That’s it. Game over. Clock ran out. No matter what the annual solar cycle says, or your own internal vacation-focused clock, grain is being harvested on the rolling hills of Palouse Prairie and summer is largely over. Moreover, wild birds clearly agree with the ripened wheat.
When you’re traveling through Palouse Prairie it’s easy to imagine that you’re bobbing about in a small boat surrounded by immense hill-size waves that rise and fall around you as they might on some gigantic ocean. The once bright green waves of new summer growth, as far as the eye can see, have now become vast expanses of field after field of golden honey-brown wheat ready to harvest. Once again Nature has provided a dependable and abundant harvest from one of the world’s important bread baskets.
Soon the pitter patter of little undergraduate feet will echo through the halls of academia. And the joy, laughter, and excitement of new beginnings, new friendships, and new knowledge will abound, at least until the first exams and term papers are scheduled. Then reality will hit.
But reality has already hit the natural world. One way or another, a nesting season has been completed, successful or not. New generations of birds are fledged and launched into the world with each bird learning how to forage and avoid predators, or not, as chance and circumstance may dictate.
I know that summer has ended partly because Brown-headed cowbirds have largely disappeared. Looking back at my records, the last cowbirds in my study area along the Snake River were seen about July 19th. After all, if you are a parasitic bird hoping to find the nests of other birds into which you can deposit your own eggs for unsuspecting hosts to hatch and raise your young as their own, why stay around if everyone is largely finished nesting? Time to move on. Cycle completed. Job finished.
But I already knew that cowbirds were disappearing and breeding seasons were ending when the pair of cowbirds that visited my bird feeder several times daily no longer appeared at the morning window. A pair of the birds had developed a fascination with their mirror-like reflection in our patio picture window and would sit on the back of a patio chair or on the adjacent window-mounted hummingbird feeder and admire their reflections in the glass for minutes on end.
I could tell it was the same pair visiting daily because the male had the tips of its bill crossed over and slightly deformed unlike other cowbirds. While the female couldn’t be uniquely identified, they were obviously paired and comfortable sitting side by side, with the male displaying to both his reflection and his mate standing next to him.
At times in the mornings the male would show up at the window all by himself to strut his stuff and I imagined the female was down the hillside below in the wooded riparian area along the Snake River, skulking around in shrub thickets looking for nesting females to parasitize.
However, the female’s absence certainly didn’t stop the male cowbird from admiring his own reflection in the window and giving his advertising display consisting of a polite bow forward, then standing back upright while calling, fluffing chest feathers, and popping his wings open – ta da! – much like Batman dramatically opening his cape. A cute little dip with a fluff of chest feathers and open wings just to show the world, and any nearby doubting female, just how handsome he truly is.
Some will argue that technically, the male actually might have been threatened by the apparent appearance of another male (his reflection in the window) and thus gave his display to intimidate or threaten the other male and attract a mate. Though I lack definitive proof, a lifetime of watching birds tells me that this assuredly is not the only case here. Putting obvious evolutionary and behavioral underpinnings aside, both the male and female also were simply attracted and fascinated by their appearance in the mirror-like reflection of the window.
But now I miss my private, daily avian comedy show. The cowbirds pursue life elsewhere without benefit of mirrors though other daily wonders in the natural world take their place. My early morning walks along the Snake River reveal Nature’s clock, the seasons of life, and refresh my soul with the beauty of the natural world.
The native showy milkweeds in grassy meadows, still achingly bereft of western monarch butterflies and their stripped yellow and black caterpillars, are rapidly growing large seed pods from which white silky parachutes soon will burst forth to lift and float seeds across the landscape. But this year, in a first for me, I see the startling neon iridescence of cobalt blue milkweed beetles chewing on milkweed leaves and mating in preparation to renew their own cycle of life.
Nearby some red milkweed beetles provide a colorful contrast and a warning to predators as they also munch on milkweed flower buds and leaves. While I long to see the characteristic “flap-flap-glide, flap-flap-glide” flight pattern of large monarch butterflies dancing in sunshine about the meadow I’m happy that the milkweeds host a thriving beetle community and also provide nutrition to nectar-seeking western tiger swallowtail butterflies, themselves magnificent creatures and ephemeral beauties.
A momentary flash of bright orange and black stripes lands in the path ahead, instantly giving me hope of once again seeing a rare western monarch butterfly, but I quickly realize that it’s actually a Viceroy butterfly, a co-mimic of the monarch butterfly. It’s beautiful nonetheless and I’m grateful for what life the grassy, clover-filled meadow does provide, despite the lack of Monarch butterflies.
Onward I walk through shoreline thickets of willows, past impenetrable thorny walls of black raspberries, and under canopies of tall rustling-leaved cottonwood trees. The diversity of fruit, seeds, nuts, and habitats helps fill the river forest with abundant sounds of calling birds, though most remain discretely hidden behind shadows of leaves and branches. Surrounded by riparian forest I watch and listen to the quiet lessons of Nature.
As a wildlife biologist, I might lament the rapid passing of summer and its glorious emergence of life, but I don’t begrudge the workings and time table of the natural world. The true burden of ecology is not in awareness of the passage of time, but in seeing the beauty and wisdom of Nature against the backdrop and consequences of human folly. Ever the eternal questions. When will we learn? When will we care?
Back home a female Black-chinned hummingbird sits outside my office window with her bill agape, gasping for air in the 95+°F heat. Her small feather-puff of a body has precious little leeway to endure extreme heat and try to cool herself, as does so much other life as well.
Climate scientists are worried and some warn that this year could be the coolest summer you’ll experience for the rest of your life. The incessant build-up of atmospheric CO2 and other climate-changing gases, combined with the periodic hot El Niño, results in ratchet-like wrench clicks pushing climate forward with dramatic upward steps in global temperature.
Ice melts. Coastal ocean waters become hot tubs. Heat domes bake everything. Fires and smoke spread everywhere. Temperature records are shattered.
Each forward click of the climate-change ratchet locks in higher and higher heat. Ecosystems crack and begin to fail. Species disappear. Suffering increases everywhere. Click. Click. Click. It only gets worse and steadily worse from this point forward.
But that’s why we teach. Science holds up a mirror to the natural world and the human condition and it’s up to each new generation to view this reflection and decide what to do. And hopefully we do more than strut our stuff and fluff our ego. The world depends on what we decide.
WSU School of the Environment