ECOLOGICAL LESSONS ARE ALL AROUND US

by Whit Gibbons

April 22, 2002


The prospects look good for something productive finally coming out of my workshop. For the last week, two Carolina wrens have spent each day bringing tasty insects to their babies through an open window I forgot to close last month. If the babies fledge, the parents will have accomplished more in the workshop in a few days than I have in several years. To clarify one point, the shop is really just a small room with shelves where I keep the hammer, pliers, and screwdrivers. Hence, it is simply "called" a workshop, so I have no shame that a pair of parenting wrens will out produce me.

These birds are truly amazing. Such industry. Continuously one or the other arrives at the windowsill with baby food. The first few times each favored me with a look of annoyance suitable for an intruder such as myself. The look from an aggravated wren with a bug in its beak can be disarming. I see why wrens are so popular with people who get to know them.

These wrens make a powerful ecological statement about environmental attitudes. That is, the strongest support for a species or a habitat is derived through familiarity. I have become familiar with and fond of the two little birds as I've worked outside at a table beside the open window. I actually saw them building the nest last month, in an old hat lying upside down on a top shelf. Because of my growing attachment to the wren family, should a rat snake decide to visit the workshop for a supper of wrens, I would feel compelled to remove the snake--despite my being a herpetologist who appreciates snakes. Lesson: increasing someone's awareness of and familiarity with a species leads to a sense of ownership and protectiveness.

Last week I saw another neighborhood phenomenon that left me staring for several minutes. Early one morning I noticed our dog entranced with something in the front yard as he watched through a glass door pane. A gray fox was casually strolling around the yard, picking up acorns and eating them. The fox did not once look furtively around to see what might attack it. In fact, its unconcerned attitude, before it finally ambled across the street into a neighbor's yard, was notable. In the spirit of looking for meaning and significance in both unusual and commonplace observations of any plant or animal, I pondered why a fox would forage in such a lackadaisical manner in broad daylight in a front yard. The lesson became obvious: we now have leash laws that keep free-ranging dogs off the streets (and out of our front yards). A fox no longer has to keep on guard, constantly being ready to escape or fight. Why not stroll around in our front yard and enjoy an acorn or two?

Another Discovery Channel moment came when I glanced toward the top surface of the vine-covered stump of an old oak tree and realized that two enormous lizards called broad-headed skinks were basking side by side. The bigger one was a male, with a shiny brown body and bright red head. The heads of males turn red during the spring courtship period. The female was drabber, but young ones, male and female alike, have metallic blue tails and bright yellow stripes. The female will lay eggs in a nest in a hole in the stump. Lesson: remove trees in the yard as necessary for safety, but leave the stumps to serve as homes and habitats for a variety of critters.

Spring is the ideal time to look closely at the sides of trees, in heavy vegetation, or in dark places to enjoy an endless parade of tiny insects and spiders. Check out the plants in your yard and neighborhood in a search for the smallest flowers you can find. Chances are you'll encounter some plants and animals you have never seen before. Be careful what you touch, but getting up close and familiar with living things is the best way to appreciate nature.

Also, don't forget the lesson about leaving workshop windows open and turning an old hat upside down.




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