You’re not going far from home – and neither are the animals you spy out your window

Maybe you've been wondering if you're seeing one persistent squirrel or a rotating cast of characters.

Do you see the same animals everyday?
Photo by Toimetaja tõlkebüroo on Unsplash

Watching the wildlife outside your window can boost your mental well-being, and it's something lots of people have been doing a lot more of lately.


Maybe you've been wondering if you're seeing one persistent gray squirrel or a rotating cast of furry characters. Maybe you've been thinking about which birds are passing through for the season and which are townies who stick around all year.

As a wildlife ecologist, I've learned to pay attention to patterns that show me what the animals outside my window are up to, and I usually know which individuals are my regulars.

Whether you're spying on animals in a city, town or rural area, with a little background knowledge, you too can keep tabs on the private lives of your neighborhood critters.

Seasonal shifts change the players

For many species, winter is a time when individuals compete less with one another and gather in large groups.

For example, eastern cottontail rabbits congregate around areas with plenty of food and places to escape to. Birds form large mixed-species flocks, which helps them better find food and avoid being hunted. They even form temporary allegiances as they forage together, following specific individuals who help determine where the flock goes.

Seasonal migration means the abundance of particular species in one location can change over the course of the year. Courtesy eBird.org (https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/whtspa...)

As the season changes to spring, migratory species start arriving. A steady parade of individuals moves through the neighborhood. As animals transition to their breeding season, plumage and appearances may change as they work to attract mates. For many species, defense of a piece of land becomes an overriding concern.

During the summer months, adult animal numbers stabilize, and the drive to establish a territory means you're likely to have the same individuals active outside your windows for the majority of summer.

This white-throated sparrow is molting into breeding plumage before heading on to summer grounds. (Julian Avery, CC BY-ND)

Splitting up the neighborhood

A territory is a chunk of habitat. Its size will vary depending on the amount of food and breeding resources it holds. A territory with few trees, for example, may need to be bigger to hold enough forage for the animal that owns the turf.

Territory sizes for different species can range from the size of a large kitchen table (common lizards like green anoles and skinks) to an area greater than 120 football fields (a raptor such as the Cooper's hawk). The cool thing is that animal home ranges are governed by their own needs and often do not follow the lines of human fences and alleyways.

A territory map for anoles shows how these lizards each have their own home turf that can overlap with neighbors. Habitat in this case included individual trees and a fallen log toward the bottom of the map which offered basking and display space. (Jordan Bush, CC BY-ND)

I like to think of animal territories as quilts that drape over your neighborhood. For some species, like anoles, the squares in that quilt will have many small and intricate pieces, and you could fit many quilt pieces within each individual human property boundary. Some of those pieces will even overlap other patches.

Small songbirds will have quilt patches that span several human properties, though they may use specific parts more than others. Larger species will have quilt patches that cover entire neighborhoods with one territory.

Frequently spotted

If you've become familiar with the animals in your neighborhood, chances are you'll see some of the same individuals again year after year. Eastern cottontails are likely to live up to three years in the wild, and they stay in the same general territory throughout their lives. Even the young have a tendency to stay close to their birth place.

Researchers have recaptured gray squirrels year after year in their original territories. On average, these critters survive about six years and can live longer than 20.

Birds also have long lives and will often stay in the same territory year after year. However, when eggs don't hatch or young die in the nest, some birds may choose a new territory the following year. This means there can be high turnover in your local bird network if the local habitat is unpredictable or full of urban predators.

Birds that don't migrate and stay in residence year-round, like chickadees, often have a tendency to stay in the same area, which means you'll be seeing the same individual birds outside your window across seasons.

Some species will have territories that don't overlap much at all. For others, the overlap can be extensive.

This means that generally during the breeding season, you could be watching many gray squirrels visiting outside your window.

There may also be a couple of male cottontails, but probably a single female because they tend to not overlap with other females.

Maybe you'll spy the same pair of cardinals along with a reliable pair of chickadees. If you're watching closely like I was the other day, you may get lucky and catch another male cardinal from the territory next door trying to flirt with your female, at least until her mate realizes what's about to happen. That is a clue to the invisible lines birds have drawn between their own domains.

When it comes to smaller animals, like lizards and insects, all bets are off for how many unique individuals are present outside your window. But you can expect more of everything as the number of native plants increases.

Tips for watching

If you're interested in trying to keep track of particular wildlife friends through the window, try to watch for identifying marks.

Natural markings like a torn ear can help you keep track of individuals. (Julian Avery, CC BY-ND)

In my research, I attach colored bands to bird legs or mark the scales of turtles and snakes so we can figure out how many exist in an area. Many animals have enough individual variation that you can keep track of them using their natural unique marks and scars. Squirrels can have torn ears or injured tails, lizards can have unique scars or healed injuries, and birds can have subtle differences in color or pattern.

Also try paying attention to the maximum number you see at any one point. Where do they go after eating or basking? You may get lucky and spy a nest or resting place. See if you can spot other individuals coming from different directions and territories.

At my house, we had a nest of rabbit kits born under our deck. I thought there was only one surviving newborn because we never saw more than one offspring. Two weeks later, there were three babies foraging simultaneously in the yard, and it became clear that they'd previously been taking turns coming out of hiding.

If you start watching closely, I think you'll find so much drama happening in your neighborhood that you may get hooked on the action.

Julian Avery, Assistant Research Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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