Tag Archives: nature

Because the wolves are shot

coyote

What do you really know about coyotes? Maybe you’ve heard the official line about the economic consequences of coyotes killing livestock. Maybe you know of a neighborhood cat that was taken. Maybe you’ve heard conservation groups protesting inhumane treatment of these animals, or recall Mark Twain’s “slim, sick, and sorry-looking skeleton…a living, breathing allegory of Want.” In reality, these animals are neither good nor evil, but are simply trying to survive the best they can in a world that is changing around them.

And as the coyote turns the cat to sweetness
in its mouth, a month-long stint of apricot
pit-, ant-filled scat, a month before of
birdseed, cricket, crappy sandwich; so,
 
don’t turn your back; befriend them; grab
and wave a stick; the twenty doses meant to still
their little ones were killed inside coyote,
and outcome: snapping infant death: your indoor
 
dogs, and bitten, squalling children
 

Karen Leona Anderson’s poem “Coyote” begins with a list of found items a coyote has eaten. Coyotes are omnivores and scavengers, meaning that they can and will eat just about anything.  Though they have a bad reputation as killers of sheep, chickens, and deer, coyotes also eat snakes, foxes, rodents, pet cats, sandwiches, and garbage, for a start. This could be the key to this species’ success in a country where the large predators are either killed outright or squeezed out by human population growth.

Which isn’t to say the coyote isn’t targeted. They are one of the most vilified animals in North America. The Wildlife Services division of the US Department of Agriculture specializes in “predator control,” killing thousands of predators to protect livestock and big game. The most common predator killed (at an estimated 512,500 between 2006-2012) is the coyote. Outcry by biologists and the public as well as a series of articles by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Tom Knudson led to ongoing investigations into this organization.

The problem with killing coyotes is that in some systems they act as keystone predators. Remember ecology: everything (plant, herbivore, carnivore) is connected to everything else in the food web. When part of the web is removed, it affects every other organism that was connected to it. A keystone, literally, is the stone at the top of an arch that holds up the entire structure. A keystone predator, then, is at the top of the food web. When it is removed, the delicate balance between interacting species is destroyed.

edu_food_web

Removal of coyotes has an effect on smaller predator (mesopredator) populations; in the absence of coyotes, populations of animals such as raccoons and foxes (and housecats!) increase dramatically. These mesopredators then consume far more eggs, birds, mice, voles, and other small animals than they should, and the populations of these prey organisms plummet. (Housecats in particular decimate bird populations. More information here.) In a cascade effect, whatever plants or insects the birds or mice feed on are then released from predator pressure, and they, in turn, multiply. Replace the keystone predator in the system, and order is restored. This is called top-down regulation: maintaining the balance of the food web below and around the top predator.

dens
in rainpipes, basements, crawlspace, tenants’ dumpsters:
a fed coyote is a dead–what? Since they ate
even the stinging sugar-eaters, since when
 
they couldn’t eat they bred into your pets
a coyness, slipped behind the fence, endorphins,
dopamine sweeter than the kibble
                                                   –so what’s to want?
 

Whereas in the west, wolves, bears, and mountain lions act as apex predators, these animals have been almost entirely extirpated from the eastern US. In response, the sly coyote, omnivorous and adaptable, has taken the role formerly held by wolves. Genetic studies have shown that quite a few eastern coyotes are, in fact, coyote-wolf hybrids. As a result, they are larger than their western counterparts, and are behaviorally more wolfish. Unlike wolves and other large predators, however, coyotes aren’t picky about forests and open space. They easily adapt to live in suburban and even urban areas where food is abundant. Chicago, for example, has tracked hundreds of coyotes living in the city for the past 14 years, thriving off of the rodent population.

Though originally pushed out of rural areas by human expansion, biologists say that coyotes are equally at home in the city. They pose no danger to us so long as we allow them to remain wild. This means not feeding them, being sure to pick up your garbage, and taking pets inside at night. Don’t be so quick to judge an animal that is only surviving. Remember that every species has its part to play, and that designations of good or evil are restricted to those of us with morals and a conscience.

With eyes like lanterns out by the latticed gate,
a future soft-tanned pelt pulls up
and moves to the city, deceitful little trot,
about to whelp and, honey, because the wolves
 
are shot and wildcats museumed and moth-torn,
the city, hareless, knows it’s gone to them; omnivorous
I tell myself, so make yourself their home.
 
 

REFERENCES:

“Agriculture’s Misnamed Agency.” 2013. The New York Times.  Link.

Cart, Julie. 2014. “Congressmen question costs, mission of Wildlife Services agency.” Los Angeles Times. Link.

“Coyote: Canis latrans” by Karen Leona Anderson, from the collection Punish Honey. Buy it here.

The Humane Society. 2013. “Why Killing Coyotes Doesn’t Work.” Link.

Knudson, Tom. 2012.  Wildlife Services’ deadly force opens Pandora’s box of environmental problems.  The Sacramento Bee.

Stolzenburg, William. 2008. Where the Wild Things Were. Bloomsbury.

“Urban Coyote Ecology and Management.” The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project. Link.

USDA Publication. 2011. “Coyotes in Towns and Suburbs.” Link.

Way, J G. 2007. Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Urban Massachusetts. Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, Ind.

THANKS:

Special thanks to Karen Leona Anderson for permission to use her work.  Please check out her lovely collection of poetry, Punish Honey, available here.  More information on Dr. Anderson is available here.

Weeds where woods once were.

7054248-the-edge-of-forest

“Between forest and field, a threshold
like stepping from a cathedral into the street–
the quality of air alters, an eclipse lifts,
 
boundlessness opens, earth itself retextured
into weeds where woods once were.”
 

Ravi Shankar’s poem “Crossings” describes something quite familiar to us all: the edge of the forest.  The speaker is struck by the clear division between a forest and a field, by how different it feels, even, to step from one to the other, from the cathedral-like hush of the forest under the canopy to the wide-open world of a field.  What Shankar is describing here is, in fact, an ecological phenomenon, one called an ecotone.

An ecotone is a transition between two biomes and can be regional (such as between an entire forest and grassland ecosystems) or local (such as the line between a forest and a field).  The name comes from the Greek  words oikos, meaning household or place to live (“ecology” is the study of the place you live!) and tonos, or tension.  So an ecotone is a place where two environments are in tension.

The most interesting part of an ecotone is how it allows for blending of the different organismal communities.  On either side of the boundary, species in competition extend as far as they can before succumbing to other species.  The influence of these two communities on each other is called the edge effect.  Some species actually specialize in ecotonal regions, using this transitional area for foraging, courtship, or nesting.

Terrestrial environments are not the only ones in which we can experience Shankar’s “threshold” between biomes.  There are also land-to-water ecotones, such as marshes or wetlands, and strictly aquatic ecotones, such as estuaries, where a river meets the sea.  Perhaps in these more dramatic transitions it is easier to see how some species can thrive in this unique habitat.

Even without knowing the biology behind ecotones, it is possible to sense the tension inherent in this boundary.  When hiking on a hot summer day, when the trail leads into a forest it’s like an exhalation.  We, as animals, sense the natural world much more acutely than society would like us to believe.  Ravi Shankar, using the skills of the poet to express what the rest of us cannot verbalize, notes this feeling, writing:

Even planes of motion shift from vertical
 
navigation to horizontal quiescence:
there’s a standing invitation to lie back
as sky’s unpredictable theater proceeds.
 
Suspended in this ephemeral moment
after leaving a forest, before entering
a field, the nature of reality is revealed.  
 

REFERENCES:

“Crossings,” by Ravi Shankar.  Read it here.

“Ecotone.”  Wikipedia.  Link.

Senft, Amanda.  2009.  Species diversity patterns at ecotones.  (Master’s thesis). University of North Carolina.  Link.

Its bark papyrus, its scars calligraphy

Paper Birch in Fall  53269

As a recent resident of New England, I am still thrilled when I see a stand of birches in the forest.  I love this tree for both its beauty and its usefulness: when camping, there’s no better firestarter in wet weather than the oily paper bark of a downed birch.  But why is this tree so different from other trees?  Why is its bark not fire-resistant, its lack of color so shockingly bright against multitudes of drab trunks?  Why has it inspired so much poetry?

“Is it agony that has bleached them to such beauty?  Their stand
is at the edge of our property–white spires like fingers, through which
the deer emerge with all the tentative grace of memory.”

– Nathaniel Bellows

That pale bark is arguably the distinguishing characteristic of a birch.  To understand why it is different, we must first think about the bark of other trees.

In the most generalized sense, bark is the outer covering of woody plants, encompassing everything outside of the vascular cambium.  There are several layers that make up “bark,” which are (moving from the cambium outward): the phloem, cortex, phelloderm, cork cambium (phellogen), and cork (phellem).  In most trees, bark serves as protection against loss of water by evaporation, attacks by insects, drastic temperature changes, and disease.  In some trees, it even acts as protection against fire damage.  Except for the last, all of these functions are served by the fine, papery bark of a birch.  What makes the birch unique is what its bark contains that other trees do not.

“After a storm, one birch fell in the field, an ivory buttress collapsed across
the pasture.  Up close, there is pink skin beneath the paper, green lichen
ascending in settlements of scales.  In the dark yard it beckons you back”
-Nathaniel Bellows
 

The chemistry of birch bark is what conveys its most amazing properties, and most likely is what secured this tree’s place in folklore, mythology, and poetry.  Birch bark is white because of the presence of a phytochemical, called betulin.  The total content of betulin ranges from 15-25%, depending on the species.  Betulin is hydrophobic, meaning that it resists water.  The whiteness (protection against light damage) and the water resistance led to birch bark being used in construction of canoes by native Americans.  Both betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid, are being studied for medicinal uses against melanoma, herpes, and HIV.

“The trunks of tall birches
Revealing the rib cage of a whale
Stranded by a still stream”
-William Jay Smith
 

Throughout history, humans have found a way to use nearly all the parts of the birch, so much so that it is often referred to as the “giving tree.”  It has an amazing ability to survive harsh circumstances, and is a first successional tree, quick to repopulate areas that have succumbed to fire or clear cutting.  (Though I couldn’t find data on this, I wonder if this ability is the reason its bark is not fireproof: fire is actually advantageous to a birch because it eliminates competitors and allows a chance to recolonize).  Because of its abilities, the birch has acquired quite a bit of symbolism in different cultures.  In Celtic cultures, the birch represents growth, renewal, stability, initiation, and adaptability.  In Gaelic folklore, it is associated with the land of the dead, and appears often in Scottish, English, and Irish folklore in association with fairies, death, or returning from the grave.  A tree with such near-legendary qualities and capacity for survival–how could it fail to inspire wonder?

“its bark
papyrus, its scars calligraphy, 
a ghost story written on
 
winding sheets, the trunk bowing, dead is
my father, the birch reading the news
of the day aloud as if we hadn’t
 
heard it, the root moss lit gas,
like the veins on your ink-stained hand–
the birch all elbows, taking us in.
-Cynthia Zarin
 
 

REFERENCES:

“Birch,” by Cynthia Zarin.  Read it here.

“Birch,” Wikipedia.  Link.

Krasutsky, Pavel.  2002.  “Birch Bark Extractives.”  University of Minnesota-Duluth.  Link.

“Russian Birch,” by Nathaniel Bellows.  Read it here.

“Winter Morning,” by William Jay Smith.  Read it here.