Category Archives: urban ecology

The Role of Urban Green Spaces in Maintaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (#ICCB2013 Symposium)

California Poppies in a Fresno garden

California poppies brighten up an urban home garden in Fresno, California. Photo by Kaberi Kar Gupta @2012

A large number of conservation biologists (what is the collective pronoun for such? gaggle? confabulation? murmuration? murder?) have flocked to Baltimore this week for the 26th International Congress for Conservation Biology (#ICCB2013 on twitter). This includes a number of my colleagues and friends with whom I had helped put together a symposium on urban biodiversity. Kaberi and I were initially planning to be back in the US in time to attend this conference, but aren’t able to because we have too many things to get done here in India before winding up this sabbatical. As such, this is yet another conference I must miss (like ESA 2012), and given that the internet connectivity is rather slow and flaky, I haven’t even able to participate in the twitter conversation in the backchannel (unlike last year). I’ll try to be online during our session this thursday, and will tweet/retweet as and when I can in the meantime.

While the Congress does have a (quite busy) twitter hashtag, and should be pretty good for communication overall, their website leaves something to be desired : you can download the entire program and book of abstracts in a big PDF, but session details and individual paper abstracts are not available online, and (as of this writing), only the symposia for Monday and Tuesday are visible via the Program and Special Events link. Nevertheless, here are the details of our symposium this Thursday, which I hope those of you in Baltimore will be up for, bright and shiny in the AM:


Symposium: The Role of Urban Green Spaces in Maintaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Room 303
Thursday, July 25, 08:00 to 10:00
Organizer(s): Christopher Lepczyk, University of Hawaii at Manoa; Myla Aronson, Rutgers University; Paige Warren, University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Madhusudan Katti, California State University, Fresno; Charles Nilon, University of Missouri, Columbia

Urban areas are typically considered novel ecosystems, filled with non-native species and having few positive attributes. However, urban ecosystems are not homogenous entities in that they contain a variety of habitat types, many of which have value to conservation. One habitat type of particular relevance for conservation is green space. Urban green spaces vary markedly in terms of meaning, ranging from remnant habitat to managed parks to gardens. However, the unifying aspect of such green spaces is that they can offer critical habitat to many species of plants and animals, provide locations for people to experience nature, and provide a number of important ecosystem services. Hence, the theme of this symposium is to bring together a group of prominent scientists and practicioners to address the role urban green spaces play in maintaining biodiversity, providing ecosystem services, and enhance human well-being. Because green spaces are used and experienced by so many different people and species, understanding them requires both social and ecological components as well as the stakeholders involved in them.

08:00 Contributions of green roofs to urban biodiversity J. Scott MacIvor, York University

08:15 Spatial and temporal urbanisation gradients– are they interchangeable? Karl Evans, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield 

08:30 Sustainability begins at home: Backyard habitats for birds and people Susannah Lerman, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

08:45 Which is the better green space? A comparison of traditional grass lawn and waterwise gardens in a semi-desert urban landscape Kaberi Kar Gupta, California State University, Fresno

09:00 Vacant land conversion to community gardens: influences on generalist arthropod predators and biocontrol services in urban greenspaces Mary Gardiner, Cleveland State University

09:15 Using Citizen Science and community partnerships as tools for studying urban stopover habitats in Milwaukee, WI Tim Vargo, Urban Ecology Center

09:30 Portland-Vancouver ULTRA-Ex: Analyzing the connection between governance and environmental quality in urban ecosystems Alan Yeakley, Portland State University

09:45 Synthesis: the value of green spaces to conservation Christopher A. Lepczyk, University of Hawaii at Manoa


My co-conspirators and I are planning to write a synthesis paper drawing together the presentations in this symposium, and as part of that process, I’ve asked everyone to share their talks online (on figshare or slideshare). I will share all of those here as they become available. Kaberi’s talk on our work in Fresno’s residential yards (the slides for which she is polishing at the moment) will be delivered by one of my co-organizers. Meanwhile, if you are in Baltimore, do drop in on the symposium, at least on my behalf! And if you do go, please drop me a line here in the comments below, especially if you have any questions or thoughts.

Instant Noodle Soup and Ecological Enlightenment on the Trans-Himalayan Urban Frontier

KeeGompa panoramic

I haven’t been posting much on this blog lately, and in case you’re wondering why, I had a good excuse. I spent most of June up in the trans-Himalayan desert, in Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India. I went up with my whole family at the impromptu invitation of old friends who have been working in the region for nearly 2 decades – it was a long-term dream come true for me and Kaberi! We drove up from Delhi, taking three days on the road to get there. Then we were supposed to stay for just about 10days before driving back. As it happened, while we were there, that awful intense monsoon storm hit Uttarakhand and the lower reaches of the Spiti-Sutlej valley. We only received some rain and an inch or two of unseasonal snowfall, with the snow melting away within hours. The larger storm battered the mountains below us quite heavily though, and all our exit roads got blocked. So we got stuck there for another 10 days… but how can anyone complain about being stuck in such a gorgeous landscape, with such lovely creatures for company?

I took the snow day to write one of the longer essays I’ve written lately, pondering the nature of urbanization, and how the global city now seemed to have no limits, having penetrated into the far reaches of the Himalaya, right here at the edge of the roof of the world. Where a monk at an ancient monastery (Kee Gompa, pictured above) offered this tourist a bowl of instant noodle soup! In turn triggering a contemplation of apparent lack of limits to the reach of urbanization on our planet, which is now posted up on The Nature of Cities blog where I am a contributor.

Have a read, and let me know what you think. What is your experience of the limits of urbanization? What is the smallest patch of urban habitat you have ever seen? What makes it urban?

Presenting the first fruit of a sabbatical – “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy”

As regular readers (and friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter) may be aware, I am currently on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities, and am trying to make the most of this year to maximize my productivity in terms of research, catching up with paper writing, and science communication, here on the blog and elsewhere. The blogging has been rather light over the past few months as I have been traveling and getting involved in some fascinating collaborations which haven’t left me much time to write. I hope to make up for that over the coming weeks and months, especially now that I’ve moved my blog to be part of this Coyotes Network. Nice to be part of so many exciting and invigorating collaborations on all fronts! I was so ready for it after 8 years of the teaching and scholarship grind…

My sabbatical started with a lovely two months in Stockholm, working with my friend and colleague Thomas Elmqvist to put together the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO) for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A Professor of Ecology at the Stockholm Resilience Center, at Stockholm University, Thomas is also the chief scientific editor of this effort bringing together some 150 scientists and practitioners from the urban ecology disciplines (yes takes multiple disciplines to study the ecology of cities) to make the first comprehensive assessment of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities throughout our increasingly urbanized world. Here is Thomas explaining the mission and context of the CBO:

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It was quite an inspirational and productive way to begin my sabbatical – to go to a city that was so different in so many ways from Fresno, to explore a new country, to meet some fantastic new colleagues and friends from distant lands, and to engage in such a stimulating exercise as assessing the world’s urban ecosystems to help identify ways to better manage them for long-term sustainability. I may write more about these experiences and share photos from the trip as time allows.

By the end of my nearly two months there, we had finalized the text of the CBO’s first major document: the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy. This is our distillation of the current scientific understanding of urban ecosystems and biodiversity, and various ways cities can and are addressing the challenge of managing cities for sustainability. We synthesized insights and case-studies from the collective expertise of our 150-odd collaborators to produce a document that is intended to help ordinary citizens and urban planners, policy makers, and non-government practitioners grapple with the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization. As such, it is a relatively concise, well illustrated document written for non-expert readers – something for which my blogging had prepared me rather well, I realized. A more detailed Scientific Assessment, comprising of chapters covering different aspects of the urban ecological challenges, and detailed case-studies, written by the world’s leading experts in urban ecology, is currently being compiled and will be released sometime in spring 2013, as a print and an open-access e-book. Stay tuned for announcements about that.

Meanwhile, after spending a couple of weeks in Germany attending conferences, giving research talks, and catching up with some old friends, I wound up in India preparing for the official launch of the CBO at the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the CBD. The first public presentation of the CBO was a keynote talk by Thomas at the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Mumbai on 10 October 2012. Then we moved to Hyderabad where the CBO was formally launched at last on 15 October 2012, at the Cities for Life Summit organized as part of COP 11. Here is Thomas (in the middle with the CBD Executive Secretary Mr. Braulio F. de Souza Dias on his left) showing it to the media at the launch press conference:

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That was when I finally got to see our work in print – quite nice colorful print too – and was pleasantly surprised to find myself listed among the 10 lead authors of the CBO! I honestly hadn’t really paid attention to the authorship of this report because it had been such a rich community exercise. In addition, since COP 11 was in India, and a large contingent of government officials, biodiversity scientists, and NGOs from all over India were in attendance that day, we simultaneously released another document: Urbanization, ecosystems, and biodiversity: Assessments of India and Bangalore. A smaller group of us (primarily Harini Nagendra, Maria Schewenius, and I) wrote this during a frenzied few weeks – and through an insane flurry of emails – after the CBO: Action & Policy had gone to the printers. Our initial print run of a 1000 copies of both the documents was exhausted within the hour, with journalists at the press conference fighting for the last copies of the India Assessment! I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for such an enthusiastic reception – but it has certainly reenergized the team working on the Scientific Assessment to complete the overall CBO mission.

A few hours ago, I had the opportunity to present an overview of the CBO at the December 2012 meeting of the Central Valley Café Scientifique in Fresno, to a very interested local audience of science enthusiasts and concerned citizens. Here are the slides from my presentation (adapted from Thomas’ keynote talk in Mumbai):

[slideshare id=15479286&doc=cbo-valleycafesci-dec2012-121204021824-phpapp02]

I was once again surprised, and gratified, by the keen interest and sharp questions and comments from the audience in the vigorous discussion that followed. But I really shouldn’t be surprised – after all, we are all city dwellers, so who among us wouldn’t be interested in learning about the state of our own home ecosystem? I hope the key messages (the CBO has 10 of them) we worked so hard to craft over the summer in the Stockholm archipelago, will percolate and spread beyond last night’s immediate audience and start to reach those involved in the governance of Fresno and Clovis (and other cities). I am now hoping to meet the mayors of both cities so I can present them with copies of the CBO: Action and Policy.

We urban ecologists have done our best to put together this report – now we must ensure that our messages translate into real world action in cities worldwide if we are to contain some of the alarming trends of urbanization’s impacts, and create better habitats for ourselves and for other species on an urban planet. Let me leave you with that thought, and with some links for further reading and action:

Homegrown subversive plots to feed the hungry and save the world!

It is passing strange to think that growing your own food in your own garden can be considered a subversive act! How did we come to this state, especially in the developed world, but also many cities in the developed world, that we are so alienated from the food on our own tables? Roger Doiron (see his TEDx talk below), founder of Kitchen Gardens International is correct though, in asserting that in our current industrialized global food production system, growing your own fruits and vegetables in your yard or balcony garden has become a subversive act. Because in doing so, we can take back some of the power over our own foods and lives that we have ceded to multinational corporations who control most aspects of global food production now: the policies, the money, much of the land, and the means of food production.

It is remarkable that we have lost power over something so fundamental as the food we must consume daily to survive. It was a mere 10,000 years or so ago that we invented agriculture, a huge step in humanity’s gaining power and control over our foods, and therefore our lives, by freeing ourselves from the vagaries of nature. That initial revolution fueled much of the growth of civilization and has brought us to where we are now – heavily dependent upon the industrial food production and supply system, and often with very little control over the quality of what we can put on our plates or how it is produced, or at what environmental and social costs. Yet this is one area where it should not be too hard for most of us to take back some of this power, some of the means of production: by growing our own little subversive garden plots! Doiron explains how we can do this and what we stand to gain through this subversion:



Hard to think of a downside to this, isn’t it? We need not stop with just our own little gardens in the small bits of urban space we may control – we can, and must, also work collectively to subvert public spaces towards food production, converting vacant lots and even lawns in public parks into edible landscapes that can feed the thousands of urban dwellers who may not have the space or the means to grow their own gardens. The city of Irvine in southern California (yes, the city in conservative Orange County) has done just that: opened up some effectively vacant land to growing vegetables, which apparently feed up to 200,000 people! Here’s a video tour:


To put it in terms of the activist metaphor of the moment, gardening for food is an effective way to occupy the global food system, begin to wrest it back from the corporations (even though they still control it through the sales of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and all the other paraphernalia that goes with gardening) – while simultaneously improving our health and building community. In the process, we may even begin to help heal some of the wounds we have caused in natural ecosystems, and restore some parts of local biodiversity, as is being shown by recent work on the ecology of urban gardens.

So – how would you like a little healthy homegrown subversion on your dinner plate? Give me a double helping, please!

Don’t Drink the Water… for this too is California


This is not a scenario from some generic developing third world banana republic where environmental regulation is lax and the government/economy is weak and there is simply no wherewithal to provide safe drinking water to the public.

This is here in the central valley of California. In some of the richest most productive agricultural areas of the world, home to some of the world’s richest farmers (or agriculture corporations), in an American state whose economy rivals some of the richest nations in the world.

This is not the third world. Or is it?

While the US is plunging towards third-world-dom, lead by a priceless bunch of narrow-minded rightwing (that includes both political parties) “leaders”, the central valley of California has probably always had an air of the third world about it. My own first inklings of the economic disparities and deprivations hidden underneath America’s shiny global facade came from reading Steinbeck’s epic “Grapes of Wrath”, much of which is set right here in the valley. That book, along with “East of Eden” (both of which I devoured while in college in Bombay) also gave me my first new mental images of California that diverged from the more romantic ones perpetuated through Hollywood’s glamour on the one hand, and Ansel Adams’ Yosemite landscapes on the other. Here in this valley, sandwiched between those two more picturesque, salubrious California dreamlands, lies a third world that tells many a different tale: of massive land transformation and farm-worker exploitation; of green revolutions and pesticides; of laser-leveled land crisscrossed by massive canals and shrinking aquifers; of dried up prehistoric swamps and over-irrigated farmland abandoned to leaching selenium; of Steinbeck’s Okies and today’s illegal aliens; of big agribusiness and industrial animal farms; of sprawling suburbs and highways; of endangered species and disappearing ecosystems; of exotic invasive species (the other “illegal aliens”) and designer GMOs; of weed and meth and gangs and prisons; of vineyards and fruit orchards and nut farms overflowing with riches; of migrant farmworkers dying of dehydration and schools where feeding the malnourished children must take precedence over any “education”; of some of the nation’s foulest air and dirtiest water. This too is California.

That last item on litany above, Water, is the subject of a special investigative series by Mark Grossi, currently being published by the Fresno Bee under the headline “Don’t Drink the Water”! Now that’s a standard warning I’m is used to hearing when talking about travel to India or Mexico, or other developing countries. The Bee is telling us local residents here in this rich, poor, messed up valley: Don’t Drink the Water! At least read the special report first, and find out what cocktail may be flowing out of your faucet.

Don’t Drink the Water!

Welcome to California. This is indeed the third world within the first.

To be a bird, oh to keep on singing, in a noisy urbanizing world

Wcsp-fenceAmong the many ways we are transforming the planet and its habitats for other species, one that is only now receiving some attention is that os sensory pollution. This is when we pollute the environment in such ways as to interfere with the sensory perception and communication systems of animals – i.e., dull their senses in potentially important ways. While much attention has been paid—and justly so, ever since Rachel Carson’s clarion call—to the wide variety of chemical pollutants we’ve  introduced into habitats all over the world, we haven’t really paid much attention to the sensory effluvia that come in the wake of modern civilization. Two common ways we mess up the sensory systems of animals are by interfering with the visual and auditory channels of communication: e.g., increasing turbidity in water makes it difficult for fish to see and communicate with each other using visual signals (color patterns, changes to and movements thereof); increasing noise from our cacophonous machinery on land and in water makes it difficult for animals to talk to each other. We are a flashy, noisy, brash, uncouth, species indeed! No consideration for the sensibilities of our planet-mates.

Hofi-blogBut that may be changing. Sensory pollution is getting increasing attention from biologists in recent years, as exemplified by a symposium on the topic at Behavior 2011, the joint meeting of the Animal Behavior Society and the International Ethological Conference, being held at Indiana University this week. I wish I had been able to attend, especially for this symposium, because I’ve been thinking about and trying to study the effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior for some years now. Although I couldn’t travel to the meeting, I’m happy that my lab was well represented – see below!

After co-authoring the first comprehensive review of urban bioacoustics (i.e., the study of how animals use sound; in cities), then moving to Fresno with this job, actually measuring the effects in wild birds, and testing some of the theoretical ideas outlined in our review was one of my first priorities. Easier said than done, though – especially for a naive faculty member coming to grips with the nature of teaching and the student body at an institution like CSU-Fresno! Between my increasingly heavy and chaotic teaching load, and several unreliable graduate students, it became rather a stop-start project – more stop than start for several years. That all changed a year ago, however, when two eager new graduate students entered my lab, already interested in birdsong and very keen to tackle the subject of urban noise. Over the past year, Jenny Phillips and Pedro Garcia have been studying the effects of noise on the songs of two species (seen above) that occur in urban and rural areas around here: the White-crowned Sparrow, winter visitor to the valley from northern breeding grounds, and the House Finch, year round resident in these parts. An interesting opportunity to compare what noise pollution does to the songs and singing behavior of two rather different species: one migratory, the other sedentary, one singing to claim territory and warn competitors, the other warbling in the spring to attract mates!
Today, Jenny and Pedro presented the first results from their research as a poster at Behavior 2011. Having helped them analyze their data and design the poster over the past few days, I’ve been something of an anxious parent this week, wondering how they are doing out there on their own, even as I followed the #behav11 hashtag on twitter to see what I was missing! A short while ago, a tweet (of course) informed me that “…they did a gr8 job!!” Phew! Not that I expected anything less…

If you, like me, missed the whole meeting, allow me to share their poster here, starting with this abstract:


Jenny Phillips, Pedro Garcia, Lauryn Moles & Madhusudan Katti 
California State University, Fresno, United States

Many animal species are dependent upon vocal communication to mate and defend territories. Selection will favor individuals that produce vocalizations that transmit best in their environments. The sensory drive concept suggests that environmental conditions, such as ambient sound, will influence the evolution of vocal behavior. Thus, background noise levels may have a profound effect on communication. We study how urban noise affects the cultural evolution of birdsong in two species: the migratory white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) and the sedentary house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). These two species are ideal study organisms because they each have one song type, are territorial, and are easy to identify. We recorded songs and ambient noise concurrently across the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA) and in outlying rural areas for comparative analysis of acoustic properties, in particular the frequency and temporal structure of songs. Because song influences fitness via phenotypic and genotypic mate quality, understanding how song changes in an urban environment may allow us to predict species adaptability in a changing world.

And here is the full poster – leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this ongoing study:

Phillips_et_al-ABS2011-Poster.pdf Download this file

Water: a critical source of sustenance and existential angst for cities everywhere


I found the above video via my friend (and once-and-future collaborator) David Lewis’ Facebook page, after realizing that he was among the initial recipients of an ULTRA-Exploratory award. More interestingly, his team is also studying questions about urban water use (like us), but in a very different regional context than Fresno-Clovis, as you can see above!

I found this video shortly after a stimulating skype chat with George Hess, at NCSU, who as PI of the Triangle ULTRA project has set up the OpenULTRA wiki to begin some meta-networking across the nascent ULTRA sites. I sure hope fellow scientists at all the other sites are also open to joining the wiki and opening up our research to share ideas and findings with each other, and with the public whose ecologies we are studying.

The Triangle ULTRA is also focused on questions of water use and equity in water distribution – but at a broader institutional level than our individual homeowner focus. And, given that the Triangle refers to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle Region of mega urban sprawl in North Carolina, they’re dealing with a much larger set of institutions (govt. bodies) than we are in Fresno-Clovis.

So, from what I know, at least 3 of the 19 (?? that we know of?) ULTRA projects are focusing on water issues! I look forward to collaborating with these folks across sites, and being able to make some interesting comparisions in the near future as our projects proceed along parallel paths. And I will continue to share what I can here on this blog too.

Cool, eh?!

Map your yard’s ecology, socially, the citizen science way!

Coming Fall 2010: an interactive citizen science project that allows you to map your yards and other greenspaces, like parks and community gardens, and share valuable habitat data with Lab of Ornithology scientists.

I just learnt about this upcoming project via @Team_eBird‘s twitter feed earlier today, where they were soliciting feedback on features in preparation for the upcoming beta release of the new YardMap project from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, which has become the hub for so many good citizen science projects run on a national scale throughout the US. As you may know, from having read my research or visiting this blog before, I am passionate about citizen science because I see it as a win-win for the citizenry and science. Citizens can really help expand the scope and amount of data available to science, especially ecological science, immensely through well designed citizen science projects. This is particularly valuable for scientists like me at non-research-dominant (R01) institutions where we lack the resources and/or time to gather much data ourselves even though there are many important questions we need to and can address on local/regional/global problems. Case in point, the Fresno Bird Count is now at the core of my lab’s urban ecology research program, and has already produced one Masters thesis (with at least two more on their way), numerous scientific/public presentations, and, hopefully soon, a peer-reviewed paper or two. Meanwhile, the other win can come from engaging ordinary citizens in conducting hands-on science in their own daily lives in ways that might help alleviate some of the anxieties about and suspicions towards science in this age of unreason that seems to be pervading us, especially here in America. Care to join me, and others like my colleagues at the Lab of O, in this effort?

So how does YardMap fit into the growing landscape of citizen science projects? Well, it looks like a pretty exciting project combining interactive online maps and social networking in a neat looking package that might tap into (one can only hope) whatever latent biophilia underlies the immense popularity of games like Farmville on Facebook. Here’s a preview:

If that intrigues you, and especially if you are a birder and/or gardener, consider giving your input to the Lab of O as they finalize the design for YardMap. Start with this online survey, which should take no more than 15 minutes of your time, and also gives you the opportunity to join the beta-test of the site in a few months.

I look forward to sharing my YardMap with you and hope you will let me peek over the hedge into yours…

How the wealth of your neighborhood and the water in your yard affect bird diversity

I wrote the following essay summarizing some early conclusions from the Fresno Bird Count for the April issue of the Yellowbill, the newsletter of Fresno Audubon. My student Brad Schleder presented some of these results as part of his masters thesis exit seminar earlier this week, and we also had a poster at the College of Science & Mathematics research poster symposium earlier today. So I thought I should also share this essay with you here:

The American West faces a water crisis. Drought, urban growth, climate change and the continued demands of agriculture have combined to heighten the competition among water users. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, court-ordered water diversions under the Endangered Species Act have radically decreased water deliveries to many Valley farmers. A recent settlement providing for the restoration of the San Joaquin River and ongoing drought (in a region subject to repeated cycles of drought) have only exacerbated public debate about water and spurred the search for ways to conserve it. Valley farmers are experimenting with dry land farming methods, while valley cities are seeking ways to reduce urban water use. In the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area, the City of Clovis already meters water use (but has relatively low water rates) and the City of Fresno will start metering water in 2013. How does our use of water (amount and method of use) affect other species such as birds that also occupy our urban landscapes? What can we do to improve the environment for ourselves and for sustaining biodiversity in the long run?

The Fresno Bird Count (FBC, was established by my laboratory at Fresno State in spring 2008 to begin long-term monitoring of bird species in the Fresno-Clovis metro area in part to address such questions about human actions and their effects on biodiversity. The FBC was modeled after the Tucson Bird Count which is now in its 10th year, as a citizen science project where volunteer birders from the community collaborate to gather data on bird distribution and abundance using statistically rigorous sampling and standardized census methodologies. As in Tucson, our volunteers count all the birds they can detect while standing at pre-determined fixed locations for 5 minutes each (i.e., a 5-min point count; see the FBC website for details of the protocol). Each point is a randomly selected location within a 1 km X 1 km square cell that is part of a 460 square kilometer (approx. 178 square miles) grid covering most of Fresno-Clovis and some outlying areas. In the first two years of the FBC, we have managed to survey about 180-200 of these points, and are seeking more volunteers to expand our coverage, because the more finely we can cover the highly variable urban landscape, the better our understanding of just what constitutes habitat for birds in the city and how various bird species use the spaces and resources we leave for them.

The FBC started with two broad goals: to keep track of how many birds of which species occur in the area and how their numbers change under ongoing urban growth; and, to provide basic bird data for more detailed studies focused on the connections between what we do in the urban environment and how birds respond to resulting changes in habitats. The first of such studies has just been completed by my graduate student and FBC coordinator Brad Schleder in the form of a Masters thesis. Brad focused on how we water our lawns and yards, and how the resulting residential landscapes attract different kinds of birds. After spending much of last summer driving around the city to various bird count locations to measure aspects of the habitat such as the number of trees, canopy cover, amount and height of grass, and degree of watering, Brad found some interesting patterns that may give pause even to some long-term birdwatchers living in the area. Of course, it may not surprise you to learn that we find more species of birds towards the north and north-west, in a slight trend of increasing diversity as we approach the river. On the other hand, would you have guessed that bird diversity is a good indicator of the wealth of a neighborhood? That indeed seems to be the case: more species of birds are found in wealthier neighborhoods than in poorer ones, and this is a pattern I’ve also found in Phoenix, Arizona! The reason here may have something to do with how people water their household landscapes. Brad found that poorer neighborhoods don’t water their yards quite as much as wealthier ones. This surprised us because, without metering, the cost of water is not a constraint for residents in Fresno – yet we already see a pattern predicted to occur as a result of metering! Perhaps the direct cost of water is not the only thing affecting the habitat in poorer neighborhoods; rather, landscaping one’s yard and maintaining it regularly is a costly enterprise regardless of how much water costs. If anything, the metering of water (if coupled with a rate structure designed to encourage water conservation) will only add to the burden and exacerbate the contrast in landscapes between rich and poor parts of the city! And the birds will likely notice the changes in the urban landscape and respond by changing their residential address too.

These first results from the FBC support a conclusion that is emerging from similar studies in other cities throughout the US: that biodiversity in cities is unevenly distributed, and tends to favor the rich. In other words, in addition to economic hardship, the poor also face an environmental injustice because birds (and other wildlife) will also flock preferentially to the richer neighborhoods where they may find more diverse landscaped yards with plenty of water and food. That may not be good news for Fresno and other valley cities facing tough economic challenges right now, with high levels of unemployment and rising poverty. Yet, there is also an opportunity here for city planners and developers to rethink the pattern of urban growth and plan for amenities such as more public parks and roadside landscaping that will support more biodiversity and provide greater access to nature for those who may need it the most in these troubled times.
Published in the April issue of the Yellowbill.