Featured Species #6: Gray Catbird

CatbirdThe gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) may seem like an odd choice as a first bird to profile. Its plumage is drab gray except for a splash of rusty orange under the tail. It isn’t one of the handful of most widely recognized backyard birds. It is not nearly as notorious as its kin, the northern mockingbird. It is, nonetheless, quite common in our area from late spring through early fall, and quite distinctive in appearance and sound.

These birds start to show up in my yard sometime around late April or early May. I instantly know they’re back from the call: a loud, nasal whine that somehow always seems directed right at me. I know I am irresponsibly anthropomorphizing here, but the “Nyaaaaaaah! Nyaaaaaaah!” seems interpretable variously as “fill up your feeder already, lazy human!” “Go away!” and “I’m here, stop ignoring me.” I mean… just listen to this nonsense. It’s an irritating sound, but I think it’s what draws me to this bird. That harsh, insistent call makes gray catbirds somehow seem more intentional in their actions than most birds. A bogus impression, to be sure, but there it is.

Dumatella carolinensis (7)One small encounter not long ago served to endear me further to the species. I happened upon one trapped in netting and was able to free it. The bird relaxed when I held it, allowing me to easily free its legs and wing. I don’t know if this is typical behavior for a bird in distress, or if it represented intelligence, intense fear, or something else, but it was a nice feeling of connection to nature.

Like other mimids (around here, that’s the northern mockingbird) the gray catbirds song is a jazz odyssey of cobbled together sounds. Both species get a bad rap for “ugly” songs, but I honestly find them quite lovely most of the time. They do tend to go on and on, though, so much so that it can be frustrating to identify birdsong with a mimid in the mix. I’m still a bit of a neophyte at this, but I can’t count the number of times an unfamiliar song has turned out to belong to a mockingbird or catbird.

Gray catbirds are ground foragers and nest in shrubs. I often find them at my feeders or taking mulberries and other small fruits. I see them anywhere there are patches of shaded understory plants, and they are often fairly abundant in neighborhood parks. I think they go overlooked because they occupy an in-between space. They don’t appear very high on trendy “most common” lists, but neither are they uncommon. So to a birder a gray catbird sighting (in range and in season, anyway) is not noteworthy, but a casual observer may not even be aware of the species at all.

Gray Catbird Links:

Wikipedia
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Cat Predation Study

Climate Pledges

Five weeks ago, the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement. I found this inexcusable, and so I chose to take action by re-committing to my own carbon cutting efforts and publicly documenting them. The general idea was to make one new pledge every week for as long as the US remains out of the accords, track my progress, and generate conversation. If I could bring a few others along with me, so much the better. This week’s pledge was to commit an entry in this space to the project, so here we are.

I will spare you the arguments about climate change being real and human-caused. They’ve been made elsewhere better than I possibly could and at this point the deniers are pretty much in “Flat Earth” territory. It’s real, it’s our fault, and I’m moving on to “what do we do about it?”

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I have found myself increasingly frustrated in recent months with regard to communication about important issues. I believe social media is an important platform for advocacy, but simply expressing one’s opinion using that platform is ineffective to the point of being self-defeating. So when I heard the news that the US had pulled the plug, I felt impotent. I wanted to shout into the echo chamber, share every article, chastise all the deniers, and comment on every post. In my fuming I hit upon a possible answer: do something, then talk about it. I knew I might not reach anyone who didn’t already agree with me, but I could still exchange knowledge and ideas with those who did. Maybe a few needed only a tiny nudge to make an adjustment or two of their own.

In order to make sure all my pledges were meaningful, I first thought about what I was already doing and disqualified those things from consideration. That increased the challenge, and it also means I haven’t yet touched on a lot of basics. Before I move on to the pledges so far, here are just a few ideas:

 

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Some of the lawn reduction in my yard.

My Pledges So Far

 

Pledge 1: Bike to work at least one day a week.

Reasoning: This one’s self-explanatory. Use less gas!

Status: My initial pledge was delayed getting started due to a busted-up bicycle and some weather issues, but it is officially underway. I’m behind but hoping to make up the missed days in July-August and stretch this as far into the Fall as possible.
Pledge 2: Eat no beef for 30 days.

Reasoning: Cattle ranching is extremely bad for the environment in a lot of ways, one of which being the high carbon footprint beef brings with it.

Status: Because Pledge 1 was behind, I opted to extend this to 45 days, allowing myself the exception for July 4th. So far I haven’t cheated once, outside of the one hot dog on my prearranged cheat day.


Pledge 3
: Turn off the water when soaping in the shower, and lower the temp.

Reasoning: Believe it or not, conserving water (especially hot water) lowers your carbon footprint too!

Status: I’m at about an 82% success rate in following this guideline.


Pledge 4
: Drink less coffee.

Reasoning: Coffee is another commodity with a high carbon footprint. My office uses a Keurig, which intensifies that problem.

Status: This is going a little more slowly than I intended, but I haven’t really cheated much or backslid. My consumption is down.


Pledge 5
: Commit to more fuel-efficient driving.

Reasoning: Use less gas.

Status: So far the gas light hasn’t come on, but I’ve only refueled once since making the pledge. The other things are hard to measure this early, so TBD.


Pledge 6
: Post about the pledges on my blog.

Reasoning: There’s a finite amount I can lower my own carbon footprint, but if my efforts spread to others that amount grows exponentially, like a pyramid scheme.

Status: If you’re reading this, mission accomplished! Remind me to hang a banner.

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Generic nature image to inspire conservationism!

Ancillary benefits to these pledges abound. Biking helps keep me in shape! Cutting beef is healthy! Taking quicker and cooler showers is god for my skin! Drinking less coffee is healthy, and makes me pee less, thus conserving water! Fuel-efficient driving saves money! Writing about it all teaches me I should use fewer exclamation points!

It’s starting to look like I will need a lot more ideas to keep this going for the duration of US non-membership in the Paris Agreement. I do have a few more thoughts, but please hit me up with yours! Leave ’em in the comments, email me, reply to the Facebook posts, DM me on Twitter, text me, beam ’em to me telepathically, send smoke signals, or do whatever you’ve gotta do. And of course, steal my idea – or let me know if you’ve been independently doing anything similar. I would be thrilled to hear about your own pledges I hope some will join me.

Earth Day/Science March

Fair warning: this post will be a tad political. I don’t want to use this space often for such things, but after careful consideration this topic is relevant to my content and frankly has no business being political in the first place. I am talking about the acceptance of facts and science. Our current administration is hardly the first to have an adversarial relationship with the scientific method, nor is it exclusive to conservatives in general. It is nonetheless much more on the surface now, and so I chose to celebrate Earth Day by attending the March for Science and writing about it.

I will focus on climate change here, as it’s one of the most relevant, most publicized, and most important manifestations of the rejection of science. It is hardly the only case in which science is willfully rejected; it happens with evolution, gun control, abortion, human sexuality, fracking, and really any topic about which people have strongly held opinions and/or financial interests. I understand it and am not immune. We all tend to reject things that don’t support our existing belief structure. It’s not exactly science, but just this week there was an argument in my office about which direction a backslash goes. We looked it up, and I was one of those on the wrong side. Despite the unanimous agreement of the sources we consulted, it was hard for me to accept my wrongness. Isn’t that stupid? I did accept it, though, and I guess the point I’m making is that we should try to be aware of our biases toward what we already think. It’s this one, by the way: \.

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Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker giving an interview at the March for Science

I mentioned in the mission statement of this blog that I have no patience for climate denial, and I don’t. Climate change is real. It’s objectively proven, consensus has been established, and the models for its impacts have proven essentially accurate. I didn’t arrive at this conclusion without doubts. During college I was exposed to the opposing views and few dissenting publications, via news and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, among other things. At that time I did have a strongly held belief that climate change was real and anthropogenic, but I forced myself to review and study the science that seemed to support the other side. As I did so, I came to find that those works were systematically refuted by better science. I say all of this not to take some sort of moral high ground but to establish that on this particular topic I have done my due diligence and I do not speak from ignorance.

If I had doubts of my own, why am I so aggressively opposed to climate denial now? Because doubt is an important part of the scientific method, and the evidence is more than strong enough to withstand that doubt. Because the “science” of dissension has become more fringe and earned those quotation marks. Because rejecting this particular science is not just wrongheaded and short-sighted, it is dangerous. If you don’t believe in evolution I will disagree with you, and I will argue, but ultimately your belief does no direct harm to others and so I can accept it. Deniers of human-caused climate change are doing tangible harm to me and to the world in which I live by way of their beliefs, and so this is a disagreement I cannot ignore.

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And some slick dinosaurs

I can’t quite wrap my brain around the arrogance of politicians and pundits that tells them their opinion on a scientific matter is more valid than that of the actual scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying it. Of course my opinion isn’t more valid than those scientists either, but the difference here is that I find myself in agreement with the climate scientists. There are surely subjects on which I hold opinions or beliefs in opposition to the scientists in that field. I am almost certainly wrong about virtually all of those things. I hope I am wise enough to accept that wrongness and adjust my worldview when and if I learn about the science that contradicts me.

I suppose I’ve spewed forth on this long enough now,  so I’ll just end by saying Happy Earth Day!

Taking a Moment

It’s a beautiful Tuesday at lunchtime, and I need to be outside. I hit up a McDonald’s drive-through and park near the Rock Creek Trail. I eat hurriedly and begin a stroll with rap music incongruously providing a mental accompaniment (I’ve been reading Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book). Robins sing and doves coo while squirrels scurry by amid a blanket of lesser celandine and leaf litter. The cover is dotted here and there with purple violets and white spring beauties. I hear the calls of other birds I don’t quite recognize, but I have forgotten my binoculars. One in particular is harsh and low, tantalizing in the middle distance. Squinting and straining, I almost misstep into a pile of deer scat. When I recover and glance down, I spy a water strider gently keeping pace against the slow flow of the stream before me.

A moment later I spot a single bloodroot in bloom on the other side of the path and pause to snap some quick pictures with my phone. A nuthatch scolds me; I accept the criticism and move on. With my shift in perspective more bloodroots and some cutleaf toothwort emerge from the background. A review of my photos tells me I had completely missed a small patch of ground ivy, as well.

As I near the stream’s mouth where it joins Rock Creek proper, a tree hangs perilously over the far bank, its mossy roots exposed and entangled like something Jurassic. Goldfinches and crows punctuate this scene with their starkly contrasting calls.

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I turn back, knowing I have little time left to appreciate nature’s masterwork. Either the cacophany or my perception of it intensifies. I pick out a cardinal here, a downy woodpecker there, then suddenly and obviously a pileated woodpecker. Frogs, too, add their voices to the composition. I pause to roll over a log, remembering a handsome garter snake I’d found in this exact spot some months ago. Nothing this time, so I rock the log easily back into place.

During the final steps of my journey, a few less than pleasant thoughts start to creep in: the invasiveness of all that lesser celandine, the casually discarded garbage scattered about the streambed, my need to return to my office in but a few moments. I push them aside, aided by a pair of passing blue jays calling back and forth. “This,” I think. “All of this is life.”

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