These maps show how much range America’s wild animals have lost

These maps offer a glimpse of what’s been lost – or rather, destroyed – by previous generations.

In Feral, his book proposing a re-wilding of our natural environment, George Monbiot refers to Shifting Baseline Syndrome as a major cause in our misperception of what is ‘natural’.


As individuals, we lack a multi-generational perspective. Our environment is in its ‘natural’ state when we are young, or so we assume. The only environmental destruction we really notice is what occurs within our own lifetimes.

Humanity's baseline for what is natural keeps shifting with every new generation, clouding our view on longer processes of environmental damage and degradation.

Shifting Baseline Syndrome can have perverse effects on our attempts at nature conservation – sometimes, we conserve the environmental destruction, rather than restoring the environment to its previous natural state.

Monbiot has a particular bone to pick with the sheep that are used to maintain large tracts of Britain in a near-desert condition. Those sheep are an invasive species, he argues, and the medieval switch to a wool-based economy destroyed the richly biodiverse forests that covered most of the island.

America too is subject to the paradox of ecological degradation: its scope is so massive that it’s hard for us as individuals to notice. These maps suggest some interesting markers to get a sense of the discrepancy between our ‘natural environment’, and that of previous generations.

They compare the geographic spread of cities and towns (1) in America named after native animals and the current geographic distribution of those species. As you may have expected, most indicate a huge reduction in the range of said animals.

Let’s start with bears: as the map indicates, they roam far and wide: from the Appalachians all the way into Maine, on the coasts of Virginia, in Florida, along the Mississippi in Louisiana, in Arkansas and Missouri, throughout the west and the Pacific states. Most ‘bear’ towns align more or less with the animal’s current range:

  • Bear Valley and Bear Valley Spring, Big Bear City (2) and Big Bear Lake (all in California), 
  • Bear River in Wyoming and Bear River City in Utah;
  • White Bear Lake in Minnesota, Upper Bear Creek in Colorado and Bear Creek Village in Pennsylvania;
  • Bear Rocks also in Pennsylvania and Bear Dance in Montana;
  • Bear Flat in Arizona and Bear Grass in North Carolina;
  • Three places called Bear Lake (two in Michigan (3) and one in Pennsylvania); 
  • and four towns all called Bear Creek (in Montana, Wisconsin, Florida and California).

But some indicate that the majestic predator once had an even wider distribution:

  • two towns also called Bear Creek, in Texas and Alabama;
  • Four Bears Village in North Dakota;
  • and a town simply called Bear, in Delaware.

It’s worse for wolves: they’re limited to two relatively small areas near the Canadian border, far away from most ‘wolf’ towns:

  • Two towns called Wolf Lake, one in Minnesota, the other in Michigan; 
  • Wolf Point, Montana (4) and Wolf Creek, Utah;
  • Lone Wolf, Oklahoma (5) and Wolfdale, Pennsylvania;
  • Wolf Summit, West Virginia and Wolf Trap, Virginia.

Judging by the places named after the animal, elk used to be prevalent across most of the country. ‘Elk’ towns are concentrated in the Midwest:

  • Elk Run Heights and Elk Horn, both in Iowa (6); 
  • Elk Point in South Dakota and Elk Creek in Nebraska;
  • Elk River in Minnesota and Elk Mound in Wisconsin;
  • Elk City and Elk Falls, close to each other in Kansas; and another Elk City in Oklahoma.

Some elk towns are further east:

  • Elk Rapids in Michigan, Elk Grove Village (7) in Illinois and Elk Creek in Kentucky; 
  • Banner Elk (8), North Carolina and Elk Garden, West Virginia.

The current range is limited mainly to the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, with small scattered patches elsewhere. Some elk towns actually in elk country:

  • Elk Creek and Elk Grove, both in California;
  • Elk City and Elk River, both in Idaho;
  • Elk Plain in Washington and Elk Ridge in Utah and Elk Mountain (9) in Wyoming.

Badgers are holding firm in most of the country, absent only from the eastern third of the country (and a small part of the northwest). There are still badgers in all badger towns on this map:

  • Three towns simply called ‘Badger’ (in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa); 
  • and one called Badger Lee, Oklahoma.

Beavers are everywhere, except in California, Nevada and Florida. And so are beaver towns, with concentrations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada and Oregon.

  • Seven towns are just called ‘Beaver’ (in Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and West Virginia);
  • Six towns called ‘Beaver Creek’ (two in Ohio, one each in Oregon, Maryland, Minnesota and Montana);
  • Five towns called ‘Beaver Dam’ (in Arizona, Kentucky, Ohio, Nevada and Wisconsin);
  • Three towns called ‘Beaverton’ (in Alabama, Michigan and Oregon) and two called ‘Beaverdale (in Iowa and Pennsylvania);
  • And then there’s Beaver Valley in Arizona, Beaverville in Illinois, Beaver City and Beaver Crossing in Nebraska, Beaver Bay in Minnesota and Beaver Dam Lake in New York, and Beaver Falls and Beaver Springs in Pennsylvania (10).

Poor wolverines: clinging on to a dwindling strip of land in the northwest, with small colonies remaining in California and on the Nevada-Utah border. Where are the times when they roamed Michigan in such numbers that two towns in that state – Wolverine Lake, near Detroit, and Wolverine, near the top of the state’s Lower Peninsula – were named after them?


Map found here at Data is Beautiful on Reddit.

Strange Maps #931

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) The dots represent populated places, i.e. cities, towns or census-designated places as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. The maps do not include other topographical features named after said animals (e.g. Wolverine, an unincorporated community in Kentucky, Wolverine Canyon in Utah, Wolverine Creek in Kansas, or Wolverine Hill and the Wolverine Mine, both in Michigan). Species ranges come from natureserve.org.

(2) Big Bear City is the location of a quartz dome that is worshipped as the Eye of God by the Serrano, a tribe native to the area.

(3) One township in Kalkaska County, the other in Manistee County.

(4) A city in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and the home of the annual Wild Horse Stampede, “the Grandaddy of Montana Rodeos”.

(5) Named after a Kiowa chief rather than the animal.

(6) But not Elkader, named after Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine, a 19th-century Algerian fighter against French colonialism.

(7) Despite being surrounded by a largely industrial area and its proximity to O’Hare International Airport, Elk Grove Village is home to a small herd of elk – indeed kept in a grove. The herd was brought to the area in the 1920s and is maintained by the Chicago Zoological Society. Unrelatedly, Elk Grove Village also is the hometown of Billy Corgan and James Iha, both of the band Smashing Pumpkins.

(8) By the early 19th century, elk had disappeared from the area. The National Park Service has now reintroduced small numbers of elk to western North Carolina.

(9) The setting of Elk Mountain, a graphic novel about the relationship between superheroes and the communities they defend.

(10) That’s not counting the names of half a dozen other places in Pennsylvania, including Big Beaver and New Beaver.

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Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
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  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarised in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimise the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarise this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behaviour around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be travelled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favourite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honour.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

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