This male Verdin is building a nest. With nothing more than a beak and perseverance, he will build a tight secure shelter for his young to be raised in.
In Bisbee, Arizona, we straddled a small train seat mounted on an open car. With a screech, the small but powerful electric engine pulled our tour group into a mineshaft of the Queen Mine. In its 100-year history which officially ended in 1975, this mine produced eight billion pounds of copper and hollowed out the core of the Mule Mountains, with over 5,000 miles of rail track inside.
The Queen Mine was a reminder that, as humans, we reign supreme as changers of this world. With our tools and technology, we have proven that there is very little that we cannot change should we desire to do so.
A week later, I witnessed a very different engineering story. A petite yellow-headed bird (a Verdin) was industriously constructing a nest in the fork of a cholla cactus. On each of dozens of flights to the nest, this male brought a stick or a piece of fluff. Then he would spend a few minutes arranging this newest addition and rearranging others that already formed a covered chamber with a tiny hole just large enough to admit him.
Once complete, the nest, built by a pair of birds that together would tip the scales at half an ounce, will repel rain and will last for several years.
Bird nests are engineering marvels when you consider that they are built without tools, hands, or even opposing thumbs, or anything more than naturally produced cements. They range from hummingbird nests the size of a quarter glued together with spider webbing, to eagle nests that may weigh up to several tons. They may be made of sticks or mud or grasses and built with a skill that belies the cerebral capacity often assigned to birds.
Other animals also modify their worlds to suit them. Of these, the beaver is perhaps the most famous, building dams so strong it takes a backhoe or dynamite to remove them. One of the largest is twice the length of the Hoover dam and can be seen from space. In the process, they create ponds and lodges in which to live and dramatically influence watersheds.
On another occasion, we watched a pocket gopher, a rarely seen mammal that lives full time underground, as it pushed soil it had dug from its’ tunnel system into a heap on the surface. As a group, fossorial mammals, those that dig holes and dens underground, can also modify this world in a big way. Their systems of tunnels are often extensive and serve to improve water percolation, soil aeration, fertilization and cycling (bringing deep soil up to the surface). Like the Queen Mine, this work is mostly hidden from view.
Even invertebrates get into the building act. There are few things in nature more intricate, delicate and strong than a beautiful wasp nest. Although they are only used one season, this creation of wood and wasp spit can last for several years.
Spider webs come in a dizzying array of patterns and strengths. This silk that spiders manufacture is stronger, pound for pound than steel cable. I once found a large spiderweb in Central America that was anchored with threads as strong as fishing line.
From a 500-square-foot 26-foot deep ant colony in Brazil to termite mound skyscrapers that dwarf a giraffe in Africa, social animals may set the record for complex construction. They solve problems like air flow and temperature to accommodate their large colonies.
The intelligence animals demonstrate when they build, without implements, blueprints or electricity, is astounding. Human engineers are still learning from these “simple” creatures.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho