of a chicken – is endemic to Sulawesi and Buton Islands, where it once blackened the beaches during egg-laying season, when the usually solitary animals would march out of the jungle to mate and bury eggs deep in the sands. Nowadays, the unusual life-cycle of the maleo is an increasingly rare sight. Using its big claws to hatch and tunnel to the surface, the lone chick can walk, feed itself and fly within a matter of hours, being independent of its parents and leaving evolutionary biologists to ponder how individuals recognize each other later in life.  A remarkable bird indeed, the maleo is also strikingly beautiful and has been legally protected in Indonesia since 1972. Yet old habits die hard and maleo eggs – like most megapode eggs – are very high in protein, making a tasty dish for those who can find them.

Consequently, as with so many species, it seems effective maleo conservation hinges on local support and participation in the process. Going beyond awareness-raising to protecting eggs on site has proven an effective strategy implemented by conservation organization AlTo which has been actively engaged with local Taima community members for the past decade.

Protecting nest sites and allowing eggs to hatch naturally has seen a 62% increase in bird populations in one site where AlTo works, for example. Meanwhile the impact of using other methods including incubation has yet to be measured and gauged. According to Marcy Summers, director of AlTo, “doing conservation as close to possible as keeping things in their natural wild state is generally the first way to go for effective conservation efforts.”

The giant maleo egg in a man’s hand. Photo by ALTO – Marcy Summers

AlTo’s strategy to date has been to educate local community members to identify, survey, monitor and protect egg sites and to report incidences of harvesting these precious eggs. As AlTo integrated into the community it has also begun to conduct surveys to identify other possible nesting beaches, often tapping into local knowledge and experience. But the organization also works with local authorities to support the enforcement of laws. Meanwhile, the recent official recognition of the area as one of seven Essential Ecosystems by the Indonesian Federal government is a boon for all local conservation efforts.

Naturally funding from external sources helps AlTo maintain and develop the program. For SOS a global coalition initiated by three founding partners—IUCN, World Bank, and GEF–it was the combination of an excellent grassroots project with proven results and the prospect of real conservation success that made AlTo’s maleo bird project the seventh active SOS project in Indonesia and its third in Sulawesi alone.

For Marcy Summers and the community of Tompotika, such support helps continue the slow but steady progress toward restoring the maleo bird to being more than just a national symbol, but a living breathing success story that everyone helped make happen. So perhaps today on World Egg Day, spare a thought for the maleo and its giant egg and get involved.  Hopefully through the efforts of groups like AlTo we may yet be celebrating new calendar days like Maleo Egg Day instead!

A maleo pair. Photo by ALTO – Kevin Schafer

 

ALTO staff train villagers on maleo data. Photo by ALTO – Marcy Summers

The cloud forests and hummingbirds of Ecuador

August 13th, 2013

By Claire Salisbury

The bus journey to Mindo winds up and out of the high, dry valley in which Quito sits between volcanic peaks, and then down into the wet, lush cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. This is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, within the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena hotspot, and recognized as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. Mindo is a quiet little place, surrounded by forested hills which often disappear into the clouds. We arrived in the rain at dusk, and made our way along virtually deserted streets to our accommodation at Cabañas Armonia (http://www.birdingmindo.com/armonia.php). This is an orchid garden masquerading as jungle, and we were led to our little cabin, one of a handful tucked away amongst the plants. After the dry, thin air of Quito, the humidity, the smell of the wet vegetation, and the chorus of frogs, were wonderful.

Photos by Claire Salisbury.

The family that owns Cabañas Armonia maintains feeders for hummingbirds, and these tiny birds drink litres of sugar water between them every day. Watching and listening to them whirr, chirp and squeak is hypnotic, and catching them with your camera becomes an endless challenge.

Highlights of our stay at Cabañas Armonia included lazy birdwatching from our private hammock, with toucans and hummingbirds among the many species that regularly passed by. The garden is home to some 200 species of orchid, some so small that a magnifying glass is needed to appreciate their beauty, others unmissable in their extravagance. Wandering amongst them was a fascinating introduction to their variety and diversity. We also went for walks along the quiet lanes that lead out of town, which took us through verdant green valleys, coffee plantations, and lush vegetation, and rewarded us with sightings of gaudy tanagers, toucans and aracaris, and a stunning quetzal.

On our way back to Quito we visited Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve (http://www.bellavistacloudforest.com/), 1000m higher up the mountains than Mindo. We got off the bus at a small village called Nanegalito, and were quickly approached by the driver of a pick-up truck taxi who drove us up the steep and winding single track lane to Bellavista lodge. The lodge sits within a private reserve that protects 700 hectares of cloud forest. There is an extensive trail system, comfortable accommodation, excellent food, and it is renowned for its birding. Such luxury and biodiversity meant that the lodge itself was way beyond our tight backpacker budget, but Bellavista is a rarity, offering affordable accommodation, alongside its more luxurious options, for travelers on a budget who are happy with a more rustic experience. It is possible to stay and explore the reserve on a shoestring: a small research station doubles as basic hostel accommodation, and incredibly, very few people make use of this. This is a big shame because the forest around Bellavista is like nothing we had seen before – huge tree ferns, and trees dripping with multiple layers of vegetation, shrouded in ethereal mist and cloud which sometimes broke to reveal the precipitous view down to the valleys below. The trails were easy to follow, and took us up and down steep ravines to hidden streams.

The research station accommodation was basic, but we had a warm bed and a hot shower, and pots and pans to cook with over a gas stove. Fellow residents included scientists from the United States, their Ecuadorian research assistants, a couple of temporarily captive birds that were the focus of their studies, a sink-full of beetles collected for a small project, and a noisy mouse who helped itself to a chunk of banana in the kitchen. The captive birds were, of course, early risers and woke us from their room next to ours with an ear-splitting duet at dawn. Electricity is from a generator that is only run for a few hours a day, and as it is virtually on the equator it got dark about 6pm. Evenings were spent quietly by the light of candles and headtorches, listening to the myriad noises coming from the forest.

Capturing Wildlife

July 12th, 2013

By Erika Skogg

“You conserve what you know, you don’t conserve what you don’t know.”

Photo by Federico Pardo / TropicoMedia.org.

I thought of this biology quote as I photographed along side Fernando, one of the Humboldt Society’s Ornithologist, as he pulled a shimmering green hummingbird out of the mist net. Strung between skinny silver poles around eight feet tall, the black mesh nets hung through the forest trails. They stood parallel to the forest, winding 100 feet down the trail. For every foot up the pole there was a main line where the net was doubled over, which created inescapable traps for the low flying birds. Fernando freed the bird’s legs and wings and held it between his two forefingers.

One of the greatest benefits of being a wildlife photographer is the ever changing job description. Scientists and conservation groups are needing media more and more to document their research and help conserve what’s out there.

While the mammalogists, herpetologists and botanists were still asleep back in the hotel, my partner Federico  and I got up early to photograph with the birds and their scientists. We hiked through the darkness, rambling over rocks and tiny streams as the sun began to light the landscape in front of us. Through a mixture of pine and misty cloud forest ecosystems, I took long breaths. The smell of pine reminded me of my cottage in the North woods of Wisconsin. Our footsteps were muted as we crossed over pine needles and we began to hear the first songs of dawn. Orlando, another Humboldt Ornithologist, pulled out his pen and paper to write down the calls he heard, and excitedly noted their scientific names out loud. The three of us continued to walk downhill as he called back to the early birds with blends of long and short whistles.

When we met up with Fernando, he was seated on a blue tarp to avoid the wet grass with his clip board on his lap. At 11,000 feet he wore a heavy green jacket to stay warm from the wind and constant light rain produced from the cloud forest. As I took a few photographs of him measuring the beak and weight of the recently caught hummingbird, I thought of how strange it was to be taking the last photographs of it still breathing. When I put my camera down to watch him more closely, Fernando told me that he was sorry it had been such a slow morning. By this time yesterday morning they had caught nearly 10 different species already. He carefully turned each bird onto their backside and blew their feathers up and down to look for brood patches, a sign that a female may be incubating eggs back in her nest. I realized that no matter how beautiful they were, they still had bare chicken like skin underneath their colorful feathers. He placed them each into their own cotton pull string bags and the blue checkered cotton bags began multiplying, hung on a barbed wire fence behind him. Their contents rustled, but made no sound.

Photo by Erika Skogg.

By 1:00 PM we had already put in an 8 hour day, but our two-man photography team had more studio work to do before the live animals got too weak or tired. The scientists also had a long day ahead of them. Fernando worked with his headlamp as he sat at a small desk in the temporary working space of his hotel room. The desk was covered with sheets of newspaper along with a set of tweezers, knives and a pile of cotton balls. He had the skin and feathers of a small Tanager completely off of the body, hanging inside out over the skull. In his other hand he held the innards, neatly kept together in their natural casing. He used force to crack through the neck bones against the hard desk to disconnect everything from the empty skull. Being new to the sciences, I had a lot of questions, and he explained to me how he would stuff the rest of the body with cotton, but would preserve the skull to keep its natural form. It was a clean and dry procedure as he continuously rubbed sawdust over the insides of the bird. Outside his room a group of scientists arrived from the afternoon expedition and gathered in the dark courtyard holding plastic Ziplock bags up to the incandescent lights. I began to see the silhouettes of lizards and frogs and snapped off a few candid photographs of their excitement. The mammalogists were also inspecting their three mice they had caught from yesterday’s traps. An older couple also staying at the hotel closed their room door behind them and looked forward to see the current hotel activities. The woman shrieked softly and moved quickly around the commotion. Before the night was over, we been handed several bags filled with tree frogs and lizards to photograph back in our hotel room. Not wanting to hear their struggle all night in their plastic prisons, I hung the bags of amphibians in the bathroom with a clothes hanger before going to bed.

All of the individuals from this recent collection will be researched and added to the Humboldt Institute collection in Villa de Leyva, Colombia.  A few individuals were sacrificed for the survival of their species. Without going into the field to photograph and collect plants, mammals, birds and frogs; rich and biologically diverse places may never be conserved. It is the biologists job to research what is out there, and the photographer’s job to document and help them achieve that.

Photo by Federico Pardo / TropicoMedia.org.

Photo by Erika Skogg.

Federico Pardo capturing a shot. Photo by Erika Skogg.

 

Fernando, a Humboldt Society Ornithologist, removing a hummingbird out of the mist net. Photo by Erika Skogg.

Beautiful Birds of Panama

May 23rd, 2013

Swainson’s toucan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

By Hannah Lindstrom

Panama has a total of 972 bird species, of which 20 are considered to be globally threatened. Since the 1940’s, Panama’s tree cover has been reduced by over 50% which is having an effect on the avifauna of the nation. Species in Panama range from Giant Harpy Eagles, Panama’s national bird, to small species of kingfishers, with many in between.

Harpy eagle, the world’s largest eagle. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.com

 

Unidentified bird in Panama. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Update: interview on toxic pesticide used to kill wildlife (and endangering people) in Kenya

June 30th, 2011

An interview in four parts with Paula Kahumbu, Executive Director of WildlifeDirect, provides detail and context on the use of the neurotoxic pesticide Furadan to kill lions and birds en masse in Kenya. Lions are down to around 2,000 individuals in Kenya. Kahumbu, recently awarded an Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic, and WildlifeDirect are working to pressure the government to estimate the environmental and human cost of Furadan.

Also known as Carbofuran, Furadan is manufactured by the Farm Machinery and Chemicals Corporation (FMC) in the United States. As of May 2009, the US banned Furadan from being used on any crop for human consumption due to its lethal toxicity. Still, FMC says it will continue to manufacture the pesticide for use abroad.

For more information: Stop Wildlife Poisoning

For more on the fight to stop Furadan in Kenya:

Lion poisonings decimating vultures in Kenya

(01/19/2011) It’s a common image of the African savanna: vultures flocking to a carcass on the great plains. However, a new study has found that vulture populations are plummeting in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, a part of the Serengeti plains, due to habitat loss as well as the illegal killing of lions. Increasingly farmers and livestock owners have targeted lions and other big predators by poisoning livestock carcasses with toxic pesticides, such as Furadan. Not only illegal, such poisonings take their toll on other Serengeti wildlife, including vultures that perish after feeding on the laced carcasses.

Updated: East Africa’s lions falling to poison

(05/11/2010) Eight lions have been poisoned to death in a month in Kenya, according to conservation organization WildlifeDirect. Locals, frustrated by lions killing their livestock, have taken to poisoning the great cats using a common pesticide in Kenya called carbofuran, known commercially as Furadan.

Prime Minister of Kenya urged to ban lion-killing pesticide after child dies from ingestion

(11/10/2009) On Monday October 26th a three-year-old girl mistakenly ate the pesticide Furadan (also known as carbofuran) in western Kenya. Her father, a teacher at a primary school, said that he had no knowledge of how dangerous the pesticide was, which he had purchased to kill pests in his vegetable garden.

Toxic pesticide used to kill birds by the thousands (warning: video is graphic)

June 29th, 2011

A new video from WildlifeDirect shows the brutal impacts of the neurotoxic pesticide Furadan being used intentionally to kill entire flocks of birds, which are later sold as meat. Ducks, pigeons, and storks are often targeted. The process is brutal.

“Based on a survey I did in 2009, 6,000 birds were killed every month. Tens of thousands are killed every year. I’m very concerned and I think man is at risk too–that is the greatest concern,” says researcher Martin Odino in the video. In 2009 a three year old Kenyan boy perished after consuming the pesticide, which his father had purchased for use in the family’s vegetable garden.

Furadan is also used in revenge-killings against lions. Farmers and ranchers lace cattle carcasses with the pesticide and when lions feed, they die. Declines in vulture populations have also been linked to the deadly toxin.

Also known as Carbofuran, Furadan is manufactured by the Farm Machinery and Chemicals Corporation (FMC) in the United States. As of May 2009, the US banned Furadan from being used on any crop for human consumption due to its lethal toxicity. Still, FMC says it will continue to manufacture the pesticide for use abroad.

For more information: Stop Wildlife Poisoning

For more on the fight to stop Furadan in Kenya:

Lion poisonings decimating vultures in Kenya

(01/19/2011) It’s a common image of the African savanna: vultures flocking to a carcass on the great plains. However, a new study has found that vulture populations are plummeting in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, a part of the Serengeti plains, due to habitat loss as well as the illegal killing of lions. Increasingly farmers and livestock owners have targeted lions and other big predators by poisoning livestock carcasses with toxic pesticides, such as Furadan. Not only illegal, such poisonings take their toll on other Serengeti wildlife, including vultures that perish after feeding on the laced carcasses.

Updated: East Africa’s lions falling to poison

(05/11/2010) Eight lions have been poisoned to death in a month in Kenya, according to conservation organization WildlifeDirect. Locals, frustrated by lions killing their livestock, have taken to poisoning the great cats using a common pesticide in Kenya called carbofuran, known commercially as Furadan.

Prime Minister of Kenya urged to ban lion-killing pesticide after child dies from ingestion

(11/10/2009) On Monday October 26th a three-year-old girl mistakenly ate the pesticide Furadan (also known as carbofuran) in western Kenya. Her father, a teacher at a primary school, said that he had no knowledge of how dangerous the pesticide was, which he had purchased to kill pests in his vegetable garden.

If you love or hate crows

June 6th, 2011

Guest post by the American Society of Landscape Architects


Lyanda Lynn Haupt is an award-winning author, speaker, and naturalist based in Seattle. Her latest book, “
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness“, which David Sedaris called “completely charming and informative,” received the 2010 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. Haupt blogs at The Tangled Nest.

Your new book, “Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness,” is all about the relationship between people and crows in urban areas. You say it’s a bit strained on both sides. How have the issues changed over the years?

In urban places, crow populations tend to echo human populations. This means that the more concrete we make, and the more humans we make (these tend to go hand in hand), the more crows there will be among us. Just 50 years ago in Seattle, where I live, it was a big deal to see 20 crows in one place. Now, of course, there are autumn roosts in the thousands, and nearly all of us cross paths with numbers of crows every day. It’s funny to hear people say, “Where did all these crows come from?” as if their presence is some kind of sudden surprise, instead of the slow-growing outcome of years of urban planning (or lack of it) in which native habitat was chopped to bits, impervious surfaces reigned, and botanical structure was dramatically simplified. Very few native birds and creatures can survive in such places, but the adaptable, omnivorous, highly intelligent crow can.

We are all now living in Crow Planet, a place characterized by the spread of “crow-ness.” What is crow-ness? What does it say about urban ecosystems and the role people play in nature?

“Crow-ness” is the ubiquitous presence of a large, native bird right in the heart of urban places. It speaks deeply to the fact that the way we create our homes and neighborhoods—both in terms of structure and personal habits– has a lot (not everything, but a lot) to do with determining the nonhuman species that can live among us, and how we might flourish together. The title of my book is Crow Planet, which has two interrelated meanings. On the one hand, it refers to a planet (our planet) on which native biodiversity is deeply threatened, and the rich variety of species is being replaced by a few dominant, successful species—species such as crows. At the same time, “Crow Planet” invokes the idea that no matter where we dwell and no matter how urban our homes, we are implicated in wildlife, and we are informed and enlivened by the presence of native, wild creatures—again, creatures such as crows. We navigate our daily lives in light of both these truths.

New research shows that crows can recognize individual people and once someone makes it on to a crow’s shit list, it’s impossible to get off it. Are crows the only birds with this ability to recognize people? What other unique cognitive capabilities do they have?

This is actually a really fun study out of the University of Washington. The crows on campus hated the students who had trapped and banded them, and they wanted to figure out how the crows recognized them afterwards—was it their face, their gait, their tattoos? So they put caveman masks on the birdbanders, and later, students who had not banded birds wore the same mask and strolled around the places the banded birds hang out. The crows went crazy, scolding and divebombing the caveman mask wearers. So it seemed the crows recognized their faces. For a control (just to make sure the crows weren’t recognizing masked individuals in general) they put Dick Cheney masks on the non-banders, and the crows left them completely alone (yes, in this case Dick Cheney got to be the good guy!). I still wonder whether crows use other clues in recognizing individuals. It seems that they can pick out people they don’t like from a long ways away—maybe they can recognize us by our faces, but also by other cues, just as we can recognize people we know well from afar, through a sort of gestalt.

Other birds, including some species not normally considered to be particularly intelligent, like pigeons, can recognize individual people (every city park has a resident pigeon feeder, and the birds recognize them from a long ways off). And of course we know that our dogs and cats, and presumably their wild kin can recognize individual humans. I suspect that while not all animals can do it, many many can.

Obviously crows hate people who trap and band them, but the main reason they decide to dislike us is they perceive us to be venturing too close to their nest or chicks, in which case they will vocally scold us, and maybe even bodily divebomb our heads. This habit is seasonal, and it makes sense—we are big mammals, many of us hate crows, and crows have very large nests and loud young that are difficult to hide (smaller birds that can hide their nests don’t need to resort to such bold tactics). Crows are not “mean,” they are simply protective parents, and as soon as the years hatchlings are grown, the crows will usually calm down. As you say, sometimes crows will keep you on their “shit list” forever, but often, if you behave, they’ll eventually leave you in peace. During nesting season, try to avoid crow nests, or appear uninterested in them. And if the crows still hate you, you can always try wearing a Dick Cheney mask.

Crows may be the most common wild native beings that humans regularly see. However, are they truly wild given their close interaction with people and dependence on human waste for food? In their dependence on human systems, how do crows compromise to accommodate us?


If you believe that “wild” is some romanticized state that involves a lack of human presence, then crows might not seem very wild. But of course they are a native species, not introduced, not escaped from domestic stock. They are free to leave cities, and are entirely autonomous beings. They would not die without us. I consider them to be entirely wild. They have, however, adapted well to human presence—avoiding us just enough to feel safe nesting among us, while reaping the benefits of city life: french fries; gardens full of fruit, seedlings, and worms; fresh roadkill. And because most bird species cannot tolerate urban conditions, crows reap all of these benefits with very little competition.

There are compromises from the crow side—cars are dangerous, especially for naïve hatch-year birds, and many of them die on the streets; city food is not as healthy as suburban/rural food, and some researchers believe that this may actually decrease crow longevity; and it appears that things like traffic, noise, and general urban hustle-bustle may stress crow nervous systems in the same ways they stress humans.

You say most of us, unwittingly, live in a zoopolis, a multi-layered place where the city meets the zoo, an overlap of human and animal geographies. How then can landscape architects design cities so that humans and different animal species can better co-exist? Do we even want to design cities so they are more livable for species like crows?


Oh, we definitely don’t want more crows! The role of the landscape architect in creating cities livable to creatures in the more-than-human world involves the opposite—working to structure human habitations that are more hospitable to a greater variety of native animals, and less hospitable to species such as crows. There is no one way to do this. For decades the wisdom from conservation biology has involved the preservation of large forest fragments—the bigger the better, and this was viewed as the most important thing. And it’s true—leaving remaining woodlands undisturbed is essential. But we’re learning that there are other elements at play—when we decrease impervious surfaces, increase the number of trees (especially native trees, including conifers where appropriate), and work to create a multilayered botanical structure, more native forest birds turn up, even in urban places.

So we can go from city neighborhoods that host mainly crows, starlings, pigeons, house sparrows, robins, and flickers (the most common urban woodpecker), to places that also support birds that can flourish alongside human habitation, when attention is paid to their requirements: migratory warblers, various thrushes, Western or scarlet tanagers, downy or hairy woodpeckers, and others. But of course it’s complicated—treed areas may be more spread out, and sprawling human neighborhoods can be more damaging to sensitive native species than smaller areas of urban density, even if this means sacrificing trees. Nothing is straightforward.

We’ve also heard cases of coyotes making parts of Chicago a core component of their ranges. How can we better manage relationships with other wild species entering into the urban realm?

With as much intelligence and grace as we can muster. I believe strongly that our human lives our enriched by the privilege of living in proximity with healthy, wild animals (this is actually the subject of my next book). Problems come when there is direct contact between humans or our pets, and coyotes (opossums, raccoons…). The key is to minimize potential conflicts by creating cities in which wild mammals can find a place, while not attracting them close to our homes. Keep an eye on birdfeeders—if they are bringing rats and raccoons at night, then they might not be worth it. Pet food, which attracts opossums, rats, raccoons, and even coyotes, should not be left out at night—nor should our pets. Garbage cans should have tight, fitted lids. When wild mammals become habituated to human homes, seeing them as a food source they are entitled to, they can become bold, and potentially more aggressive–that’s when wildlife biologists start to worry. But here is another role for urban planners and architects—cities can plan for edges and botanical structures that accommodate the needs of wildlife, while minimizing contact with humans.

Lastly, you say some people may fear crows as harbingers of death. Why is this case given they have some of the most complex social groups, like those of elephants, dolphins, and primates?

The association between crows and death runs deep—we see it in art and mythology across times and cultures. This makes sense—part of the crow diet is based in scavenging, so we see crows eating dead animals. These days, this is usually roadkill, and it is actually an ecological service in cities, where there is little soil in which dead animals can decompose. But some still find it unsettling. Long ago in human-crow history, things were much worse. Before the Civil War, when removal of bodies during war time was not at all efficient, crows turned up after battles, and during the plague they also ate bodies put out in the village streets, which of course would have been terribly disturbing. Even though we don’t see such things today, the cultural baggage is difficult to shake. And of course, crows are a large, dark, shadowy presence—the symbolic associations with our perception of death are heavy.

Curiously, like only the most intelligent animals, crows appear to have a strong awareness of the death of another crow in their own social or familial circle, and there are hundreds of anecdotal reports of “crow funerals,” where birds gather around the body of a fallen crow in utter silence. This is unknown in other bird species, and speaks to the tremendous complexity of the crow mind and social structure. There is still much to learn from observing these complex birds in our daily lives.

Image credit: (1) Crow Planet / Little, Brown and Company, (2) Crow divebombing / Dr. Pat. Flickr, (3) Urban crows eating garbage / Crafty Green Poet, (4) ASLA 2008 General Design Honor Award. Lagoon Park: Living at the Edge of Wilderness, Santa Barbara, California. Van Atta Associates, Inc., Santa Barbara, California