What Can We Learn from Wildlife?

By Rebecca Shankland
July 2008

For centuries, man's view of nature has shifted between Tennyson's realistic "nature red in tooth and claw" and Wordsworth's inspirational "Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her." Which one is winning? Evidence abounds on both sides. Just today an innocent-looking rock squirrel grabbed a ball of feathers near our bird feeder and proceeded to decapitate and devour a dead house finch. Grizzly bears terrify humans and cattle. Squirrels, rabbits, and gophers undermine my attempts to feed my family on local vegetables and to create the perfect Sunset Magazine photo-op with petunias and pansies. Even plants have a down side: they can poison us (water hemlock), scratch us (New Mexico locust), attack us (jumping cholla), sting us (nettles), invade our yards (spotted knapweed, which I foolishly spread around my mailbox), and alter our minds (jimson weed).

But looking on the positive side, the mighty grizzly is one of the principal attractions of Yellowstone, and a recent PBS documentary pointed out that one grizzly will eat 40,000 moths a day - probably a benefit to nature and mankind. The rock squirrels and rabbits lure our favorite predator, a bobcat mother who has brought her kitten to drink from the birdbath on our porch. Jimson weed (sacred datura) flowers are unparalleled in beauty, as seen in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. So it seems pointless to argue for only one way of viewing nature. Perhaps it's better just to observe without getting too philosophical.

People who enjoy nature worry about the effect of urban sprawl, highways, fences, and climate change on wildlife. The native creatures of our planet may well see us humans as an invasive species as we bulldoze, barricade, strip, pollute, and pave over their habitat. Counterbalancing this destruction are people who try to recreate habitat that meets the needs of wildlife, helping them to survive while increasing biodiversity.

What can we learn by watching nature in our own backyards?

Humility. Animals have amazing survival skills that we can barely guess at. How does a bird, with only a beak to work with, manage to build an intricate, interwoven, rainproof nest? How do some species of ants learn to encase their mounds with temperature-regulating bits of rock?

Shame. A PEEC board member noticed a white-winged dove coming for food and water--with a small dart shot into it. Besides noting the remarkable move north of this species of dove, people are perhaps healing a small act of cruelty.Useful knowledge. When you see a plant year after year, you learn its virtues and vices: the pale blue early forget-me-not of White Rock turns lethal when it sets seed and earns its nickname of stickseed. A year of observation will reveal which plants flourish with little or no water. Those are usually the ones the animals like, too.

Envy. While we pay a small fortune to travel to the Arctic, the plucky Arctic tern gets there for free, nesting in the Arctic tundra and then flying to the Antarctic for the winter, a yearly round trip of 31,000 miles. And this bird, like all wildlife, is living off the grid.

Scientific satisfaction: The citizen scientist movement has allowed amateur observers to record their data on Web sites like Project Feeder Watch. By recording birds' arrival times, I've learned that the little ball of fire called rufous hummingbird returns each year about July 4, just in time for the fireworks that seem to echo his flamboyant, aggressive personality.

Wonder. One nature observer was astonished to see that his hummingbird feeder was sustaining quite another species - a ringtail was hanging down from a porch board and clutching the nectar bulb in its paws like a baby with a bottle.

Creativity. As the "No Child Left Indoors" movement gains strength, PEEC adults are continually delighted by kids' imagination. At this summer's Nature Odyssey, kids discussed what animals needed to survive. Answers came tumbling out: food, water, shelter, space, other animals. Finally came the outside-of-the-box idea of the day, "Love!"

To show how some friends of wildlife in Los Alamos and White Rock have lovingly created spaces that meet animals' needs, Pajarito Environmental Education Center is offering a tour of yards this coming Saturday. Each one has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as containing four essential elements: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Children who visit will receive a nature detective booklet that helps them find these elements in each yard or garden. Locations vary from pocket-handkerchief size to acres of native vegetation, but each one will show a different approach to respect for nature.

For further information about PEEC's August 9 Wildlife Habitat Yard Tour, visit PajaritoEEC.org.


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