Category Archives: Musings & News

8 Billion Of Us!

15 November 2022

Today the global human population has reached 8 billion. Lest we think our current growth rate is normal, this graph shows that human population since 10,000 BCE (the start of agriculture) has had a rapid and unnatural growth spurt in the last 70 years.

World population 100,000 BCE to 2021 from Our World in Data

There are so many humans now that we have changed the surface of the Earth, its atmosphere, and its climate just to supply our own needs.

Satellite image of Amazon basin in Bolivia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Smog over Mexico City (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This rate of growth is unsustainable and somehow our species naturally knows it. Population growth will continue but is slowing to a rate of only 1% by the end of this century. Unfortunately there will be 10.9 billion of us by then!

World population growth from Our World in Data

Asia will lead the world in slowing the rate while North America remains relatively stable. (Note: The dip in 2020 is COVID deaths outperforming births.)

Annual population growth by region from Our World in Data

How will we feed 8 to 10.9 billion people? Where will we live when the sea rises and the deserts expand?

It’s a good thing for humans and the planet that our species will stop reproducing quite so fast.

Read more about the slowing growth rate here at Our World in Data.

(photo/ graph links are in the captions. Slideshow photos from Wikimedia Commons in order: Rush hour in Russia, Beach in the Netherlands, Inauguration Day 2009, Crowded exhibit in India, Crowded street, Sao Paulo station, train surfing in Indonesia, crowded Faire in UK, train in Ecuador)

Come Closer. Listen.

Spanish red deer stag, Cervus elaphus hispanicus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 November 2022

Spanish cellist Diana Gomez plays music outdoors in many venues. Here’s what happened when she took her cello into a forest and played Bach’s Suite No.1.

Come closer. Listen.

The stags that approached her are red deer (Cervus elaphus), native to Europe and one of the largest deer species. Spanish red deer (Cervus elaphus hispanicus) are not as red as other members of the species.

To hear more from Diana Gomez check out her YouTube channel at Chelodiana or follow her on Instagram at Chelodiana. Her video Ocean includes cameo appearances of egrets and flamingo.

p.s. Two years ago Roger Day played Bach on his tuba in Frick Park and, in his words, “got only cicadas” to respond. Check out his video here.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video from Chelodiana)

Preserving an Iconic Animal

Scimitar-Horned Oryx, (Oryx dammah) in Marwell Zoo, Hampshire, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 November 2022

The scimitar-horned oryx or scimitar oryx (Oryx dammah) is extinct in the wild but not extinct on Earth. These iconic animals still exist because their beauty prompted us to preserve them.

Scimitar-horned oryx are desert antelopes that can survive without water for months or years by absorbing water from the plants they eat. Native to the Sahel (pink on map below), there may have been 1 million of them at the height of their population in the early Holocene (9500–4500 BPE) but they declined over the centuries due to climate change and hunting.

Map of the Sahel from

However they were already iconic. Ancient Egyptians domesticated them, Ancient Romans bred them. They were prized for their horns and meat.

Scimitar oryx at Chester Zoo (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately the wild population of scimitar oryx dropped to less than 200 by the early 1980’s and within 10 years the last ever seen was in Chad. Declared extinct in the wild in 2000, they still existed in captivity.

Soon captive breeding programs looked for suitable locations in the Sahel for the antelope’s reintroduction and began breeding them in zoos and in herds to succeed in the wild. In the U.S., ranches in Texas breed them for reintroduction and for hunting.

To get an idea of what the animals look like, see this video from the Greater Vancouver Zoo.

Thanks to captive breeding, the first scimitar-horned oryx were released in Chad in 2016, as shown in this video.

Many endangered species go extinct before we know they exist. That didn’t happen to this iconic animal.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, map from researchgate; click on the captions to see the originals)

Permanent Daylight Saving Time?

Clock turned back (photo by Kate St. John)
Clock turned back (photo by Kate St. John)

5 November 2022

When we turn our clocks back tonight it may be the last time we’ll have to do it in the U.S. And then again, it might not be.

Our current DST law sets Daylight Saving Time for the entire U.S. and allows states and territories to opt out of it (stay on Standard Time). Those who have include most of Arizona, Guam, Hawaii, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

However the current law does not allow states to stay on Daylight Saving Time year-round even though Florida, Washington, California, and Oregon legislatures have all passed bills to make it permanent and 22 other states are considering it.

So in 2018 House and Senate reps from Florida introduced the Sunshine Protection Act.

On March 15, 2022, the US Senate unanimously passed the Sunshine Protection Act. The bill proposes—beginning in November 2023—that all states go on permanent DST, which is one hour later than standard time. States that have passed legislation for permanent DST will be allowed to enact their legislation. [It also allows states and territories that never switch to DST to stay on Standard Time as they do today. ] Daylight Saving Time Ends in USA & Canada 2022

But permanent DST is just a gleam in the eye of those who want it. It hasn’t passed the House.

Thus countries that border the U.S. have the usual dilemma. Southern Canadian provinces have so far stayed in synch with U.S. time zones. Meanwhile Mexico abolished Daylight Saving Time on 26 October 2022 (last month!) but allows northern border locations to stay in synch with the U.S.

Will we have Permanent Daylight Saving Time? Who knows. It’s more likely we’ll have Permanent Confusion.

Don’t forget to turn your clocks back tonight. 🙂

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. Here are some reasons why permanent DST would be darker than Standard Time:

p.p.s. This study indicates that there would be fewer deer-vehicle collisions if we stayed on permanent DST.

Changing the Name?

Yams have an alternate name, October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 November 2022

Seven years ago I opined on the confusing name of sweet potatoes. In the grocery store they were simply labeled “yams” though they are not yams at all. Sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae. Yams are in the yam family, Dioscoreaceae. The misleading labels began with a marketing campaign.

The Louisiana [orange sweet potato] industry coined the term “yam” in 1937 as part of a national marketing campaign to differentiate its product from the drier, white-fleshed types [of sweet potatoes] being grown on the East Coast.

LSU, 23 May 2012: Sweet Potato Louisiana’s Most Popular Vegetable

But the confusing name goes back 400 years.

The mix-up between yams and sweet potatoes originated from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yams are an important part of West African food traditions. They are crucial to the regional diet with a religious significance and a cultural heritage.

As European slave traders steered their ships across the Middle Passage, they packed [African] yams, along with black-eyed peas, to feed their captives. … In the Americas, where yams were not readily available, sweet potatoes, which had traveled from Central America with Christopher Columbus, took their place. … Sweet potatoes became one of several transfer foods, a throughline allowing enslaved peoples to preserve their traditions and spiritual practices even in the face of captivity and abuse.

paraphrased from Food and Wine, 10 Oct 2022: The Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes Is Structural Racism

When I wrote about sweet potatoes in 2015, the words “sweet potato” were not on the labels in the grocery store but they’re there now, as seen in my photo at top. The Library of Congress pointed out in November 2019, “Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term ‘yam’ to be accompanied by the term ‘sweet potato.’”

Perhaps USDA will completely change the name some day. Meanwhile find out more about the African yam, our native true yam and morning glory sweet potatoes in this vintage article:

(photo by Kate St. John)

Hybrid Gets More Than 15 Minutes of Fame

Hybrid rose-breasted grosbeak + scarlet tanager banded in Lawrence County, PA, 7 June 2020 (photo with Steve Gosser)

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.

— wikipedia says this quote is misattributed to Andy Warhol

30 October 2022

Two years ago, on 6 June 2020, Steve Gosser was birding at McConnell’s Mill when he heard a scarlet tanager singing but it didn’t look like one. Steve’s photos showed the bird to be a cross between a rose-breasted grosbeak and a scarlet tanager.

Hybrid rose-breasted grosbeak + scarlet tanager singing, June 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

The next day ornithologists Bob Mulvihill and Steve Latta banded the bird and took blood samples for DNA testing. At top, Steve Gosser holds the bird before releasing him after banding while Bob dubbed the bird a “Scarlet Gosserbeak.” The bird was slightly famous when I blogged about him on 8 June 2020 at Who Is this Mystery Bird.

Mulvihill and Latta submitted the DNA samples for analysis and received an answer in February 2021 that the bird is indeed a hybrid of a rose-breasted grosbeak mother + scarlet tanager father. His scientific name is Pheucticus ludovicianus x Piranga olivacea (mother’s species listed first).

No one had ever heard of such a hybrid. The birds are in the same family, Cardinalidae, but not closely related. Tanagers are Piranga genus, grosbeaks are Pheucticus genus.

Toews, Rhinehart, Mulvihill, Gosser, Latta, et al submitted a paper about the bird. That’s when the hybrid’s real fame begins.

  • 25 October 2022, artwork on Reddit comparing the two species + hybrid

There are probably more articles since I last checked. This hybrid is world-famous for a lot more than 15 minutes!

(photos by Steve Gosser, phylogeny diagram from Wikipedia; click on the caption to see the original)

After the Sixth Mass Extinction, What Next?

Guam kingfisher at Bronx Zoo (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 October 2022

The archaeological record shows that life on Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in which 70% to 90% of all species disappeared (*). After each extinction life came back.

The extinction rate today indicates we are now in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. Scientists predict that due to human pressure, habitat loss and climate change as much as 50% of all species will go extinct by 2100. [1] [2] [3] [4]

Interestingly, the IUCN Red List’s extinction ranking shows that birds may not fare as badly as many other organisms. It’s bad news for conifers, frogs and horseshoe crabs, though.

from Wikimedia Commons

In the short term we are helping some species such as the Guam kingfisher (Todiramphus cinnamominus), shown above, already extinct in the wild and in a captive breeding program. In the long term we humans could change our ways to slow or stop species decline. Knowing humans, it doesn’t look good. We can mourn the future but if we take a very long view there is hope.

After the sixth mass extinction, what will happen next?

David Quammen‘s article Planet of Weeds in Harper’s October 1998 described the current mass extinction and asked eminent paleontologist David Jablonski “What next?” The article is quoted below.

Among the last questions I asked Jablonski was, What will happen after this mass extinction, assuming it proceeds to a worst-case scenario?  If we destroy half or two thirds of all living species, how long will it take for evolution to fill the planet back up?  “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said.  “I’d rather not bottom out and see what happens next.”  In the journal paper he had hazarded that, based on fossil evidence in rock laid down atop the K-T event and others, the time required for full recovery might be five or ten million years.  From a paleontological perspective, that’s fast.  “Biotic recoveries after mass extinctions are geologically rapid but immensely prolonged on human time scales,” he wrote.  There was also the proviso, cited from another expert, that recovery might not begin until after the extinction-causing circumstances have disappeared.  But in this case, of course, the circumstances won’t likely disappear until we do.

Still, evolution never rests.  It’s happening right now, in weed patches all over the planet. … So we might reasonably imagine an Earth upon which, ten million years after the extinction (or, alternatively, the drastic transformation) of Homo sapiens, wondrous forests are again filled with wondrous beasts.  That’s the good news.

— from Planet of Weeds, by David Quammen, Harper’s Magazine, October 1998

A 2018 study said the recovery time for mammals may be 3 million years, faster than predicted in Quammen’s article.

The future is a long way away but it looks bright. Earth will again have “wondrous forests filled with wondrous beasts.”

Paradise by Gillis d’Hondecoeter, after 1615 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. In the comments Liz Spence reminded me of a good book about the current mass extinction: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. This book won the Pulitzer Prize.

(photos and graph from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

(*) The Top Five Extinctions in Earth’s history are paraphrased below from the American Museum of Natural History and Wikipedia:

  • 440 million years ago: Ordovician-Silurian Extinction: Small marine organisms died out at a time when life only existed in the oceans. 85% of all species went extinct.
  • 365 million years ago: Devonian Extinction: Many tropical marine species went extinct. 70% of all species lost.
  • 250 million years ago: Permian-triassic Extinction: The largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history. 90% of all species.
  • 210 million years ago: Triassic-jurassic Extinction: The extinction of other vertebrate species on land allowed dinosaurs to flourish. 70% to 75% of all species went extinct.
  • 65 million years ago: K-Pg (or K-T) Extinction: The event that killed the dinosaurs. 75% of all species lost.

Birds at the Tipping Point

  • Chimney swift flying in Austin, Texas (photo by Jim McCullough, Creative Commons license, Wikimedia Commons)
    Chimney swift flying in Austin, Texas (photo by Jim McCullough, Creative Commons license, Wikimedia Commons)

20 October 2022

Just over a week ago the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published the 2022 State of the Birds in the U.S. The news was sobering. Population declines of 90 bird species have reached a tipping point into endangered status, having lost half or more of their populations since 1970.

70 of these species are on a trajectory to lose another 50% of their populations in the next 50 years if nothing changes. (That means losing another half of what’s left!) The slideshow above shows ten of my favorites that are falling off the cliff into the sixth mass extinction.

Of the 20 remaining species whose future is bleak I will especially miss the black-billed cuckoo, snowy owl, red-headed woodpecker, olive-sided flycatcher, wood thrush, and mourning, cerulean and Canada warblers.

Fortunately Cornell Lab describes actions we can take right now to turn this around, illustrating The Road to Recovery with one of the greatest recoveries of our lifetime: the peregrine falcon. We made a difference in the last 50 years and we can do it again. Click here to learn what you can do to help birds.

Peregrine falcon feeding young at Tarentum Bridge, May 2021 (photo by Lynn Mamros)

(photo credits in the captions. All of these photos were used in prior articles.)

Unusual Crash at Night

Canada geese in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 October 2022

On 7 October 2022 a STAT Medevac helicopter had to make an emergency landing in Greenfield Township in Erie County, PA because it hit a flock of geese. One of the geese crashed through the bubble on the pilot’s side. Fortunately no one was seriously injured.

The first responders, Greenfield Township Volunteer Fire Company, posted this report on Facebook. Two more helicopters came to the aid of the first one: One to take the patient to the proper destination and one to evacuate the crash crew.

Two photos supplied by Mary Brush at StatMedEvac Pittsburgh show the damage to the helicopter. On the right you can see the hole in pilot’s-side windshield.

Helicopter downed by crash with geese in Greenfield Twp PA on 7 Oct 2022 (photos by Greenfield Township Volunteer Fire Company supplied by Mary Brush at STAT MedEvac Pittsburgh)

You may be surprised that Canada geese were flying at night but this is normal during fall migration. That night in Erie County the wind was from the northwest, perfect for heading south.

Canada geese flying at sunset (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Geese are not nocturnal birds but are known to fly at night when they migrate south in autumn. There are three main reasons behind their nightly migratory routine: to escape their diurnal predators, to avoid thermal interruption, and to benefit from the cooler winds of nighttime.

Sonoma Birding: Why Do Geese Fly at Night?

Nighttime bird crashes are rare nowadays because aircraft are supplied with Pulselite equipment that helps the birds visually locate the aircraft. Pulselites also make it easier for humans to do the same.

(Canada goose photos from Wikimedia Commons, embedded Facebook report from Greenfield Township VFC, helicopter photos by Greenfield Township VFC supplied by Mary Brush)

New ‘Life Bird’ For Free

Eastern meadowlark (photo by Chuck Tague) vs. Chihuahuan meadowlark in San Rafael Valley, AZ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When I attended the Southwest Wings Birding Festival in Arizona in the summer of 2015, I saw 33 Life Birds(*) including an elegant trogon and a violet-crowned hummingbird. Seven years later I will gain a 34th Life Bird for that trip without doing anything. The eastern meadowlarks I saw in Santa Cruz County, Arizona will become a new species. eBird will change them for me this month.

This month eBird will update the taxonomy in its extensive checklist database to reflect the latest ‘splits’, ‘lumps’, additions of new species, changes to scientific names, taxonomic sequence, and more.

The full 2022 eBird Taxonomy Update is scheduled to begin on 25 October. Changes may begin as early as 15 October. The process is expected to take up to a week including intermediate steps. Submit all “Not Submitted” mobile checklists by 24 October.

Please DO NOT EDIT your personal records if you notice them changing. Reach out to eBird if you have questions.

paraphrase of eBird’s 2022 Taxonomy update news

Many changes will be minor, affecting only the scientific names. Here are two examples from my own Life List.

The violet-crowned hummingbird, Leucolia violiceps, was placed in an “unavailable” genus so this month it will become Ramosomyia violiceps on my Southwest Wings checklist.

Violet-crowned hummingbird, Patagonia AZ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The mottled owl I saw in Costa Rica in 2017 was Ciccaba virgata at the time, but Ciccaba is now absorbed into Strix so the mottled owl will become Strix virgata. In the Strix genus it joins an owl it resembles, the barred owl (Strix varia).

Mottled owl (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The biggest change for me will be the long anticipated split of the eastern meadowlark. The Lilianae group — formerly a subspecies that I saw in Arizona — will become the Chihuahuan Meadowlark (Sturnella lilianae). Here’s how it looks on my life list today (18 October 2022). Soon it will change. Click here to see the Chihuahuan meadowlark’s range on eBird.

Eastern meadowlark sightings in eBird (data from Kate St. John)

It’s wonderful that I can enter a sighting 7 years ago(!) that becomes a Life Bird all on its own.

Read more about the changes at 2022 Taxonomy Update—Coming Soon!

(*) Life Bird = a bird species seen for the first time in my life.

(photos by Chuck Tague and from Wikimedia Commons)