How many species are there?

Kingdom phylum class order family genus species. Maybe you remember learning in some long-ago biology class that these seven categories are how we describe and identify every living thing on Earth.

Animalia chordata mammalia primates hominidae homo sapiens. That’s us: humans. Within the great tree of life, we are pretty odd; we are the only member of our genus. Put in terms of a family tree, it’s kind of like not having any siblings.

Even if you look at our extended family – our cousins – we’re pretty unusual. Our planet is home to just 5,400 or so kinds of mammals. (Though the discovery of new mammals is not as rare as many people think. The past decade has seen new types of shrews, bats, and dolphins – and even a few monkeys and apes – welcomed onto the list of mammals known to science.)

In comparison, there are nearly twice as many kinds of birds – birding checklists typically include over 9,000 recognized species. And there are about 31,000 known kinds of fish.

The plant kingdom boasts some 310,000 members, from mosses to grasses to shrubs to towering trees. It’s not unusual for a dedicated natural gardener to have hundreds of kinds of plants in their yard, with many or all of them being native species. It’s not just that there are a lot of species of plants in the world; a lot of species of plants are able to coexist within small areas.

The total number of plant species is still dwarfed by the total number of animal species, though, for one reason: beetles are a staggeringly prolific family, with over 360,000 species discovered, and many more likely waiting to be found.

If you lined up one representative of every species on Earth, fully one fifth of the creatures before you would be beetles. Only one would look like us.

All told, we share our planet with at least 1,899,000 other species, each of them living in their own way and making their own unique contribution to the amazing diversity of life on Earth. When we are able to see ourselves as just one out of many, we can find the grace and humility to share our world with all of our relatives.

How many species are there?

When do birds migrate?

We all know the answer to this one: birds migrate in the fall. That is when we see those iconic V’s of honking geese winging their way south. But why don’t we see other kinds of birds flying towards warmer climes? When do they migrate?

The answer is that other birds also migrate in the fall. But they do it at night.

Migrating under the cover of darkness is a smart strategy for many small birds. Flying predators, like hawks and eagles, tend to be active during the day. By making their long-haul flights after the sun goes down, small birds can avoid getting eaten along their journey.

Unfortunately, migrating at night comes with other dangers. Many birds use the stars to navigate on their long trips, and when they see lights closer to ground level, they can get confused and fly in circles until they exhaust themselves. Or they may simply crash into a lit window.

When we think about birds crashing into windows, we often think of glass-covered skyscrapers in big cities. In fact, most bird-window incidents occur around buildings that are less than four stories tall. In other words, migrating birds collide with ordinary houses more often than they collide with high-rises.

By dimming our lights on fall evenings – or by closing our curtains – we can help birds arrive safely at their destinations.

When do birds migrate?

What’s new in natural yards? March 2018

One of the earliest posts on That Blog highlighted the plantings at the Wisconsin governor’s mansion, as an example of respectable people having natural yards. Now, the governor and first lady of North Carolina claim that they have the first true natural garden at a governor’s residence.

First Lady Kristin Cooper took the lead on the project, which began last summer. The primary goal was to create a garden that would provide habitat for North Carolina’s native birds. In the course of doing so, the garden will also educate North Carolinians about the importance of habitat, and encourage them to plant similar gardens in their own yards.

The first lady and her husband, Governor Roy Cooper, are taking their job as natural gardening role models seriously – they’re already actively working on establishing a native plant garden at their own private residence.

The garden at the executive mansion was officially dedicated last October, during a Native Plants Week declared by Governor Cooper. The garden is 400 square feet and includes about 1,000 plants representing 25 native species. As the plants grow, they will attract butterflies, bees, and birds. In time, the garden itself may grow to cover a larger area.

In the next post, That Blog will visit New Jersey to see what that state is doing to promote native plants.

What’s new in natural yards? March 2018

How do you get rid of geese?

An earlier post on That Blog explained why lawns don’t function as habitat for very many species. They do, however, function as excellent habitat for Canada geese. This is because lawns provide two things that geese need: food, and safety.

Canada geese are relatively small grazing animals. They like to spend their time in areas with low-growing vegetation, where they can eat the plants and keep an eye out for danger. Conversely, they avoid areas where the plants are too tall for easy snacking, and where they can’t see any predators that might be trying to sneak up on them. In other words, geese see a big lawn as a great place to relax and have a meal.

In the early 20th century, Canada geese were actually near extinction across North America. Today, their numbers have rebounded to well over 3 million. This is in part due to active efforts to increase their population – for example, by moving birds to other areas to start new flocks. But mostly, the Canada goose’s recovery was caused by habitat restoration. As people planted lawns in their yards and on golf courses, they inadvertently created perfect goose habitat, and geese promptly multiplied to fill the available space.

As we create habitat in our yards, it is wise to think about who we are creating habitat for. Wildlife will show up to use the resources we provide, and it may be the case that not all species are welcome visitors. We can edit the guest list by mindfully not providing for the needs of animals we don’t want nearby. For example, if we don’t want geese hanging out in our yard, we can simply garden with tall plants that don’t provide the geese with food and sightlines. As they fly over, the geese won’t see anything they like, and they will go elsewhere.

By understanding the needs and preferences of different species, we can invite in the ones we want to see more of, while discouraging those we would rather not have around.

How do you get rid of geese?

What are Neotropical migrants?

We all know that birds go south for the winter. But where exactly is “south”? For many of our favorite birds, it’s countries like Brazil and Ecuador. Species that travel up and down the western hemisphere are called Neotropical migrants.

What this migration pattern means is that people in South America, as well as Central America and the Caribbean, enjoy many of the same birds that we do. If we all want to continue enjoying these colorful visitors, we all need to be responsible about providing them a safe place to stay.

Our southern neighbors steward these birds’ wintering grounds – the place birds go to find plentiful food and hospitable temperatures when northern regions become too cold and snowy. We, in turn, care for the birds’ breeding grounds – the area where they nest and raise their young.

At both ends of their migration route, birds need food, water, and shelter. If these are not available, they will either be unable to raise their next generation, or they will fail to survive the winter. Either way, people all across the Americas will have fewer birds to brighten their yards.

What we do on our own property may seem like a matter of personal preference, or, at best, a subject to be negotiated with our immediate neighbors. In fact, whether our yard provides a safe home for wildlife, and whether it produces other ecosystem services, impacts friends on other continents. It’s important to keep this in mind as we decide how to care for our land.

What are Neotropical migrants?

Where do birds nest?

When we think of birds nesting, we often picture something like this:

Image result for bird nest cartoon

In fact, most birds do not build their nests on high tree branches.

Some birds nest on the ground, taking cover in tall grass.

Some birds, called primary cavity nesters, peck a hole in a tree and build their nest inside it. Other birds seek out holes used by primary cavity nesters in previous years. These birds, known as secondary cavity nesters, are the species that will use birdhouses.

And many birds nest in shrubs. They look for dense vegetation, three to six feet above the ground, that will provide a safe place to raise their babies. It is exactly this shrub layer that is missing in an undervegetated yard. When appropriate places to nest are not available, birds may not nest at all, putting the survival of their species in jeopardy.

A shrub layer is not difficult to establish. Young shrubs can be planted near each other – accounting for their mature size – to grow into a dense grouping. In a few years, they will provide a place for birds to nest, as well as flowers for pollinators, privacy screening for people, and a host of other benefits.

Where do birds nest?

What is tomorrow?

Tomorrow, April 16, is International Migratory Bird Day, and Madison is officially celebrating it. The city gave the following reasons for inviting citizens to enjoy watching birds, and to take steps to welcome birds to our communities:


WHEREAS, Many citizens, both here in Madison and throughout the country, recognize and welcome migratory songbirds as symbolic harbingers of the change in season. Migratory birds are some of the most beautiful and easily observed wildlife that share our communities. These migrant species also play an important economic role in our community, controlling insect pests and generating millions in recreational dollars statewide; and,

WHEREAS, Migratory birds and their habitats are declining throughout the Americas , facing a growing number of threats on their migration routes to reach both their summer and winter homes. Public awareness and concern are crucial components of migratory bird conservation. Citizens enthusiastic about birds, informed about the threats they face, and empowered to help address those threats can directly contribute to maintaining healthy bird populations and encourage maintenance of diverse habitat patches of trees, shrubs and grasses along their routes throughout the Midwest. Effective bird conservation efforts require cooperative action and shared goals with the public through outreach programs to ensure stable and self-sustaining populations of birds. Madison is fortunate to have several locations in its park system that provide habitat to sustain these migrating birds on their journey; and,

WHEREAS, since 1993, International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) has become a primary vehicle for focusing public attention on the nearly 350 species that travel between nesting habitats in our communities and throughout North America and their wintering grounds in South and Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the southern U.S. Hundreds of thousands of people will observe IMBD, gathering in town squares, community centers, schools, parks, nature centers, and wildlife refuges to learn about birds, take action to conserve them, and simply to have fun.  IMBD officially is held each year on the second Saturday in May, but observances are not limited to a single day, and planners are encouraged to schedule activities on the dates best suited to the presence of both migrants and celebrants; and,

WHEREAS, on Sunday, April 16, 2017 Madison Parks will collaborate with community partners to host a Bird and Nature Festival at Warner Park.  This free public education event will celebrate all that our community has done for bird migratory birds, and inform participants about opportunities that remain,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that April 16, 2017 be proclaimed as International Migratory Bird Day in the City of Madison, to urge all citizens to celebrate this observance and to support efforts to protect and conserve migratory birds and their habitats in our community and the world at large; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that IMBD is not only a day to foster appreciation for wild birds and to celebrate and support migratory bird conservation, but is also a call to action to protect their habitat.

What is tomorrow?

How does noise affect birds?

Birds are the easiest kinds of animals to observe in our yards. They’re numerous, colorful, active, and loud.

In fact, birds are louder than they used to be.

Sound is important to birds – they use their calls and songs to communicate and attract mates. They also listen for predators and for prey, to find food and avoid becoming someone else’s meal.

Studies show that suburban noise – including traffic and lawnmowers – is making it hard for birds to hear each other. Birds are coping with the challenges of a noisy environment by becoming louder.

They’re also changing their songs, often shifting to a higher pitch that can be heard over the lower-frequency sounds produced by engines. In some cases, the variety of birds’ songs is decreasing, as individual birds converge on a song that their audience can hear.

Other studies have found that noise makes it difficult for birds to find food, because they spend more time looking for predators and less time pursuing their own prey. Noise can also cause birds to give up on an area altogether, and travel somewhere else in search of quieter surroundings. While that kind of mobility is usually not a hardship for birds, during migration, needing to travel further before stopping to rest and feed can threaten a bird’s survival.

Noise isn’t so great for people either. By turning the volume down in our yards, we can create a more pleasant environment for our neighbors, human and non-human alike.

How does noise affect birds?

What is habitat?

Habitat is an area where a plant or animal can live.

Whether or not a particular area is habitat depends on which species’ perspective you’re looking at it from. For example, the ocean is habitat for a whale, but is not habitat for a squirrel.

To count as habitat, an area must provide for a plant or animal’s needs. For example, habitat for a bird must include water sources, appropriate food, safe shelter, and a place to nest. Habitat for dandelions must include plenty of sun.

Lawns count as habitat, since by definition grass lives in them. However, few other species can meet their needs in or around a lawn. Overall, lawns are not very good habitat.

Natural yards provide better habitat by inviting in many plant species. These plants, in turn, provide much of what an insect or bird needs to call a place habitat.

Habitat loss is a major factor in species extinctions. Hundreds of North American bird species, as well as popular insects like bumblebees and monarch butterflies, are in decline. If we exchange poor habitat in our yards for better habitat, we can increase these species’ chances of survival.

What is habitat?

What are all these birds?

All over the planet, birds are on the move. While some species tend to stay put year-round, others are known to migrate thousands of miles, across continents and hemispheres, between their summer breeding areas and their warmer winter homes.

This Saturday, May 14, people in over 100 countries will take part in a birdathon, aiming to observe as many bird species as possible. In last year’s event, participants were able to spot a total of over 6,000 bird species.

While there aren’t so many species here in Wisconsin, this week That Yard hosted four new types of birds, bring the local total to 43.

The new visitors are:

  • The brown thrasher, a loud but reclusive relative of mockingbirds.
  • The indigo bunting, an unmistakable bright blue songbird.
  • The ovenbird, recognizable by its slow, calm movements along the ground.
  • The Nashville warbler, a small yellow bird that moves quickly through low vegetation.

Adding in the eight mammal species that have been observed, That Yard has now recorded over 50 species of vertebrates. (There are definitely no fish, and no amphibians or reptiles have been confirmed.)

None of these animals have caused any damage or trouble. Sharing space with other beings is a joyful way to live!

What are all these birds?