31 July 2014

The Changing Face of Birding

Let's face it--identifying a bird's species isn't always easy. (Ever tried to distinguish between the various types of flycatchers?)

For novice bird-watchers, the struggle of identification sometimes becomes an obstacle to getting to know birds. Professional bird-watchers have the skills to make quick identifications, but the rest of us can spend hours consulting field guides and online resources, and even then, we may not confirm the species.

A new, free smart-phone app promises to make bird-identification tools more available, giving a greater number of people the chance for full engagement in birding. Birdsnap uses facial-recognition software to identify birds. All a person needs to do is take a picture of the bird in question. The app then uses the bird's physical characteristics to make the identification. For a more detailed discussion of Birdsnap, check out this article by Chelsea Harvey of Audubon Magazine.

In recent years, technology has made the avian world more accessible to us. From nestcams to Web sites like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds, we have a growing number of opportunities to engage with and learn about birds. With its innovative technology, Birdsnap represents another important contribution to birding.

Thanks to technology, birding might look different than it did twenty years ago, but the changes have turned more bird species into familiar faces.

29 July 2014

Wild with Reason

If you think going wild means a loss of reason, you haven't been to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.

The people of the peninsula are passionate about keeping their area wild, and they've got their reasons for supporting the proposed Wild Olympics legislation. Next month, they'll share those reasons on the PBS television series, This American Land. Check out a trailer for the episode below:

We often hear that reason clashes with emotions and what is wild, but the video suggests otherwise. The various individuals who talk about the importance of protecting the Olympic Peninsula build their arguments upon the emotional connection they have to the area's wild places. Doing so gives their messages a firm foundation in personal values.

The statements made by the people in the video also highlight the logic of a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and nature. Although the Olympic Peninsula remains fairly pristine, human activity has impacted it in the past and continues to do so. At the same time, the area has helped shape the people that live there. (A little of the wild has become part of them.) That's why the Wild Olympics bill benefits both humans and nature.

Supporters of the Wild Olympics campaign are wild about it, and it's pretty easy to see why.

27 July 2014

Rounding up Urban Tumbleweeds

Urban tumbleweeds (better known as plastic bags) ride like the wind because they ride the wind, but I recently roped a couple of these elusive objects.

Unlike regular tumbleweeds, which have a key place in American folklore and certain ecosystems, urban tumbleweeds have very few positives going for them. They are made of plastic and designed for a single use, and they litter the landscape and pollute the environment.

In fact, I may have had one of the only good experiences ever associated with an urban tumbleweed. On a trip last week, I found I had forgotten to bring a container for the remains of the fruit I'd brought and eaten. (I wanted to compost the pieces, but I wouldn't be able to do so for several days, so I needed something to put them in.) That's when an urban tumbleweed happened to fly by.

The airborne bag seemed like a good option for a makeshift compost container. However, with the wind blowing hard, I wouldn't be able to catch it without some help. Luckily, the bag caught on a bush. When I ran to get it, I found another plastic bag right next to it. That gave me a double-lined compost transport and took two urban tumbleweeds out of the environment, so this modern Western has a happy ending.

Well, at least, I got to ride off into the sunset with my compost.

25 July 2014

Art of the Heart

In art, some dogs play poker, but Mark Barone wants to raise awareness about the many dogs playing Russian roulette. 

Three years ago, Barone set out to draw attention to the fact that an average of 5,500 dogs are euthanized in animal shelters each day in the United States. With that number in mind, Barone created An Act of Dog, an art project featuring 5,500 dogs that have been euthanized. Check out a trailer for the documentary PBS is doing on the project:

An Act of Dog takes a sad and challenging issue and turns it into a powerful message and a labor of love. The number of pets in animal shelters strains the resources of those people trying to find homes for them, and we often overlook adoption as an option for getting a pet. All this amounts to some very difficult circumstances. Barone's project expresses the pain of the situation and calls for something better. For more information about his work, click here.

Considering the size of the problem, it's probably a good time to construct a better system for handling pets that need homes. It will take all of us and a new perspective about pets, but it promises to give Barone a more positive picture to paint.

Adopting a pet is simple, so we tend to forget the power it carries, but An Act of Dog finds a way to communicate just how meaningful it is.

13 July 2014

Finnish-ing off Cars

Maybe my love of ideas, interest in environmental issues, and dislike of cars come from my genes.

Finland has made much news lately for its environmental initiatives. Last month, it committed to a binding 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions. Now, Helsinki, its capital city, makes a move to eliminate the need for individual citizens to own cars. All those plans have left me even more proud of my Finnish heritage.

Helsinki's initiative shows what happens when people commit to the development of ideas. The city plans to capitalize on the country's innovative approach to technology as it makes its public transportation highly responsive to individual needs. According to this article from The Guardian, by 2025, Helsinki residents will have the ability to coordinate, plan, and pay for all their public transportation use with a single smart-phone app.

The vision Helsinki has for its transportation system challenges the need for private car ownership. By making the necessary changes in its infrastructure and embracing the potential of new technologies, the city will trump the convenience of the car, reducing the environmental impacts associated with transportation.

As a Finn, I'm excited about the thriving, environmentally friendly community Helsinki intends to build, but the great thing about ideas like this is that we don't need DNA to pass them on; all it takes is a blog entry and some forward thinking.

11 July 2014

Wild Celebration

The Wilderness Act turns 50 this year, but rather than celebrate in a way befitting of middle age, The Wilderness Society plans to get a little wild.

Signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act legally defined wilderness and started a process that preserved 109.5 million acres in the United States over the last 50 years. Its legacy and environmental benefits are immeasurable.

Such a powerful piece of legislation deserves a special golden anniversary, and The Wilderness Society has come up with a fitting way to celebrate. The organization's "We are the Wild" campaign lets everyone mark the occasion by sharing a story about an experience in nature and/or uploading a picture of the moment at We are the Wild. After making the post, share it on social media with the hashtag, #WeAreTheWild.

Protecting natural ecosystems through legislation isn't all work and policy negotiations. It comes with the reward of having great places to celebrate. "We are the Wild" both recognizes the hard work that brought about the Wilderness Act 50 years ago and says, "Let the celebration begin."

Connecting with wild friends, taking lots of pictures, and doing some live tweeting: Sounds like a party.

03 July 2014

Source of Death

The problem of pesticides, especially the deadly neonicotinoids, killing off bees continues to grow.

Gardeners hoping to protect bees by not directly using neonicotinoids can end up unwittingly killing bees simply with their purchase of plants. Many plants are grown using these and other pesticides, which remain in the plant and continue to pose a risk to bees. Popular gardening stores carry the pesticide-laced plants but don't label them as containing the toxins. The following video from Friends of the Earth offers more explanation of the problem:

Neonicotinoids' prevalence stands out in the video. With 51 percent of plants tested containing these pesticides, gardeners who buy from stores like Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe's have a good chance of planting gardens deadly to bees.

Despite the fact that neonicotinoids are in so many plants without warning labels, gardeners can empower themselves in the fight to keep bees alive. By applying pressure to stores and elected officials, we can work for the banning of neonicotinoids, encourage stores not to carry plants treated with them, or, at least, make sure the plants are labeled as containing these particular pesticides.

Plants symbolize life; they shouldn't represent death for bees.

01 July 2014

Social Scientists

The scientific revolution will be tweeted.

Scientists struggle to find the right ways of communicating their research directly to the general public. For years, they actively avoided doing so, letting their work speak for itself. The approach created challenges for the public's understanding of science, and some participants in the public forum took advantage of scientists' silence, attacking and seeking to discredit science as a discipline. The expanding number of media outlets and social media has also increased the challenges scientists face in communicating their work.

Today's communication landscape contains some useful tools for scientists, however. The same social media that flood public discourse with competing voices can give scientists an outlet and an opportunity to build relationships with the public. Rebecca Searles, a science journalist and editorial director of Experiment.com, which fosters crowdfunding for scientific research, offers some useful ideas for scientists considering engaging with social media. Check out her video below:

In recent years, scientists have seen the need for more active communication and interaction with the general public. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have prominently defended and advocated for science. Other scientists seem to be following their lead even if many are reluctant to do so. With social media to help them, they can take an important step in connecting everyone with science.

What we need now is for some scientist to take a selfie with a species previously unknown to science.