Chapter Nine—The Early Bird Gets the Worm [Farm]
So, for once, I thought I was arriving early to the monthly Master Naturalists’ training program, only to find that a very interesting presentation was just getting underway. Laura Rocco, herself a Master Naturalist in Florida, brought in her red worm farm to show us. I had some experience with red worm farming years ago as part of our home educating, and was glad to be reminded of how red worms can take care of your compostable garbage such as veggies, coffee grounds, and moldy bread, while providing power-packed castings (poop) for your plants.
Technically called “vermicomposting,” worm composting can be done in a lovely three-layer composter, such as Laura brought, or in a simpler wooden box with a screened top (to keep the cats out and the worms in, in my household). Laura recommended a book called Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. Laura ordered her “red wriggler” worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, from whose website you can also find supplies and a wealth of how-to information.
From the worms, we moved right on up the food chain to Ornithology (the study of birds) with Gwen Brewer, the Science Program Manager from the Wildlife and Heritage Services of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. Gwen started with a brief overview of the numbers and species of birds in Maryland, and specifically on the eastern shore, and shared with us a few resources she recommends:
- Birds of Maryland (1996) aka “The Yellow Book”
- Breeding Bird Atlas of Maryland & D.C. (2006), sponsored by the Maryland Ornithological Society
- Online – Avian Knowledge Network, which also sponsors ebird, a real-time, online checklist program.
We also learned about the three levels of legal protection (Endangered, Threatened, or In Need of Conservation) before she introduced the “cast of characters” – two birds that she would use as examples of the concepts she was going to cover: the scarlet tanager and the eastern bluebird (also known by this recently-relocated author as the “New York Bluebird”).
In brief, the scarlet tanager (Piranga divacea) breeds in conifer and deciduous forest, winters in montane (mountainous) evergreen forests in South America, has a generic-shaped bill (good for eating spiders, insects, buds, fruit), needs stopover habitats for its migration, and is facing problems in wintering areas due to hunting, contamination, pest control, and land conversion.
Contrast these characteristics with the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), which breeds all over, has both winter range and year-round presence here on the eastern shore, eats insects and fruits, and must deal with starlings who compete for cavity nests, as well as with brown-headed cowbirds (“nest parasites” who cleverly trick the bluebird into raising cowbird hatchlings).
We used this cast of characters to learn more about migration, including details of the four forces of flight (gravity, lift, thrust, and drag); how birds reduce weight and increase power; the need for fuel, as migration can burn up to half the bird’s weight during the trip; the metabolic rate used for long-distance migration; theories as to how migrating birds navigate and even avoid storms; data that ornithologists have gleaned from satellite transmitters on birds (a website that offers bird migration forecasts in real-time is called BirdCast); and conservation strategies to help birds migrate successfully.
Next we headed outdoors, first learning about how to use binoculars and how to home in on your target while looking through said binoculars. Gwen reminded everyone to stay limber and look down occasionally so as not to get a crick-in-the-neck, and also made some practical suggestions for describing exactly where you spotted a bird if you are out birding with others (“oh, look, over there” not being quite enough detail for your fellow birders to locate the bird for themselves).
We had some amusing times trying to learn to identify birds by their calls – the amusement coming from describing auditory output in words – “sounds like a ping-pong ball” (field swallow) “teacher, teacher, teacher” (oven birds) “pee-eee-wee” (eastern wood pee-wee). Gwen was very patient and repeatedly helped us to identify the numerous birds we heard on our walk through the woods/stream area at Adkins Arboretum.
After a lunchtime break (sitting outside, trying valiantly to identify bird songs and calls whilst munching on PBJs) we headed in for a session on Taxonomy – defined as “the science of using characteristics to name and place organisms into groups.” Gwen did a marvelous job of condensing and summarizing a lot of the theories and practical applications of classification/organization.
Topics covered included why classification is important as an organizational strategy and a means of communication; the process of classifying; the types of traits that might be considered, including anatomical, morphological, developmental, genetic, biochemical, behavioral, and fossil record; naming rules for species (including some silly – but real—examples, as shown in the figure); the six kingdoms and how they have changed over time, especially with the increasing role of genetic typing; the use of dichotomous keys as a decision matrix; evolutionary characteristics (paths) used for determining a species for a taxonomy, including homology, parallelism, convergence, and analogy; and different approaches to graphically depict classification (to help with the process). Gwen concluded her lecture with a brief discussion of ways to stem the loss of species and by exhorting us to watch for patterns, similarities, and differences as we go forth and explore the natural world.
Gwen Brewer also shared with us a quote from Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, upon the launching of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in March 2005:
“Only by understanding the environment and how it works, can we
make the necessary decisions to protect it. Only by valuing all our
precious natural and human resources can we hope to build a sustainable future.”