A Bird in the House …

… is worth nothing at all as it is a very stressful experience for all involved.

I was in my room earlier this evening while downstairs all the bustle of making dinner was going on, when I heard Dad say something about there being a small hummingbird in the house.

As we’re not in the Americas it clearly wasn’t a hummingbird, but when I went to look there was a tiny, olive green bird with a relatively long, curved black beak darting  frantically around the ceiling.

You can see why Dad thought it was a hummingbird. This photo is nawt mine.
You can see why Dad thought it was a hummingbird. This photo is nawt mine.

It was clearly highly distressed; hitting the ceiling again and again with little ‘thump’ noises, flying into the walls and hanging off the rims of the downlights. Watching it panic thus was awful.

First I closed all the doors so it couldn’t go into another room, then I got a broom and sort of waved it around a bit and it moved towards the front door (was this related to the broom waving? We may never know), which was open, but I couldn’t convince it to fly down to it and out.

I thought that maybe it was attracted to the light so I turned them off and switched on one outside, but that did nothing (we will find out later that I was half right).

The little bird thumped into a wall again and again, then /fluttered down to the floor where it sat next to a door looking dazed. I picked it up, feeling it’s heart thudding in an insanely fragile chest. It was almost weightless, like holding a few grapes or a large flower. I took it out to the garden and opened my hand.

It didn’t move. I was afraid I’d broken it’s neck. I felt utterly responsible for that warm, small creature; as if something infinitely precious was crouched in my palm (as indeed there was). It looked so small, it’s body beak to tail barely longer than my index finger.

urgch
I didn’t take this photo and this isn’t my hand, but it gives you an idea of how small and fragile looking these birds are.

Oh shit, what have I done?

My eulogy for the tiny bundle of feathers was cut short as it sat up on one of my fingers, gripping it with tiny claws, looked around then vanished with a pprrrp of wings. Relived, I went back into the house – only to find it dashing itself fruitlessly against the ceiling.

Note to self: close the door behind you.

This time it’s movements were more intense as if it’s encounter with me had scared it further. It hurled itself at the ceiling time and again as I stood below it, hands wringing with stress.

What if it had a heart attack? It’s beak was so slender – what if it was damaged against the roof? What if I can’t get it out, and find it dead in the morning, cold feet curled and stiff; blank eyes accusing? I hate the way the head of a dead bird lolls.

It was fluttering in a corner now, then dropped into the laundry basket. I scooped it up and hurried it to the garden, closing the door behind me. I crouched down by a thicket of bushes I often see small birds in, but it just sat in my hand listlessly, no longer moving it’s head around. It seemed to have let go of my finger and just be lying there.

Sitting there under a macadamia tree beside some bamboo I thought it would die in my hands. It’s heartbeat was slowing. It did not sit on my finger or move to fly away; I couldn’t convince it to climb onto a small bamboo stem.

I had almost given up hope when, with a sound like a deck of cards being shuffled, it burst out of my hands. It’s wing brushed my face and I flinched; then it was gone.

After dinner I was sitting by the windows trying to figure out what it was. Some kind of honeyeater, probably. The outside of the flyscreen was covered with insects attracted by the lights – and eating those insects with a whirr of wings, I saw a tiny green bird.

It clung onto the mesh, it’s head swiveling this way and that, it’s body contorting around itself, slender beak snapping up insects. It looked exactly like the bird from earlier – it may have even been the same one. It was not to be afraid at all and I used my bird book to guess that it was a juvenile eastern spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostis).

A juvenile eastern spinebill. Note how flexible they are, you should have seen it on the flyscreen; it was like an acrobat. This photo isn't mine.
A juvenile eastern spinebill. Note how flexible they are, you should have seen it on the flyscreen; it was like an acrobat. This photo isn’t mine.

I guess the one that had come in was eating insects then had been unable to get out again. We will make sure to keep the doors closed in the future.

There isn’t really a point to this story, I just thought I’d share it. It’s nice to be fairly certain of what it was. It was really nice when the bird flew away with the exaltation of free wings. To get that feeling, follow this link and pay attention from around 4:00. (Also, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, so just generally listen to it whilst imagining yourself bushwalking through the mountains on a clear winter’s day, watching a bird fly over a sunlit valley.)

I could say something about caring for urban and peri urban biodiversity, but I don’t feel like that’s a valid statement because, a. If there wasn’t an ‘urban’ the bird wouldn’t have been in danger; and b. I just feels like a wanky thing to say.

So yeah. Interesting story.

 

 

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Here Be Dragons

Imagine living in a garden full of dragons. Imagine have breakfast while chatting to one, or walking down the main street and seeing one casually draping itself over a sign in front of the police station.

IMAG0026
This little one was draped over a sign outside the police station in the main street.

I’m speaking of course of the Eastern Water Dragon (Physignathus lesueurii).

Growing up to a metre in length they are the largest dragons in Australia but are sometimes mixed up with their cousins, the Gippsland Water Dragon. You can tell them apart if you look at their faces: the Gippsland ones don’t have a black stripe going from their nose to their ear.

Water dragons are, as their name suggests, very well adapted to water. Their tails constitute 2/3 of their body length and are used for swimming while their nostrils are on the top of their heads making it possible to breathe while their heads are submerged, a trait they share with crocodiles. Like other lizards such as lace monitors and goannas they can use their strong claws to climb quickly and easily.

IMAG0054
This little girl is taking a dip in one of the ponds out front.

They are good indicators of biodiversity as they mainly prey on insects and frogs as juveniles, meaning that if there is a healthy population of dragons there is also a healthy population of insects and frogs. When they’re older they become omnivores. It’s always nice to see predators like dragons and kookaburras in the garden as it means that the garden ecosystem is diverse and healthy enough to support them.

IMAG0050
Aw, yiss.

It is possible to identify males and females as males have crimson, vermilion or orange chests to attract mates. After mating a female will lay a clutch of eggs in soft soil or sand by the water and when the baby dragons hatch they are completely self sufficient. However, studies have shown that the temperature of the eggs during incubation can determine the sex of the dragons. This is worrying as males are only produced in middling temperatures, with females produced in cooler and warmer temperatures, so over time the species may becomes less viable as there are fewer males produced due to the temperature of the ground being affected by increasing temperatures.

Water dragon eggs. Photo: Nadav Pezaro
Water dragon eggs. Photo: Nadav Pezaro
IMAG0049
The red on the chest identifies this one as male. He’s just chilling on the front deck.

Although it’s legal to keep water dragons as pets in NSW you need a license for it and it is ideal that you only purchase reptiles from other license holders to try and source reptiles that are healthy and well looked after. It is illegal in Australia to keep animals that have been collected from the wild. Keeping these beautiful lizards as pets seems strange to me, why not just make your garden suitable for them?

Why would you do this? Poor little things must be out of their minds with boredom and they have basically no space. They're not like dogs; they don't like you, you don't have a relationship with them. You just keep them in a glass box. Photo: Ryan Kennedy.
Why would you do this? Poor little things must be out of their minds with boredom and they have basically no space. They’re not like dogs; they don’t like you, you don’t have a relationship with them. You’re just keep them in a glass box. Photo: Ryan Kennedy.

Do that and they’ll come of their own accord. Build a pond or a small waterway, have lots of native shrubs to hid in. Make sure that your garden has plenty of flowers to attract insects and have a pile of old logs and tiles for reptiles to hide in and sunbake on. Also, keep your cat indoors. Or just don’t have a cat. (We were talking about this last night at dinner and I said “At least with dogs you can fence them in; there isn’t much you can do with cats.” Without missing a beat Dad said “You can do two things with cats: drown them or shoot them.”) Dragons aren’t meant to be kept in small glass boxes; they’re wild animals, not puppies to be played with.

Cats are just awful. Photo: someone in the US.
Cats are just awful. Photo: someone in the US.
Build a nice pond then sit back and enjoy your urban biodiversity. Photo: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
Build a nice pond then sit back and enjoy your urban biodiversity. Photo: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
tiles
These tiles are onduline, a cladding and roofing material that is soaked in bitumen. Stack them with rocks between them and reptiles will love the heat and safety. Photo: NZ Department of Conservation.
A tumble of sticks, plants and old pots is the perfect hangout for small reptiles. Photo: My Green Australia.
A tumble of sticks, plants and old pots is a good hangout for small reptiles. Photo: My Green Australia.

If you have lizards in your yard resist the urge to feed them – it’s not healthy for them and teaches them to rely on you. Instead, just sit quietly and watch them. We should encourage and appreciate urban biodiversity, not seek to control it or interfere with it.

If you're going to keep reptiles at least do it properly. This raptor is a cheap as chips $2500 from some silly homewares place.
If you’re going to keep reptiles at least do it properly. This fibreglass raptor is a cheap as chips at $2500 from some silly homewares place.

Here are some links for those interested in all things dragon:

A fact sheet from the Australian Museum on Water Dragons

http://australianmuseum.net.au/Water-Dragon

A guide to creating a reptile friendy backyard:

Lizards

Making your backyard wildlife friendly:

Creating a wildlife-friendly backyard

IMAG0047
Hello! I’m a dragon!

 

Morality and the Triage System

This post first appeared on a biodiversity blog that we set up for a course last semester. That blog can be found here: http://biodiversityconservationblog.wordpress.com/. It is really great and you should check it out!

Animals
She’s so cute!!! PHOTO: Atlas of Living Australia.

Look at this photo of a baby koala. Sqqquueee!!! She’s so cute! Look at her fluffy ears and big nose and button eyes!

We know that koalas are on the decline in all States and Territories except Victoria; we all know that these insanely cute marsupials are facing habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture, new roads, expanding urban areas and forestry. We know they took a hard hit when they were hunted for their soft, thick pelts in the early part of last century.

Enter the triage system. ‘Triage’ is a term mostly used in medical circles and it means prioritising patients based on the severity of their injuries.

In conservation it means using a decision support system to decide which species or system to preserve: What are the chances of this species doing well if we support it? How much will it cost? What’s the cultural significance of the species? It is rare or taxonomically distinct (i.e. has few living relatives)?

For something like the koala, it will do pretty well in these questions; it’s a big draw for tourism, it’s important in Australian culture, it’s the last of its family (Phascolarctidae) and it’s cute and fluffy so when policy makers and groups want to protect it people say ‘Ahh, how nice.’

The darker side of the triage system is that not all animals are cute and fluffy, not all of them have a high social standing and so the funding just won’t be allocated to them because they don’t meet the criteria.

Think of the Grassland Earless Dragon. These lizards are tiny, about 1.5cm long and they live in the grasslands of NSW, the ACT and Victoria. The little dragons have been facing habitat degradation from farming (mostly grazing) for decades and are now threatened by the spread of wind farms as well, farms set up along the ridge in the grasslands they call home.

I haven’t heard of earless dragons before, I hear you say, are they cute? Yes, they are, they’re gorgeous!

That shouldn’t matter though, we should protect all species, regardless of their cuteness or social utility. We created the problems they are facing – habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, invasive plants and animals, climate change – so we should fix it.

Morally, it’s not okay to push another species (never forget that we are merely clothed apes; Homo sapiens, the cousins of chimps and gorillas) to the point of being endangered then say ‘Oh, but you don’t meet the cut/fluffy/social utility/inexpensive criteria so you’re just going to have to make do.’

Funding is always limited and resources always scare but the bottom line is that humans don’t have the right to decide the fate of other species* because we have decided other things are more worth our money; everything should be protected.

We need to change our values so that the triage system becomes obsolete because there is always enough funding to conserve everything.

Look at this little dragon. Can you look him in the eye and tell him he’s not precious enough to protect?

dragon
This little guy is about 1.5cm long and lives in the Australian grasslands. He’s beautiful! PHOTO: Museum of Victoria.

*The debate around humans messing with evolution through making some species extinct while preserving others comes in here. It’s a really interesting line of thought and I recommend you follow it.

Interested in finding out more?

Earless dragons in Victoria:

http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/103407/Earless_dragon.pdf

Koalas in Queensland:

http://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/koalas/legislation/pdf/conservation-plan-06-16.pdf

Koalas in Victoria:

http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/106852/Koala.pdf

Conservation Triage:

http://conservationbytes.com/2009/03/27/classics-ecological-triage/

Weekly Writing Challenge: Dialogue. About goats.

Hello everyone! I’m taking part in a weekly writing challenge to shake it up. Check it out:

It is night, and raining. A YOUNG WOMAN sits at a computer, headphones in, typing with one hand. Her chin is resting in the other. The audience can hear the tinny sound of electro-house music and the clattering of keys. Enter THE BOYFRIEND. She doesn’t notice. He taps her gently on the shoulder.

YOUNG WOMAN: (startled) Gah! Dude, you scared me.

THE BOYFRIEND: You’re still here how I left you this morning! What have you been up to all day?

She takes out her earphones and turns to face him, excited.

YOUNG WOMAN: Soils! Soils are amazing. Well, goats and soils. See, they had too many woody weeds, then they put goats on it to make it better, but the goats messed it up, so now the soil is unhappy because there isn’t any clay and so there’s a film and basically it’s all just terrible.

THE BOYFRIEND removes his jacket, sits down in the armchair next to the desk and looks at her intently. He likes hearing about what she’s learning.

THE BOYFRIEND: (patiently) … Right. And what are woody weeds?

YOUNG WOMAN: (impatiently) They’re woody shrubs that grow in the Australian rangelands and are unpalatable to stock. The rangelands are, like, 80% of Australia, but this case study is from the semi-arid region between Broken Hill and Cobar, in the south-west corner of New South Wales.

grassland
What Australian grasslands of that area are meant to look like. There’s a overstory of trees and an understory of grasses and forbes and nothing else.
woody weeds
An area over run with woody weeds; the middle story. Note the absence of an understory.

THE BOYFRIEND: So where do the goats come in?

 YOUNG WOMAN: Well, removing woody weeds mechanically or chemically is really expensive, and they tried burning it but it doesn’t always work. That’s one of the main maxims in Australian geography; if there’s a problem, set fire to it and ask questions later.

THE BOYFRIEND: (laughing) So they put goats in? Where did they get the goats from?

YOUNG WOMAN: That’s the beauty of it, see. You just fence off a whole lot of feral goats that are out there anyway, and the expense of the fence is offset by the profit made from the goats. There’s a growing market for goat in Australia, especially goat that’s Halal. The goats start off eating all the yummy things, like the forbes and perennial grasses, but then they go on and eat the woody weeds. Unpalatable doesn’t worry goats!

THE BOYFRIEND: Forbes? Isn’t that a town in central New South Wales? And how does this relate to soils being unhappy?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah, it is a town too, but forbes is another name for ‘herb’, something that’s not a grass or a shrub but is still a little plant. So they put in heaps of goats. Like, heaps. Out there the stocking rate is 0.3 DSE per hectare, which means that for every hectare you should only have 0.3 of a dry sheep equivalent. This is the amount of resources needed to support a ewe that doesn’t have a lamb. A cow is equal to about 15 DSE, a pony or light horse has a DSE of 10, and so on. So this place is at 0.3/ha, and they go and put in 4 goats on every hectare! This is so they can really eat the weeds down, put that many goats puts pressure on the soil. See, the soil is usually alumino-silicate aggregates coated by clay, yeah? But the goats grind it all together and the clay comes off. You following?

clay runoff
Soil particles are covered in clay (happy soil), but then goats come in and rub it off. The clay forms a film on the surface when it rains, and water can’t get in (sad soil).

THE BOYFRIEND: Yep. The area has a DSE of 0.3/ha, but you run it at about 4/ha and the clay gets rubbed off the soil particles. What happens then?

YOUNG WOMAN: Well, usually the water would just infiltrate into the soil and there’s basically no run-off at all. No erosion or anything, just lots of water for the plants, but because the clay has come off the soil it forms a film on the surface and the water can’t infiltrate into the soil. There’s lots of run-off which causes erosion, and the plants can’t access the water.

THE BOYFRIEND taps his nose thoughtfully. 

THE BOYFRIEND: Hmm, doesn’t sound too good. Anything else?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah, dust. Because the soil is made so unstable by the goats they lose massive amounts of topsoil via wind erosion. This is a serious problem in Australia and is very costly, both environmentally and economically.

apocalypse
Sydney Harbour in the 2009 Australian dust storm. I was 16 at the time and it felt like the apocalypse had come.

THE BOYFRIEND: So … goats solve one problem but create a few more?

YOUNG WOMAN: (sadly) Pretty much. If you can figure out how to solve the woody weeds problem they’ll basically make you Australian of the Year and you’ll be a gazillionaire.

THE BOYFRIEND: That’s a shame, goats are otherwise so cool.

YOUNG WOMAN: (excited, looking to a future of solving problems with goats) Yeah, geography is awesome!

So that was my night last night. More or less a true story.

goats3
Goats are awesome.
goat1
What a cutie!

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/writing-challenge-dialogue/