February 15, 2019
A Multi-billion Dollar Industry
By Brandon Withrow/The Daily Beast
Photo by Frank Sinks/flickr
I will never forget the first time I got lost in the eyes of a ruby-throated hummingbird. It was late in spring seven years ago and I was writing out on our patio. Flashes of her green back cut through our garden, darting from petunia to petunia. My eyes shifted up from the laptop, finding her only inches away. We briefly stared quietly at each other, frozen in time at 53 beats per second.

Over the years, while I’ve added feeders—seed, suet, and nectar—and enthusiastically packed my camera and binoculars for the nearest nature preserve, I’ve found that compared to serious birders, I’m still just a novice birder, or maybe just an avid bird-lover.

Determined birders are ornithological junkies, compelled to travel long distances by their love of spotting a rare species. In fact, they are part of a growing multi-billion dollar ecotourism industry. And birding, as it turns out, is not only the perfect excuse for travel, but also part of a practical global conservation effort to help both birds and humans thrive.

It is  estimated  that over $800 billion is spent a year in outdoor recreation in the United States, with birdwatching having an economic benefit of $41 billion dollars.  Roughly $17.3 billion  is spent annually in wildlife-watching trip-related expenses in the U.S., with more than 20 million Americans taking birding-specific trips.

Polar Bear Invasion Shuts Russian Town
By Isaac Stanley-Becker/The Washington Post
Photo by Valerie/flickr
Novaya Zemlya is a Russian archipelago stretching into the Arctic Ocean. It once played host to Soviet nuclear tests, including the  largest man-made explosion , when the “king of bombs” detonated in 1961, releasing 50 megatons of power and deepening an arms race that threatened to turn the Cold War hot.

Today, the barren landscape is under siege — from dozens of polar bears locked in their very own sort of hot war. Marine ecologists have long been  warning of  the peril posed by global warming for the  vulnerable species . In the far reaches of Russia, the situation has become traumatic for humans, too.

Officials in the Arkhangelsk region, where the archipelago lies,  declared a state of emergency  because of the marauding mammals. Polar bears are typically born on land but live mostly on sea ice, where they hunt and feed on seals. But as Arctic ice thins, an occurrence  linked to the acceleration of climate change , the animals move ashore, ravenous. They scavenge, sometimes coming into contact with human populations.

Should Whale Welfare Influence Fisheries?
By Brandon Keim/Anthropocene
Photo by Blair Haggerty/flickr
Hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins are killed each year as bycatch in commercial fishing. Many times that number are injured or crippled in their encounters with fishing equipment. Yet unless their deaths pose a species-level threat, the welfare of bycaught cetaceans is rarely a factor in evaluating a fishery’s sustainability.

Given what scientists know about cetacean suffering, and the public’s deep sympathy for these animals, is it time to overhaul what’s considered sustainable?

Posing that question are Sarah Dolman and Philippa Brakes of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a United Kingdom-based cetacean protection organization. “‘Sustainable’ does not necessarily mean that fisheries can also be considered responsible with regard to bycatch,” they  write in the journal  Frontiers in Veterinary Medicine.  

The Gnawing Question of Saltwater Beavers
By Ben Goldfarb/Hakai
Photo by Brett/flickr
The female beaver laying on a table in the exam room was nearly comatose, her whiskered face and nimble paws twitching with seizures. Bethany Groves, the attending wildlife veterinarian, had seen beavers before, many the victims of car strikes and dog attacks. Those patients tended to be feisty, snapping their orange, self-sharpening incisors—fortified with iron—at Groves’s hands. This 16-kilogram adult, though, had none of the species’ usual vigor. Within a day, the animal was dead.

Groves found a clue to the beaver’s demise in the circumstances of its death. Castor canadensis is, of course, a freshwater dweller, adapted to lakes and rivers and wetlands. Yet wildlife control officers had found this particular rodent rolling listlessly in the surf near a ferry terminal along the coast of Puget Sound, an inlet along the coast of Washington State.

Groves’s experience sheds some light on a curious phenomenon—that North America’s most iconic freshwater rodents frequently take to the ocean.

Beware the Mighty, Aggressive Hummingbird
By James Gorman/The New York Times
Photo by tdlucas5000/flickr
The Aztecs weren’t fooled. Their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, was a hummingbird. The Aztecs loved war, and they loved the beauty of the birds as well. It seems they didn’t find any contradiction in the marriage of beauty and bloodthirsty aggression.

Scientists understood that aggression was a deep and pervasive part of hummingbird life. But they, too, have had their blind spots. The seemingly perfect match of nectar-bearing flowers to slender nectar-sipping beaks clearly showed that hummingbirds were shaped by co-evolution.

But hummingbirds also heard the call of battle, which demanded a different evolutionary course. Some of those slender, delicate beaks have been reshaped into strong, sharp and dangerous weapons.

“If a man’s life is not long enough, a dog’s is even shorter and anything you can do to make that fuller is worthwhile.”

-   George Bird Evans
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