Naturalist Notebook – August 9, 2015

  • It Took A Musician’s Ear To Decode The Complex Song In Whale Calls : NPR 080615
    Humpback whales don’t just sing songs — they compose with the whales around them, singing a song that evolves over time. Scientists didn’t know that until they started recording whale sounds in the 1960s and spent years listening. The evolution of this “culture of listening” among researchers is the focus of Morning Edition’s weekly summer series, Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound. | Katy Payne, a researcher in acoustic biology at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and her husband, Roger, were the first scientists to realize that the intricate and eerie calls of some humpback whales are actually songs. At a recent visit with Katy in a Cornell sound studio, we played this archived recording of the first whale they ever heard, and she recognized it right away: | “It’s the voice of a male humpback whale off shore of Bermuda, in 1964,” Katy explained. “It was recorded by a Navy engineer.” |The Paynes met the engineer, Frank Watlington, on a trip to Bermuda. A friend of theirs had recommended they look him up because he shared their passion for whales, and Watlington invited the Paynes aboard his ship. | “We had no idea we were going to hear anything,” Payne told us. “He said, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard the sounds these animals make?’ ” |And then he played the song of the humpback whale for them. |”I had never heard anything like it,” Katy said. “Oh, my God, tears flowed from our cheeks. We were just completely transfixed and amazed because the sounds are so beautiful, so powerful — so variable. They were, as we learned later, the sounds of just one animal. Just one animal.”
  • The search for the next great bee | Michigan Radio 080415
    Honey bees pollinate about a third of the crops in the U.S—that’s about $15 billion of the agricultural economy. But honeybees have had a tough time lately: a combination of diseases, stress, parasites and pesticides have all hurt the honey bee population. | Scientists are starting to look at how other species of bees could help pick up the slack. | The bee world is a lot bigger than just honey bees; in fact, there are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world. Penn State researchers like Dave Biddinger are finding out that some of these unsung bees could start filling gaps left by honey bees.
  • One Of The Nation’s Biggest Urban Forests Isn’t Where You’d Expect : NPR 080615
    WADE GOODWYN: “The Trinity Forest is a place that’s in the process of becoming. What it’s becoming isn’t completely clear yet. We walk through acres of meadows, forest, river bottom. Massive hardwood soar above our heads. But at spots along the Trinity River, it’s disgusting. Because this place is both remote and close to Dallas, forest advocate Ben Sandifer says it’s long been a dumping ground. | Jack likes being outside all morning, the fishing hiking, birding, insecting. I just made that word up. And going to the Dallas Zoo beats being bored at home. But it’s not all good. There’s the bad and the ugly, too. Eleven-year-old Dylan Malone says she was dismayed at the condition of the riverbank while they were kayaking.”
  • My township calls my lawn ‘a nuisance.’ But I still refuse to mow it. – The Washington Post 080415
    Sarah Baker: “In June, my partner and I received an official written warning from the trustee board of St. Albans Township, stating that our yard had become “a nuisance.” Ohio law allows local governments to control any vegetation on private property that they deem a nuisance, after a seven-day warning to the property owners. But the law does not define what “a nuisance” is, effectively giving local leaders the power to remove whatever grass or plants offend them. In our case, the trustees decided that our lawn was too tall and thick and would attract “nuisance animals” such as “snakes and rodents.” If we didn’t cut it, they would hire someone to do so and bring law enforcement with them. | But the main point of growing a natural yard is to attract wildlife and build a self-regulating environment. The un-mowed plants in our yard attract plant-eating bugs and rodents, which in turn attract birds, bats, toads and garter snakes that eat them. Then hawks fly in to eat the snakes. Seeing all this life emerge in just one growing season made me realize just how much nature manicured lawns displace and disrupt. | There are 40.5 million acres of lawn in the United States, more than double the size of the country’s largest national forest. We disconnect ourselves from wildlife habitat loss by viewing it as a problem caused by industry and agriculture. But habitat loss isn’t a problem happening out there somewhere; it’s happening in our own back yards. | This has serious consequences. About 95 percent of the natural landscape in the lower 48 states has been developed into cities, suburbs and farmland. Meanwhile, the global population of vertebrate animals, from birds to fish, has been cut in half during the past four decades. Honey bees, which we depend on to pollinate our fruits and other crops, have been dying off at an unsustainable rate. Because one in three bites of food you take requires a pollinating insect to produce it, their rapid decline is a threat to humanity. Monarch butterflies have been even more affected, with their numbers dropping 90 percent since the 1990s. Butterflies are an important part of the food chain, so ecologists have long used them to measure the health of ecosystems. | Nature preserves and parks are not enough to fix the problem; much of wildlife is migratory and needs continuous habitat to thrive. Natural yards can act as bridges between the larger natural spaces.
  • Is Your Lawn Giving You A Hard Time? Let It Grow : NPR 080515
    Sarah Baker’s yard is a nuisance. At least that’s what the trustees of her township in central Ohio say. Baker and her partner have been letting their yard grow wild. They haven’t mowed it since last year. Now the Baker’s yard care has become the subject of national debate. Sarah Baker joins me to talk about both the outrage and the support that have germinated from her wild yard.
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