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Peaceful Coexistence in the Suburbs

A review by Robert Gerson

Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife, by John M. Marzluff

Yale University Press, 2014

303 pages, $30—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14402

In spite of the overwhelming evidence, it is still difficult for some to accept that our species has had an adverse, even irreversible impact on natural environments around the world. To some extent, John M. Marzluff’s Welcome to Subirdia might seem to justify those naysayers by demonstrating that, contrary to expectation, many bird species are in fact thriving in human-dominated settings, but that is not his point. Instead, Marzluff meticulously details how we have affected the lives of birds, positively and negatively, and what we can do to improve their chances of survival among us.

I was raised in a setting similar to those described here, a housing development where the adjacent woods were, for a while, left intact. When those woods were consumed by additional development, I acutely remember asking, still a child, “What’s going to happen to the animals?”

Marzluff poses that very question and, to a different degree in each chapter, answers it. He makes use of the categories developed by the conservation biologist Rob Blair: Some birds are avoiders, others are exploiters, still others are adapters. Some species are diminished or displaced entirely in the face of development, sometimes to the point of extinction, but the majority are able to coexist with human progress.

Progress nearly always translates into reduced biodiversity. Nevertheless, except for the hardcore eco-warriors, one can accept an impermanent balance—as opposed to a permanent imbalance—between the genuine betterment of our own species and the cost to nature. Many agree with Joni Mitchell that we have “paved paradise”; but the sight of pavement needn’t plunge us into environmental despair. There is reason for hope, and the strength of Welcome to Subirdia lies in the pragmatic ideas Marzluff advances to best serve people and the natural world. First-time homeowners may find his suggestions especially useful.

Marzluff tells of the “biotic homogenization” prevalent in so many locations around the world, “an increasing similarity in the flora and fauna of distant lands once isolated by geography,” where a “fab five” of bird species—House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, Mallards, and Canada Geese—are seemingly ubiquitous. Some readers, then, will be surprised to read of the author’s experience in two of America’s most prestigious parks.

In 2013, over four March days in the northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park, “a wild gem where wolves and grizzlies sit atop a food chain that characterizes a true primeval ecosystem,” Marzluff counted 26 bird species. Shortly thereafter he flew to New York City, where, walking along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, he saw only House Sparrows, European Starlings, and Rock Pigeons. On entering Central Park, he straight off found Mallards and Canada Geese, completing the “fab five.” Not expecting to see much else in the way of bird life, Marzluff was astonished to find 31 species over just two mornings in Gotham’s own gem, more species and in greater numbers than he encountered in pristine Yellowstone. He relates similar accounts of unexpected bird populations at other surprising locations.

Inevitably, we come upon humanity’s Gan ‘Eden, the golf course, which Marzluff recognizes as “the recreational site within a city that has the greatest potential to double as bird habitat.” As he describes it, golf courses are maintained with an almost spiritual fervor, as is only appropriate given the prayers, vows, and rituals, along with a good many oaths and even sacrifices, elicited by the intricacies of the game itself. The book informs us of the many species of birds that benefit from these splendid oases of vegetation, and reports on how other settings, such as industrial parks and campuses, play a comparable but lesser role. Marzluff also offers cogent suggestions for the proper superintendence of such places.

The casual birder may not pay much attention to the exact percentage of white on the outer tail feathers of Dark-eyed Juncos, but Marzluff brings sharp attention to bear on that detail in a chapter on suburban evolution. This chapter, entitled “The Junco’s Tail,” is a keen exploration of the circumstances affecting adaptation in birds living under the influence of human activity.

One marvels that any creature can survive the assault of civilization, especially the endless array of pollutants we have inflicted on the natural world, but some do: Marzluff’s work serves as a status report on how various species of birds have fared, and why some evolve while others do not. If his explanations veer toward the technical, the reader still learns about some of what can be done, by an individual or a community, to make ours a more hospitable environment for birds.

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Not to be too droll, but some people should be forbidden the use of the word “billions.” Marzluff must be counted among the repeat offenders. Incomprehensible and uncountable numbers serve only to weaken an otherwise sound argument about the measures average people, especially homeowners, can take to ensure a healthy bird population. After all, every day we are warned of this or that source of panic, real or imagined, blurring the magnitude of genuine problems and viable solutions, especially those best addressed by the actions of citizens rather than governments. (How quaint the perils of yesteryear now seem: Communism, integration, and rock ‘n’ roll.)

Another quibble: Learned and distinguished as Professor Marzluff is, I would not imagine that he needs to establish any street cred among fellow eco-warriors; thus, his disclosure, or boast, of his household’s exact annual carbon footprint strikes me as unnecessary.

With some chutzpah, Marzluff proclaims nine commandments that he believes will improve our urban ecosystem for other species. Foremost among them is the injunction to provide shelter and nourishment. He also charges the faithful, “Do not covet your neighbor’s lawn.”

Yikes! All the wars fought in all of human history have not produced the amount of blood, sweat, toil, and tears that have resulted from the war on crabgrass, weeds, and other banes of the suburban landscape. The suburban lawn is hallowed ground, and many a false prophet has met a horrific end for preaching far lesser apostasies than to abandon pursuit of the perfect lawn, which Marzluff names “an original sin of most Americans.” Holy mole! Poor as my memory has become, I have no recollection of lawn care being mentioned in the New England Primer, let alone in the Bible—but compare Genesis 2:15.

Notwithstanding the slippery slope of political and ecological correctness, we can care for our “sea of grass” in ways that are beneficial to birds and the natural world. Most of Marzluff’s proposals toward this end are balanced, though I shudder at his reference to a “Freedom Lawn.” Time and convenience may limit the use of push mowers over power mowers, and it seems self-evident that a good part of the plan for nature-friendly lawn care is dependent on having the resources to carry out such ends, if only to keep up with or outdo the neighbors. Apart from peer pressure, it does not seem unreasonable that the notion of a fashionable lawn can change from a green carpet to a greener mini-sanctuary.

Marzluff’s proposals to significantly reduce the lighting of the night sky, while desirable, might well prove impossible to implement, at least in a prosperous and profit-driven nation such as ours. He has it right when he says that people find comfort, joy, and safety in lights; thus, for security alone, inundated as our society is with images and the unfortunate reality of thugs in our midst, it would be a difficult sell to convince any level of government, or even one’s neighbors, to turn down the lights—except in the literal sense of directing lights downward in order to lessen the detrimental impact on night-migrating birds.

Millions of people already provide food and nest boxes for birds, and the extent to which these activities generate considerable financial gain no doubt satisfies even the most stringent critics of the environmental movement. Seemingly every issue of every birding publication extols the economic value of birding, and Marzluff contends that a broader acceptance of remodeling our yards to better comport with the natural world will result in a comparable economic impact. Indeed, the economic benefits of conservation are a vital part of Marzluff’s argument, and monetary interests, which include jobs, may prove of paramount consequence in achieving that goal.

Marzluff devotes one chapter to creatures beyond birds: insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, trees, and more. Those opposed to the very notion of conservation and the modern ecology movement may froth at the mouth—with irritation, delight, or both—at Marzluff’s concern for the spotted salamander, but what will provoke the most antipathy in some readers is the authors’ view that the single greatest danger to birds is outdoor cats, to which he attributes ten percent of all bird deaths. (Again with the Saganesque billions!) Offended cat lovers may ignore, out of pique, the balanced and knowledgeable guidance Marzluff otherwise has to offer.

The book’s title might lead some readers to believe that Subirdia is aimed at a casual audience, but the breadth of Marzluff’s research and the scope of his relatively succinct text are staggering. Perhaps the result is a tad too statistical and too strictly ornithological in places for some birders, but the author’s love of birds is never lost in the technical discussion of why some species of birds successfully blend into our suburban and urban existence and others do not. Finally, the value of Marzluff’s opus is made inestimable by his clever insight into the relationship between the iconic 1960s rock song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” by Iron Butterfly; Andy Williams’s singing of “Moon River”; and the songs of sparrows.

– Bob Gerson has been imprisoned since 1974, and is currently confined beneath the iconic dome of East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey. With a wide range of interests, he is a regular contributor to the literature of birds and birding. Gerson may be best known to his fellow ABA members for his powerful essay “Bird on a Razor Wire,” published in April 2008 in Winging It.

Recommended citation:

Gerson, R. 2015. Peaceful Coexistence in the Suburbs [a review of Welcome to Subirdia, by John Marzluff]. Birding 47 (1): 66.

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Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • Nate Dias

    Actually, reducing light pollution from “security lights” is an easy sell.

    It just requires a switch from “always-on” lights to motion-activated lights. This results in a lower power bill, increased security, and less damage to the natural world. Increased security comes from property owners and neighbors noticing the motion-activated light come on, seeing suspicious activity, and then calling the cops. With “always-on” lights, one has to be looking outside at the exact moment the bad guy walks through the light field – which is not often the case late at night…

    • Avosetta

      Most neighborhood crime occurs during the day, so fears don’t always match realities. The dark-sky movement is spreading with more and more communities adopting codes against light trespass. Nate’s idea is a good one, and there are more good ideas at: http://www.darksky.org/?gclid=CPr9ttzI08QCFY9gfgodlCoAwA

      As has been noted, light pollution screws nighttime navigation for many birds and other animals. Embrace the dark.

  • Ted Floyd

    The team that produced this somewhat provocative book has put out an interesting new video:

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