Science is for birds. And the planet. | Culture

I’m not a scientist or lab technician, yet I was here on a Sunday afternoon filling up test tubes in the lab at Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary. My interest in the natural environment runs deep, but rather than delving into the technical aspects of environmental science, I have generally sought the 19th century type contemplations of nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau: “Only that day dawns to which we have awakened.” But these days science – from which both knowledge and wonder can spring – has drawn me in another direction.

Nipper’s lab, located about 12 miles southwest of Springfield in Sangamon County, is a makeshift variety. But all the necessary components are present in the cramped space that barely allows two workers. Fill the pipette with sampled water, transfer to a test tube, shake, wipe with a special tissue, insert into the analyzer, record the data. I was acting as a volunteer assistant to Charlene Falco of the Friends of the Sangamon Valley, testing samples collected earlier at the site for a study on wetland hydrology and water quality. The Friends, on behalf of the Nipper Foundation, undertook this study to determine the effectiveness of the five stepped wetlands created in the sanctuary, not only for their ecological value, but also for their ability to capture chemicals and sediment. that may drain off adjacent farm fields. This runoff eventually drains into the south fork of Lick Creek, which is in the Lake Springfield watershed. Draw, fill, shake, wipe, insert, save.

Restoration of the site began in the late 1990s with the reestablishment of the Tallgrass Prairie, and the knowledge gained here will inform future restorations. Outside the Nature Center’s lab are 120 acres of private habitat which, along with the prairie, includes floodplain forest and emerging wetlands. As you walk the trails of sanctuaries such as Nipper, the role science has played lurks like the immense roots of prairies buried deep in the ground. More likely we are looking at labor – digging, planting, removing invasive species, creating trails. And rightly so, these are monumental efforts. But where would we be without the researchers and their studies, models and databases that compile a life story and help us pick up the pieces in these efforts?

Tables and graphs show critical habitats, clean watersheds and a diversity of species.

PIPET WATER INTO A TEST TUBE with rubber-gloved hands seems the ultimate representation of what people hate most about science and scientists – the possible detachment caused by lab work and paperwork and computers that separate the scientist from what they study ; the disentangling of various habitats into their unrecognizable pieces; the reduction of living beings into quantifiable elements. Worse yet, they don’t like science itself because it constantly challenges assumptions. Yet it is scientific research that underlies the most incredible, almost fantastic knowledge of our world. Writing how mind-boggling scientific discoveries can be, famed physicist Richard Feynman reminded us of the basic fact that we are all stuck “by some mysterious attraction” to a spinning ball that “has been swinging through space for billions. years. “He says,” This shows that the imagination of nature is much greater than the imagination of man.

Thanks to scientific studies, we know that it is gravity that keeps us from flying off our planet. And, through species identification and categorization, through careful and sustained observation and documentation, through meticulously compiled number charts decade after decade, we continue to amass information about the connections of life. It is only recently that research into birds, the long-recognized barometers of environmental health, has revealed surprising similarities between our species. As described in The genius of birds, scientists have discovered that chickadees have one of the most “sophisticated and demanding” communication systems of all land animals; that birds of the same species are not all the same, that individuals react individually to a variety of situations; that there are remarkable similarities between learning to sing in birds and learning to speak human – from imitation and practice to actual brain structures and the specific genes involved.

Through these studies, we begin to know a species more intimately – as colleagues rather than outsiders – we can better understand their likes and dislikes, their quirks and bad habits, and the other species with which they associate. . We build individual relationships with communities. We are grounded in the science of ecology, a form of study that has its roots in Illinois.

In 1887, the head of the Illinois Natural History Survey, Stephen Forbes, presented an article now considered one of the founding papers of the science of ecology in the United States. It is titled “The lake as a microcosm”, in which he details the idea of ​​an “organic complex”. He explained that it would be impossible to make a complete study of a species without taking into account its relationship with other species, that it is necessary to know the whole to understand one of the parts.

The Forbes idea seems so fundamental today. But that’s the problem with science – we tend to forget that at some point we didn’t know we were glued to the rotating Earth by gravity, or that the concept of ecology, which connects organisms to them. to each other and to their physical environment, was once revolutionary. We don’t often stop to consider why we know what we know. And because the fundamental role of science is to build on the discoveries of the past and never, ever, assume that we have discovered all there is to learn, studies of critical habitats and species. often go unnoticed as structural beams that prevent the roof from falling. on our heads.

In 2019, the National Audubon Society released a climate science report titled “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink”. The report presents information on 604 species compiled from 140 million bird records and over 70 data sources. The report found that 64% of North American species “were moderately or very vulnerable to climate change.” Using various temperature rise scenarios and computer modeling, the climatology team looked at what the future might hold for birds – and for us. “These are the first indicators of the nature of the damage done to the environment which is also our survival system. …”, the report said. And in case you think climate-related bird losses will only happen somewhere far away, the team has created a “Bird and Climate Viewer” that allows the user to enter a zip code. to know the vulnerability of birds in the immediate area of ​​the user. Yet the report ends on a note of optimism. There is still time to change course. “Audubon translates these scientific findings into an action plan for bird conservation and public policy change.” We can help.

Tables and charts come from predictions, warnings and a call to action.

THE FIRST STAGE OF THE STUDY at the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary is complete, and the next step is now underway. The 2019 Initial Phase Report presents findings regarding the effectiveness of wetland restoration efforts in removing chemicals from field runoff. I read lines like: “These data establish a solid baseline against which to characterize seasonal patterns and ambient conditions of water levels and many water quality parameters.” I stifle a yawn and continue. It is not an eloquent contemplation of nature, but I remember that it is only through scientific research and the reports that accompany it that we understand the patterns of runoff and the potential dangers of chemicals in our environment. water.

Now I come to the exciting part: “The results of the study indicate that wetlands reduce major non-point source pollutants and thus contribute to improving water quality in the Lake Springfield watershed. “. Wetlands work.

On a cool fall day, I spend time outside the Nipper Lab wandering the trails, listening to the sound of the wind in the drying prairie plants, and admiring the rush of the Yard’s Rod. gold and appreciative butterflies, and to take pictures of the majestic architecture of the dried flowers that provide for many birds and pollinators. I lean over the rail of the bridge near the nature center that crosses the first of the series of wetlands sampled for the study. The water is now depleted in this wetland, but I enjoy playing Find the Hidden Frog, staring intently at the shallow puddles and mud until suddenly a frog that moments before had completely melted away. in its environment, suddenly and inexplicably, like an image in a -image puzzle, becomes discernible – like another – and another.

It is typical at such times that my thoughts turn to the fictionalized reveries of writers extolling the wonders of nature. But instead my thoughts turn to the science and a suggestion made by Rachel Carson, the biologist and conservationist who has saved countless birds from DDT decimation with the science she compiled and reported in her 1962 book, Silent spring. She said, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I’ve never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see him again? “” And, really, Thoreau and Carson tell us the same thing – be careful.

From tables and charts come awareness, successes and hope.

Jeanne Townsend Handy of Springfield has a master’s degree in environmental studies and is a fellow of the Society of Environmental Journalists. As a freelance writer, she enjoys exploring the science and dedication behind habitat restoration and protection efforts. Contact her at [email protected]

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