The periodical (17-year) cicadas are most definitely here. And there has been a lot of information floating around about them. If you’re confused about where to get the most accurate details, look no further than here!
Below are links to three items: a blog piece and two videos—all by renowned local nature experts.
If you only have time to do a quick read, check out the piece by Alonso Abugattas, Arlington’s Natural Resources Manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation. It includes need-to-know details to identify cicadas, and learn how they mate, where females lay eggs on tree branches, and who eats them (including people!). http://capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com/2021/02/periodical-cicadas.html.
A couple of hour-long videos provide a bit more detail:
The first is by Kirsten Conrad, the Agriculture Natural Resources Extension Agent for ArlingtonCounty and the City of Alexandria. Along with Alonso Abugattas, Kirsten covers many of the same details as Alonso’s blog (history and distribution, species, lifecycle, tree damage, management, and resources), with visuals and closed captions. The video notes the exact time that each topic is discussed, for quick analysis. https://mgnv.org/brood-x-cicadas-video/.
The other video is by Ken Rosenthal, a Park Naturalist at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Ken is known for his “Deep Dive” presentations on a variety of nature topics and recently gave one on cicadas. Ken details more differences between the periodical and annual cicadas. He also includes a lifecycle calendar of the “what” and “when” from emergence of full-grown nymphs to return of “baby” nymphs underground for the next 17 years. https://youtu.be/2C4w-oCeIcI.
A few concerns have arisen about deformed cicadas, including those both alive and dead with body parts missing. The experts here note that these happen with every cicada cycle: some of the insects don’t survive the molting process from nymph to adult (it’s a tricky, time-sensitive progression), others are infected with a fungus that results in the loss of body parts while the cicadas are still alive, and—of course—most are eaten by predators. The cicadas’ only “strategy” to continue their brood to the next generation is to overwhelm cicada hunters with prodigious numbers.
So, while listening outdoors to the alien-sounding background of cicada mating calls, and a (hopefully covered) beverage, enjoy one or more of these excellent accounts of this most amazing phenomenon!
Glenn Tobin is the 2020 Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award Winner
On April 20, 2021, Glenn Tobin received Arlington County’s Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award for the year 2020. The award recognizes an individual or group whose efforts show ongoing dedication and tangible benefit to Arlington’s natural resources, parks, and public open spaces.
Glenn has been an ARMN member since 2016 and a Trail Maintainer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) since 2015. For years, he removed invasive plants at Windy Run Park and the adjacent Potomac River waterfront in the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Because of his work alone and with other volunteers, significant natural areas are recovering and becoming more beautiful and biodiverse. In 2020, Glenn raised money and worked with the PATC and the National Park Service (NPS) to rebuild the stone stairway that connects the Windy Run park trail to the Potomac Heritage Trail along the river, improving access for many people. Then, inspired by the reemergence of diverse native flora at Windy Run and along the Potomac, Glenn began working with experts in ecology, botany, and natural resources to create the website, Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia, which provides information about the local natural plant communities to help make better plant selections for ecological restoration purposes in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and close-in Maryland. As a result of Glenn’s leadership, ARMN is adopting natural plant communities as a framework for park restoration, in collaboration with local jurisdictions. This work will have lasting impact on restoration planning throughout the County and on selection of plant species for the County’s native plant nursery.
Some of Glenn’s other work includes helping lead Weed Warrior Training with the NPS, assisting in leadership for Park Stewards, and mentoring others who share deep passion for helping restore natural areas in Arlington County and beyond. (From: The Arlington, VA webpage: “Arlington Honors Park Volunteers”.)
In a clip from the April 20, 2021 Arlington County Board Meeting, Board Member Karantonis describes Glenn’s accomplishments followed by an address from Glenn. In closing, Chair de Ferranti congratulates Glenn and 2019 Bill Thomas award winner, Elaine Mills: https://youtu.be/oPU84gCj9Lw.
ARMN is selected for the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award
On January 29, 2021, ARMN was selected as the 2021 recipient of the A. Willis Robertson Award from the Virginia Chapter of The Wildlife Society for its work on public outreach and education related to deer management. The award honors a wildlife non-professional or group that has exercised outstanding conservation practices on their own land or have made significant contributions to conservation activities in the Commonwealth.
In the last few years, members of ARMN led by Bill Browning have spearheaded public education to alert the community to the effects of deer browsing and begin the process of addressing barriers to developing an effective and humane program to control deer population in Arlington County. (See armn.org blog piece, “White-tailed Deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia” that addresses how deer impact our forests.) The team worked on deer browse surveys, major outreach events with the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Deer Advisory Council for Northern Virginia, Arlington’s Urban Forestry and Environmental Services departments, and in 2019, with regional experts from VA, MD, and DC to create a volunteer training and public presentation that has been delivered over 40 times in the past two years.
Bill (the 2018 winner of the Bill Thomas award) and the other volunteers have also addressed Arlington County Board members, School Board members, the County Manager, the Chair of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Acting Chief of Police. Bill also made presentations to Park and Recreation department employees and to several Arlington County civic commissions who have supported this message with letters to the County Board.
They also talked to civic/neighborhood associations, garden clubs, Extension Master Gardener volunteers, local TV and social media, and spoke at regional parks and conservancy, and hunting club meetings. This outreach has done much to bring the issue forward, engage stakeholders, and provide county decision-makers with sound, unbiased information for their consideration of a deer management plan.
ARMN is excited for this honor and opportunity to credit members like Glenn Tobin for their instrumental work to benefit our local natural environment.
By Jane Metcalfe, Louis Harrell, Nicolasa Hernandez, and Barbara Hoffheins
ARMN has been working with Arlington County, NASA, and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education to build and maintain a “bio-indicator” garden as part of a project to monitor the impact of ozone air pollution on plants. Bio-indicator gardens consist of plants that exhibit a typical and verifiable response when exposed to ozone air pollution. This project is part of a NASA-sponsored network of ozone bio-indicator gardens across the U.S.—and internationally—in conjunction with its the TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution) mission.
TEMPO will be the first space-based instrument to monitor major air pollutants across the North America continent every daylight hour at high spatial resolution. Data collected from the garden over a period of three or four years will be merged with data from other gardens across the country. The mission’s ultimate aim is to monitor the air we breathe with greater detail and precision. This information can be learned from monitoring the plants chosen for the project.
In addition to the overall mission, what are the goals of this ozone bio-indicator garden and what information will it collect?
The Ozone Garden has several goals:
• To illustrate visually the impacts of ozone pollution on plants
• To educate all ages about air pollution in Arlington
• To connect individual actions, as well as official policy, to local air pollution
• To better understand the impact of ozone air pollution on plants.
Understanding the impact of ozone air pollution will be achieved by merging Arlington data with data from across the country. Data will be collected from all participating gardens using a standard procedure and reported to a project website used by all the gardens. Uniform procedures are critical for data quality.
The TEMPO satellite, which is currently projected to be launched in 2022, will provide very high-resolution hourly data on ozone and will be correlated with data on the impacts to plants in the bio-indicator garden in Arlington.
How did ARMN become involved with the project and where is the garden located?
2018 ARMN trainee, Jane Metcalfe, became aware of the NASA effort in the process of developing a class presentation. She then spearheaded an ARMN Project for an ozone garden and worked with other ARMN volunteers to launch it. The Ozone Monitoring Garden became a true partnership: ARMN developed the project and provided basic funding and volunteers; Arlington County furnished the garden site along with site support, mulch, and fencing; and NASA/Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education is responsible for providing genetically-similar plants and seeds, and support for education and outreach.
Walter Reed Community Center in Arlington was chosen for the garden’s site because its conditions were suitable for the plants and it is visible to the community for visits and eventual education events. An area was fenced off and the ground was initially broken and prepared for planting in September 2019. However, an early frost in 2019 prevented the garden from being planted that year and the subsequent pandemic prolonged efforts to continue work on the space. In addition to Arlington, the NASA/TEMPO program directors were unable to get seeds to the 17 gardens across the U.S. and internationally.
Has the ozone garden been planted?
Yes! It was determined last fall that planting and monitoring could proceed with Covid-19 safety procedures in place. So, a team led by new ARMN member, Nicolasa Hernandez, along with other members of ARMN and the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, began clearing the site on August 7, 2020.
Seeds were planted on October 2, 2020 so they could establish before the first frost of the season. The bed was divided into four areas that were outlined with mulch paths. Individuals can walk on the mulch paths to get a close look at the plants without disturbing them. They can later inspect the plant leaves for evidence of any elevated presence of ozone.
The team installed two of the areas with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) a local native perennial, the third area with snap beans that are sensitive to ozone (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘S-156’), and the fourth with snap beans that are less sensitive to ozone (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘R-331’).
Below is a photo of the garden three weeks after planting. The first two leaves of each of the snap bean plants are easily visible. These plants should continue to develop through the winter. The seeds planted for the common milkweed (a perennial requiring overwintering) will emerge in late this spring. The weeds that have returned throughout the garden since planting will be removed by the team.
What will ozone impacts to the plants look like?
Damage caused by ozone is typically observed as stippling or purpling on the top side of older leaves of the plant. If foliar damage occurs on younger leaves, then it is not ozone damage. The team also has to be aware of mimicking symptoms and other pest problems that look like ozone injury.
Later, signposts will be placed in the garden to describe its purpose and identify each area along with photos that indicate the conditions to look for.
As the plants grow, ARMN volunteers will monitor them for physical effects of ozone pollution and report the results to the national database.
What is the future plan for the ozone garden?
ARMN volunteers will need to keep the garden weeded, and plan to install additional seeds this spring.
ARMN, via the Virginia Master Naturalists, has applied for a grant from Harvard to pay for signage to explain the project and how it links to TEMPO. A public education program is planned so that members of the community will be able to see the link between ozone and plant health. Additional procedures will be developed for people who will be monitoring the garden.
Please join your friends, neighbors, and fellow environmental stewards in participating in the following habitat restoration events during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Enjoy the satisfaction of helping to restore these natural areas. Dress in layers for cold weather, bring work gloves, your own tools, filled reusable water bottle, and face mask. Please also follow COVID guidelines for each event.
Date: Saturday, January 16, 2021 Event: Habitat restoration and invasive plant removal Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: Tuckahoe ParkContact: Mary McLean, 703-966-2047, email@example.comDetails: Please call ahead since we’re limited to 10 people in the group. Meet at Tuckahoe Elementary’s parking lot. After orientation, volunteers head into the park.
Date: Saturday, January 16, 2021 Event: Restoration work Time:Noon – 3:00 pm Location: Upton Hill Regional Park Contact: To register, email Jill Barker, firstname.lastname@example.org. Details: Rototiller day! Volunteers will come behind it and remove five-leaved akebia to prepare pollinator plant beds. This event is for volunteers over age 9. Training on invasive removal will be provided. Participation is limited to ten persons per event, so registration is essential.
Date: Sunday, January 17, 2021 Event: Habitat Restoration & Invasive Removal Time: 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm Location: Long Branch Park Contact: Steve Young, 703-966-2966, email@example.com Details: COVID restrictions/limits on volunteer numbers apply, so rsvp required. Dress for the weather, and consider wearing appropriate clothing, including sturdy footwear. Bring work gloves, clippers or a folding hand saw, trash bags, water bottle, sunscreen/hat.
Date: Monday, January 18, 2021 Event: Invasive Removal Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: Mary Carlin Woods at Bluemont Park (bounded by N. Carlin Springs Road, N. Kensington Street, N. 4th Street, the Bluemont Junction Trail and the Arlington Forest Club). Meet at the Mary Carlin Woods entrance along the Bluemont Junction trail just west from the rocks. Contact: Register by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org Details: COVID restrictions/limits on volunteer numbers apply, so rsvp required. Training on identifying invasive species and proper removal techniques will be provided by Master Naturalists and Tree Stewards. Participation is limited to ten persons per work site, so registration is requested. Bring your own gloves, tools, filled reusable water bottle, and face mask. Weather appropriate clothing is advised.
Date: Monday, January 18, 2021 Event: Invasive removal or cleanup Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. Meet at the Belle Haven Park south parking lot registration table. Contact: Register here and indicate your choice of invasive removal or cleanup, as described below. Details: There are two types of service: (1) a shoreline trash cleanup, and (2) removing English ivy from trees. Volunteers can choose either activity. You do not need prior plant identification experience. Under Covid-19 protocols, registration is required and participants are limited to 15in each group. Work gloves, tools, trash bags and hand sanitizer will be provided. Wear a mask, sturdy shoes, long pants and sleeves, winter gloves and sun protection. Bring your own water.
Date: Monday, January 18, 2021 Event: Invasive Removal on the Mount Vernon Trail Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: 615 Slaters Lane, Alexandria, VA 22314. Group will meet in the courtyard behind the Salvation Army Headquarters and then walk to the work area. Contact: Register at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/133621847543 Details: Volunteers will remove English Ivy from trees along the Mount Vernon Trail. No special skills are needed. Bring hand pruners (There will be several to borrow), work gloves (There will be several to borrow), filled water bottle, face covering.
What a wild ride. The past eight months have been a roller coaster of unprecedented challenges—seemingly insurmountable ones at that. I think I can state with a fair amount of confidence that we’ve collectively experienced anxiety, frustration, and also heartbreak. Maybe a bit of anger too. These have been tough days.
Fortunately, there’s this wonderful thing called nature out there. Woodlands, meadows, wetlands … outdoor spaces that allow us to de-stress. There’s no doubt the pandemic has illuminated the value of such protected areas, at least for those of us lucky enough to live near them.
I’ve had the luxury of spending many hours in some of these nearby natural areas, often to help destroy invasive plants. But a large chunk of my outdoor time is spent in my own personal sanctuary. While the mass movement to visit parks and to simply get outside continues, I experience that decompressing ahhhhhh feeling just footsteps from my door. On this quarter-acre lot four miles from bustling Tysons Corner Center, essential native plants feed uncommon bumble bees, delightful monarch caterpillars, hungry migrating birds, and much, much more.
This habitat did not come about by accident, however. And it wasn’t created overnight. My garden-with-native-plants-or-die journey began about seven years ago with a lecture given by renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy. His groundbreaking research showed that native plants support all life, even our own. (Yay, science!)
This past February, right before the covid-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, Tallamy’s lecture circuit brought him once again in front of a massive audience in Manassas. His rousing message urged us to repurpose turfgrass with native plants to form our very own “Homegrown National Park.” Reducing just half of all lawns across the country this way would return more than 20 million acres of America to wildlife habitat. Twenty. Million. Acres.
A pandemic prognosticator, Tallamy listed these benefits of building a park at home:
You can enjoy nature on your own time at your own pace
Avoid travel hassles
Experience the natural world alone
And now there’s one more benefit:
Keep safe from droplets!
See what a Tallamy-inspired garden, enthusiastically documented over the past eight months of isolation, has attracted:
If you’re curious about how best to create your own private park, here are some environmentally-sound suggestions:
Buy locally native plants to support our indigenous critters and to keep our wild areas ecologically intact. I like to frequent Earth Sangha’s plant list to choose my local ecotype plants. The Earth Sangha family is always happy to help you to select the right plants for your site conditions and your needs.
If you have an appropriate location, plant native keystone plants such as white oak (Quercus alba) and wild black cherry (Prunus serotina). These trees are the two top supporters of Lepidoptera spp. (moth and butterfly) larvae.
Remove invasive plants because they can escape from your yard into natural spaces. Getting rid of invasives on your property is equally as important as planting natives.
Reduce lawn. Turfgrass is considered to be ecologically devastating because of the problematic way humans maintain it (use of fertilizers and weed killers) and because of how little life it supports.
Forgo the pesticides. Grub controls, mosquito sprays, and rodent poisons harm more than just the targeted “pests.”
Leave the leaf litter to maintain plant and soil health and to harbor a variety of animals. Slugs, moths, and spiders are just as important as our enchanting fireflies and butterflies—which rely on leaf litter to survive.
Strive to keep discarded plant material on your property. It takes resources to haul it away and process it.
Use some of that unwanted plant material to build a brush pile for birds and small mammals.
Leave a dead tree (called a “snag”) standing when feasible. Any size snag can support wildlife but leaving at least a six-foot-tall dead or dying tree feeds innumerable insects and can provide homes for woodpeckers and other animals.
Allow branches and logs to rot in your garden or lug neighbors’ chain-sawed tree parts onto your property or do both! These logs make a lovely natural edging and are as enticing to insects as snags are.
Keep outdoor lights off to help moths, birds, and bats. Yellow light bulbs in a motion-activated fixture are also a good solution. Note that some studies show that residential exterior lights do not prevent crime.
Although the landscape I nurture is still fluid and an ongoing labor of love (yes, my garden is much more work than lawn is), it has from the get-go provided valuable eco-services. I recommend taking on small sections at a time. Begin by planting lower-maintenance trees and shrubs. Then just add water. And love.
There’s never been a better time or reason to create your own oasis. Even if you have only a patio or a balcony, a few native plants grown in containers can attract and support a variety of teeny animals such as our native bees and caterpillars. Let’s help the critters we are passionate about and also help ourselves.
Gardeners often don’t realize that gardens make for great firefly habitat, helping to replace their lost natural habitat. The common firefly—the Big Dipper Firefly (Photinus pyralis)—readily takes to an organic habitat. The trick is to make your garden as inviting as possible for fireflies to take up residence.
Gardens are meccas for food fireflies eat. If you have fought off snails, slugs, various insects, and worms, then fireflies can lend a hand by helping to control these pests.
Fireflies spend up to 95% of their lives in larval stages. They live in soil/mud/leaf litter and spend from one to two years growing until finally pupating to become adults. This entire time they eat anything they can find.
As adults, they only live two to four weeks. Females that have mated successfully need a place to lay eggs. They will lay eggs in many spots, but gardens offer an oasis with a source of soil moisture good for larval development.
Some inventive tips for attracting fireflies:
Don’t rake leaves and put them on the curb. You are raking up firefly larvae and throwing them away.
Collect paper bags of leaves to make “Bag Compost.” Collect 5-15 bags.
Wet bags down in a shady lawn area. Keep moist/wet for 3-6 months or up to a year.
Bags will attract snails/slugs. This is food for growing fireflies.
In Spring, put bag compost in your garden. Put it in mounds and work it into your soil.
Repeat each year. It might take as long as 5 years, or as quick as that same year, to get fireflies in your garden.
Think there are no opportunities to purchase native plants this fall? Think again!! Below are locations where you can indeed buy the perfect plants to benefit local wildlife and spruce up your yard, too.
Autumn is the best time to install new perennials, trees, and shrubs with warmer soils but cooler air temperatures, which reduces transplant shock. Planting now should give plants plenty of time to become established before winter. Then, in the spring they will provide benefits to the critters that depend on them AND add wonderful beauty to your garden. Below are places to purchase native plants in safety for both buyers and sellers. So, take advantage of these opportunities and bring home a few—or several—native plants to brighten your yard, patio, balcony, or deck. The native wildlife will appreciate it.
Why Choose Native Plants?
Because they’re “from here,” natives are adapted to our climate and soil conditions. They are often the most healthful—or only—source of nectar, pollen, seeds, and leaves for local butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. They also:
require little or no fertilizers and few if any pesticides,
need less water than lawns, and help prevent erosion,
help reduce air pollution,
provide shelter and food for wildlife,
promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage, and
are beautiful and increase landscape values!
How to Choose the Right Natives for Your Yard or Pots
It’s important to install the right plants for your conditions (wet, dry, shade, sun, slope, bog, soil type, etc.). One of the best sources to answer these questions is the Plant Nova Natives website, with easy-to-follow tips, lots of photos, and additional links to learn what will work best in your situation(s).
Where You Can Buy Natives This Fall
Nature by Design
Seven days a week
7am to 6pm
300 Calvert Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22301
Click HERE for details on availability, appointments, and pickup.
VNPS Wednesday Native Plant Sales
Each Wednesday till 10/7/2020
10am to 1pm
Green Spring Gardens
4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria VA
The VNPS native plant sale takes place behind the Horticulture Center
Every year, Discover Life invites citizen scientists of all levels to identify the calls of crickets and katydids in the District of Columbia, the Baltimore area, and Northern Virginia. This year’s annual “cricket crawl” will be on the evening of August 21, 2020, any time after 8:30 pm. It is a particularly good event for 2020 because it is led by individuals and families in their own yards or other open areas where they can socially distance safely. The rain date is August 22. This project is a collaborative venture between Discover Life, The Audubon Naturalist Society, and The Natural History Society of Maryland.
Participants must first learn to differentiate between the six species of crickets and katydids being tracked that are common to the region. These are:
Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator)
Japanese Burrowing Cricket (Velarifictorus micado)
Greater Anglewing (Microcentrum rhombifolium)
Lesser Anglewing (Microcentrum retinerve)
Oblong-winged Katydid (Amblycorypha oblongifolia)
Common True Katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia)
So, how do you learn to identify the different calls? There are a couple of ways:
The best way is to register for a Zoom Cricket Crawl prep event that will be given by Ken Rosenthal on Tuesday, August 18th at 7:00 pm. You can register here for Program #642840-H, by 4pm on August 17. Ken will send you a link on the day of the presentation. If you miss the deadline, contact him directly at Krosenthal@arlingtonva.us. At Ken’s presentation, you will learn to identify the different calls, how and why they sing, and more.
Then, on the night of August 21st, between 8:30 and about 11:30, record the data requested on the “Cricket Crawl Data Form” at the Discover Life home page. Record only one collection for each location you survey but try to cover many locations with one minute surveys. Note the address or cross streets for each location. Put some distance between sites — 1/4 mile is very safe. You can submit your results to the cricket hotline at (240) 801-6878 or email the form to: email@example.com. You may also contact this email address with additional questions. Jen Soles, Jsoles@arlingtonva.us, can be contacted with any questions about the survey in Arlington or elsewhere in Northern Virginia.
Domesticated cats have lived in human communities for so long that they may seem like an integral part of our natural landscape. However, cats are non-native animals that can pose a significant threat to native wildlife, in the process undermining biodiversity and disrupting the balance of our natural environment. At least in the case of owned cats, there are things owners can do to help right this balance.
Anyone who has watched a cat stalk and pounce on a toy mouse can appreciate how the quick reflexes, sharp teeth, and retractable claws of domestic cats have superbly adapted them to be hunters of small prey. These same hunting abilities played a crucial role in their domestication. According to National Geographic, cats began to frequent human communities in the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East at least 8,000 years ago, as the development of agriculture resulted in the storage of crops that attracted rodents, and the rodents in turn attracted local wildcats. For thousands of years, cats and farmers enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship as tamer cats in essence selected themselves for living in proximity to humans. The European domestic cat (Felis catus) was imported into the New World by mariners and colonists, leading eventually to a population explosion of domestic cats in the United States. In 2017, Statistica.com estimated that 94 million cats lived in U.S. homes. National Geographic adds that an additional 70 million feral cats may live in our communities. All these “domestic” cats are actually non-native imports that did not evolve with our local wildlife.
And therein lies the root of an environmental dilemma. Although other factors like habitat loss, pollution, and disease also endanger animals, cats play a significant role in wildlife mortality. A 2013 review of research by biologists Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra estimated that free-roaming cats annually kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds and between 6.3 and 22.3 billion mammals in the United States alone, making them the largest single source of anthropogenic mortality for those animals. In addition, cats kill numerous insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, especially given the challenges of conducting research on feral cats, who cause the highest wildlife mortality. But even the low range represents a significant problem.
In Cat Wars (2016), Marra and Chris Santella show that cat predation has pitted proponents of native wildlife against proponents of feline welfare for over a hundred years. Today, the sharpest controversies involve Trap Neuter and Return (TNR) programs, which vaccinate and neuter feral cats and return them to the community, often in colonies supported with food and shelter. In Cats and Conservationists: The Debate about Who Owns the Outdoors (2020), Anna Peterson and Dara Wald hold out hope for finding common ground in debates over TNR, but they mostly document a deeply-entrenched standoff in which the various sides cannot even agree on what counts as scientific evidence, much less how to act upon it.
There is more clarity in what can be done about the cats that people own. Some cat owners believe that roaming and predation are natural behaviors that should be tolerated, and in a limited sense they are correct. As explained by International Cat Care, , because cats are obligate carnivores who must rely on animal protein, they have been naturally selected for effective hunting abilities. However, because small cats evolved as largely solitary hunters who never knew where their next meal might come from or how difficult it might be to capture, it made sense for them to kill whenever they had the opportunity. This means that their descendants, our domestic cats, are also hard-wired to hunt and kill regardless of whether they are hungry or not. A study in ScienceDirect that tracked owned cats suggests that as much as 70% of what they kill is not even consumed. So, keeping a house cat well fed is no guarantee that it won’t hunt and kill smaller creatures.
And even when they don’t kill, Marra and Santella (61-62) explain that the mere presence of cats in a landscape can have indirect, sublethal effects, for instance, by reducing breeding fecundity in birds who are frightened into spending less time on the nest and hunting for food for their chicks. Even animals that escape from cats often die from bacteria in their puncture wounds, as noted by Alonso Abugattas in his Capital Naturalist blog. Smithsonian Magazine adds that outdoor cats can also spread diseases to humans like rabies, plague, and a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.
Moreover, it can be argued that the position of domesticated cats in the environment is anything but “natural.” Scientists like Loss and Marra consider house cats (and supported ferals) to be “subsidized predators.” Because people give them food, shelter, medical care, and other support, they have distinct advantages over native predators and can reduce the amount of prey available to them. Cats are generalists who can switch prey more easily than can some native predators. Alonso Abugattas points out that unlike native predators, cats have the leisure to stake out and ambush the same areas (like chipmunk trails or bird feeders) repeatedly. Game camera footage of a cat carrying a dead squirrel in Barcroft Park suggests the toll that free-roaming cats can take on public lands.
Game camera footage courtesy of Alonso Abugattas.
In a natural environment, the size of the predator population would be controlled by the amount of available prey. However, subsidized cat populations can readily exceed the size that a habitat can support without experiencing environmental degradation. As conservationist Paul Noelder puts it, letting cats outdoors “is like letting semis drive in the bike lane. It’s a killer[.]”
The debate over outdoor cats is sometimes framed as a concern for protecting biodiversity versus defending the needs and rights of cats. But there is also a third consideration: free-roaming cats can be vulnerable to many threats, as this poster suggests:
Webmd estimates that on average, indoor cats can live as much as three times longer than free-roaming cats. Owned cats can find the enrichment they need indoors if their owners stimulate the cat’s natural predatory behaviors. Cat Friendly Homesoffers useful guidelines on choosing toys that mimic a cat’s preferred prey and recommends allowing the cat to capture the toy at the end of the game to satisfy its hunting instincts. Bird videos, window perches, and food hidden in puzzle balls can provide mental stimulation for an indoor cat. The American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors” site lists safe outdoor access products for cats. These include cat harnesses and backpacks and enclosures like the “Catio” and cat-proof fencing like the Purrfect Fence that provide outdoor spaces where cats and wildlife can be safe.
Owned cats are not the sole driver of wildlife reduction, but they are one significant factor that can be controlled, starting with the recognition that cat predation is more of a human problem than a feline one. Revoking our cats’ roaming privileges can be a crucial step in protecting biodiversity in our natural world.
by Joan Haffey (ARMN), with input from Charlie Haffey (helpful brother)
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the programming coordinator for a senior services center near me asked if I would do some “Bird Zooms” for isolated seniors. Their clients are often locked down in their apartments or worse, in their room, with few, if any, external contacts. The coordinator knew that I was a master naturalist and interested in birds, and we thought watching birds through a window and trying to identify them might be an entertaining activity that one could do alone, especially with a good app like the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID.
The senior center had done an excellent job of orienting their clients to online conferencing and providing both tech and security support before and during various Zoom programs they offer. It also had a number of security features in place, such as only allowing the host to share materials on the screen. While using Zoom to walk through the most basic steps of the app was useful, there were still some challenges.
How could I make sure everyone could clearly see, via video conferencing, the basic steps in action on a smartphone app? And how could I simplify the demonstration so the host did not have to manage the meeting while cueing up relevant portions of excellent resources on Cornell’s website?
Enter my brother, Charlie, a retired science teacher who has made many an educational video in his day. I provided a script, and he made a “Quick Look” video:
It proved to be both easy to use and the highlight of the talk! We have both been surprised at the steady pace of people who view the video. We also decided to make it available to anyone who would like to use it for educational purposes. So, here are some suggestions for anyone who wants to pair this video with a talk about how best to use the app:
Where Are Some Places This Video Could Be Used?
Home or online school programs
Video conferencing with isolated individuals
Evaluations of this Bird Zoom for seniors show that one of the favorite parts of the talk was the cooperation with my brother. In that spirit, I asked him for a few ideas for successful video-conferenced presentations.
What are the best preparations for a presentation like this on an online conferencing platform?
It helps to have one person manage the conferencing needs while the other presents. It can be difficult to do both at once, especially monitoring for questions and security breaches.
Only have open on the computer the files to be shared during the presentation. This minimizes confusion or the potential for shares of information not meant for the audience.
An alternative to having files open on your desktop is to prepare a slideshow that includes all the information you need. Then you only have to open one file.
Do you have any guidance on clearly presenting information via video conferencing platforms?
Follow an outline with minimal points
Stick to these points
Keep the presentation short
Minimize visual and verbal information
Personalize the presentation as appropriate to connect the audience better with the presenter
We hope this video helps widen the worlds of people who really appreciate birds, both now and in the future!