Blue Ridge Naturalist: On the Cutting Edge

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The ragged edges of fibrous yucca leaves (Yucca filamentosa) in the author’s yard bear testament to the desperation of deer during the winter of 2013-14. Photo: Marlene Condon.

In October of 2017, a new study asserting the shocking loss of 75% of the total biomass of flying insects in some German nature preserves caught the attention of many news outlets.  Various scientists were quoted as they pointed out the seriousness of this newfound result for our own food supply and that of wildlife.

Faithful followers of my writing know that the loss of insects is not news to me.  In fact, because I regularly bring new information about our environment directly to my readers (thank you for your interest) long before the scientific community is aware of it, you can rest assured that you are on the cutting edge of what is happening “out there.”

For many years I have been writing about the perilous loss of insects in the United States based upon my personal observations—and people have insisted I did not know what I was talking about.

In 2014, for example, I wrote in a column that I was very concerned about insect collecting “because there exist far fewer insects in the world today than 50 years ago.”  I also wrote that, “There’s been such a huge loss of insect populations that I am not at all surprised that so many species of insect-feeding animals are dying out. And I am extremely concerned about the future of mankind in this insect-depleted world.”

Within one day of that column appearing a scientist replied that my “subjective assessment” of insect populations was “flawed” because I had based it upon years of paying attention to the numbers of insects splattered upon car windshields and flying around lights at night.  Scientists often conflate personal observations of the natural world with a lack of objectivity, as if personal observations made in a lab setting somehow automatically guarantees impartiality on the part of the researcher.

He went on to bluntly state that “trillions of insects thrive here”, inferring that the insects of North America were flourishing and I was way off the mark.  But as I’ve always known and written, the best way to learn about nature is by unobtrusively observing it.  When a plethora of insects around lights at night goes to almost none over the decades, only one conclusion is possible.

My way of doing science means that I obtain factual information without needing to injure, kill, or disturb wildlife in any way, whereas the 27-year-long German study killed millions of insects (adding insult to injury) in order to “document” that insects were disappearing.  Unfortunately, scientists simply do not grasp the irony of harming the very wildlife they are trying to understand, and they refuse to believe that simple, unbiased observations can be trusted to yield accurate information.

Back in the 1990s, I noticed that a sentinel crow waited for me to put out birdseed on cold winter mornings.  The moment I appeared, the crow would fly off silently, and then I would hear cawing in the distance. Within a few minutes, several crows would arrive to take my seeds.

I sent a report to an ornithological publication about the obvious intelligence of crows placing a sentinel to watch for me so that it could then alert other crows to the location of a food source, but the scientists at the helm did not seem to believe what I had written.

Shortly thereafter I attended a meeting at which I met an ornithologist.  I told him about my crow experience, which he seemed to believe, but he told me that birds don’t recognize individual humans. He thought I should not try to suggest that the crow actually recognized me as an individual.

I did not believe I was wrong about the crow being able to identify me.  As I later wrote in one of my newspaper columns, “Although I came out every morning, I did not always show up at the same time.  Thus the only way for the crows to take advantage of my generosity was to post a sentry that could alert the others at whatever hour I made an appearance.”

It should be noted that the crow did not wait for me to distribute seeds. It left the moment it saw me, something it did not do if my husband went outside to leave for work before I had gone out to spread seeds.

So-o-o-o, I was not the least bit surprised when, almost two decades later, scientists “discovered” (rather like Columbus discovering America even though native peoples had lived here for many thousands of years) that crows could recognize individual human faces.

Although I try to share my discoveries, scientists can be a skeptical lot.  Non-scientists can be just as cynical.  When a neighbor suggested a few months ago that deer were overpopulated, I told him that was not currently the case.  He and another neighbor treated my statement as utter nonsense.  After all, people still see deer around, and if their plants get eaten, they are especially prone to believing there are too many of these animals.

What they don’t realize is that they cannot determine relative population levels without having paid very close attention over time.  In my case, I had documented deer starving a few years back during two successive years of bitterly cold February months, and I had noticed that they were seen less the rest of that year.  The next two years of hunter-generated numbers of deer taken during hunting season were way down, fully in agreement with what I had already ascertained.

There was more evidence, too.  For many years, ticks were so numerous that it was almost impossible to go outside without getting them on you.  And when you looked at deer with binoculars, they were covered with these deer-dependent arthropods.

But my husband and I, despite spending just as much time as ever in the yard where we’d always gotten ticks, found very few on us the past two summers, and the deer we saw carried few, if any, ticks—both situations independently confirming my assertion.

Perhaps the most convincing proof is that Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)—plants especially favored by deer—have been untouched, or touched very little, by deer in recent years.  In the past, if these species were unprotected (uncaged), they would have been killed by the overabundance of deer feeding upon them.

People wouldn’t doubt me if they realized that the natural world is an open book just waiting to be read by anyone seriously interested in it.  You do not need an advanced degree.

When you observe nature without interfering with it, document carefully what you see, and then employ logic to understand it, you can rest assured that the knowledge you’ve gained is absolutely reliable.

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