from the world's big
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
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