Thursday, February 26, 2009

Green Tech Review: Will the Kindle Save Trees?

Note: As a book fanatic, I've been somewhat ambivalent about devices like the Kindle. But my collegue and fellow bibliophile Megan Grover makes a strong case that the Kindle has some very real benefits for the environment. Megan will now be blogging at Idaho Nature Notes on green technology and green living.--Matt Miller

Will Amazon’s newest Kindle have readers seeing green?

Later this month, Amazon will be shipping out the next generation of its portable wireless reading device, the Kindle 2.0.

This updated version will provide a sleeker design, improved display and a battery with 25% more life. Like its predecessor, the Kindle 2 allows you to wirelessly download books and periodicals in less than 60 seconds using a cellular network, so no searching for a WiFi hotspot.

Even more impressive, weighing in at less than 11 ounces, this handheld gadget is able to store an incredible 1,500 books on the memory card that comes standard. Unlike most e-readers that use a backlight similar to a computer screen, the Kindle’s electronic ink technology reads just like real paper and doesn’t strain your eyes. Other irresistible features include a built-in dictionary, a highlighter to mark your favorite passage, and a feature that allows you to dog-ear a page.

While dedicated bibliophiles may not be convinced by the Kindle’s technological prowess, its green implications might be more persuasive.

According to the report Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the U.S. Book Industry prepared by the Green Press Initiative, the creation and distribution of a conventional book releases up to 8.85 pounds of greenhouse gases.

For an industry that produces over 14 billion books a year that equates to approximately 12.4 million metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

With the use of recycled paper in the production of books at only 5%-10%, it takes more than 30 million trees to produce the virgin paper used for the books sold in the U.S. annually.

Amazon anticipates the average Kindle reader will download between 10 to 15 books a year. With 750,000 Kindles expected to be in circulation by 2009 U.S. book production would be reduced by 11,250,000. That is a reduction of 45,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Anticipated sales for 2010 put 2.2 million units into circulation. That is a reduction of 33 million books produced annually.

The Kindle also shines as an electricity miser. The electronic ink system doesn’t require power to maintain the screen; it is only required to change the display. Reading power is measured in page turns instead of operating time. With the wireless turned off, you can literally read for days or weeks on a four hour charge.

Although the Kindle doesn’t look to be threatening the existence of your local library or bookstore, its future looks bright – or at least green. But beyond this green potential, you will find a device that will change the way you read. With over 240,000 books, magazines, and newspapers at your fingertips you won’t ever catch yourself thinking "I wish I had something to read" again. --Megan Grover

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pack Rats

Thump, thump, thump, thump: Throughout the night on Saturday, I was awakened by the sound of a critter running around the walls and ceilings. I was staying at a cabin in the Boise National Forest near Lowman, and it was easy to figure out the culprit: the bushy-tailed woodrat.

Woodrats are more commonly known as pack rats, and while they're quite common, you might not know they're around until one wakes you up in a forest cabin.

Pack rats figure prominently in Western lore. Prospectors found out the pack rat's love of shiny object the hard way, as gold nuggets, coins and belt buckles disappeared. The pack rat reportedly will drop food for the chance to gather shiny objects--what biologists call "trading."

Pack rats don't hibernate. They store enough food in caches to get them through the winter.

They also collect debris into large piles called middens. The middens serve nests to protect them from predators. They can be used by generation after generation of wood rat--becoming as high as ten feet tall.

Pack rat urinate on their middens; in a protected area, this urine solidifies over time, becoming hard and crystallized. As such, they can remain preserved for 40,000 years or longer.

Due to the pack rat's collecting habits, it's hard to predict what might turn up in a midden. Some sources report items like diamond rings, guns and even a human skull.

More importantly, ancient middens of tremendous value for paleontolists, climatologists and conservationists. Researchers can determine how plant composition of an area has changed over time. The presence of animal bones and dung can help determine population densities of Pleistocene fauna. As such, they can help track climate change, species declines and extinctions and long-term habitat trends. --Matt Miller

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Non-Native Birds at the Feeder

Photos courtesy of Tom Grey of Tom Grey's Bird Photos.

Looking at results from this year's Great Backyard Bird Count, it's easy to see that some of the most reported birds are non-native species. In Idaho, chances are that a number of non-native species could make an appearance in your backyard, including house sparrow (above), starling, house finch, California quail, rock dove and others.

What does this mean for bird conservation? What impacts are these birds having on native species? Should we be concerned? Should we be doing something?

In some cases, like the house sparrow and the Eurasian starling (above), these birds clearly have a negative impact on native species. Starlings were introduced to New York City's Central Park in 1890 as part of a horribly conceived effort to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works to North America. The starlings quickly spread across the continent and now number some 200 million here. Oddly enough, they are in long-term decline in their native Europe.

But are all non-native species bad? Some conservationists believe so. But the reality is more complex. Some species may be merely filling habitats created by humans. Suburban and urban environments are not suitable for many birds. Is it a bad thing that non-native species have filled the void?
House finches (above) are not native to Idaho. They thrive in backyards. Periodically, an eye disease reduces their numbers. Are they really a problem, or just a new addition to Idaho's bird life?

At least one study has reported that, in most instances, non-native species do not reduce overall biodiversity.

Conservancy biologist Erik Meijaard reports that in Indonesia, despite a tremendous diversity of birds, very few exist around homes--probably because they are not adapted to do so. Is it really worse to have non-native birds in human-altered environments than none at all?

Species move around, with or without humans. Is the fact that they were moved by humans always bad, or just another evolutionary adaptation? Issues around non-native species need more study and thought.

I like watching the California quail that scurry around Boise. They are one of a list of species introduced to Idaho for hunting purposes: chukar, gray partridge, turkey, ring-necked pheasant. One wonders why they were brought here, given that Idaho has so many native species.

On the flip side, these non-natives sometimes live in places where native game birds fare poorly. Pheasants live in farm fields; quail inhabit cities; chukars thrive on cheatgrass.

But that doesn't mean we should introduce more game birds. Certainly in some instances such introductions have been disastrous, particularly in the case of fish. Lake trout illegally thrown into Lake Yellowstone are gobbling up the native cutthroat trout, a horrible loss. Feral pigs released for hunting purposes have become a major nuisance. Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and not intentionally introduce more animals--there will be plenty enough unintentional introductions.

The Eurasian collared dove( above) population stems from escaped domestic birds. Bird counters noted 9 birds in 2006, 56 in 2007, 83 in 2008 and 311 in 2009. This bears watching. Maybe hunters should be encouraged to take these birds now, to keep populations managed before they become a problem.

Non-native birds are here to stay. Why do some spread and others survive in low numbers? What species are at risk of becoming harmful, and what species actually add to our native diversity? Questions like these don't have easy answers. But hopefully citizen-conservationist projects like the Great Backyard Bird Count can help us better understand our birds, both native and non-native.--Matt Miller

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

The Great Backyard Bird Count, held last weekend, helps researchers determine long-term trends in bird populations by having thousands of people across the country record what birds they are seeing.

Together, it can help determine bird population trends.

I think it can also help people appreciate the surprising wildlife that can be found right in their backyards.

Yesterday, I joined 63,000 other bird counters and sat quietly in my own backyards, city parks and open spaces.

I didn't see any rare species. I saw 8 species, most of them birds I regularly see around the yard--house finches, American goldfinches, robins, juncos, valley quail, house sparrows, mourning dove and a Coopers hawk.

But I did have a surprising experience.

At one point I was amazed to count 66 American goldfinches were at our feeders.

I was more amazed when two of those goldfinches landed on my head. They fluttered and pecked around up there for about a minute, and then flew to a feeder. I've never had a bird mistake me for a roost before.

You never know what wildlife experiences are out there. The backyard bird count is over for the year, but make it a point to sit quietly out in nature--even if it is just in your backyard or a local vacant lot. --Matt Miller

Monday, February 09, 2009

East Idaho Wolverine

Photos courtesy Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Wolverines are one of the most secretive animals of Idaho; little is known about their numbers or travels. Known as an animal of the wilderness, they nonetheless ocassionally turn up in some unexpected places.

That's the case for this wolverine, which was caught by a recreational trapper in the Menan Hills, just north of Idaho Falls. Fortunately, the trapper called the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to rescue the animal.

As reported by IDFG: "Wolverines are a protected nongame species, and thanks to a modern foothold trap, the animal could be sedated and removed without incident. It was then whisked by Aber to the Driggs Veterinary Clinic, vets who have helped with wolverine research in the past. After a thorough checkup, doctors implanted an internal radio transmitter in the young male wolverine to allow wildlife biologists to track his movements."

The wolverine was released in more suitable habitat.

Wolverines have large home ranges. Instances like this highlight the need for large, wild landscapes where they (and lynx, grizzlies, fishers and others) have room to roam.

Another wolverine was recently documented by a camera trap in the Boise National Forest. Perhaps with technology like camera traps and radio transmitters, biologists will learn more about wolverine habits. But due to their secretive nature, many aspects of a wolverine's life history will remain a mystery.

Most of us will never see a wild wolverine. But Idaho's wild country seems a bit more, well, wild knowing that this fascinating creature is out there. --Matt Miller

Friday, February 06, 2009

Yips and Howls

Coyotes are vocal animals, and never more so than this time of year. It's their mating season, and at night the canyons and valleys echo with their yips, barks, howls and yelps.

Howling appears to serve a variety of purposes for coyotoes. A pack of coyotes will howl to inform other coyotes of their territorial boundaries, thus minimizing the risks of fighting.

At this time of year, a male coyote howls to let other males know to stay away, while inviting females into his territory.

You can hear coyotes on nearly any Nature Conservancy preserve in Idaho, and for that matter, nearly any open space with a little cover. They're incredibly adaptable animals and have actually increased their range as the North American continent was developed.

They thrive close to humanity--I hear them frequently along the Boise River Greenbelt--but they are most active at night to avoid people. Let's keep it that way. Feeding coyotes and acclimating them to humans only leads to trouble, as evidenced by recent coyote attacks on humans in Colorado and California.

So listen from afar, and enjoy the winter chorus of one of our most vocal animals. --Matt Miller

Photo by photo by Christopher Bruno on Wikipedia -published under terms of the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license versions 2.5

Monday, February 02, 2009

Idaho Round-Up

Conservation news and stories from around the state (and beyond).

From Idaho to Colombia: Journey with Idaho Nature Notes editor Matt Miller to a ranch called hope, where landowners are shaping a new future after decades of violence. (Colombian round-up pictured above).

Be Outside!: A new effort launced by First Lady Lori Otter aims to get more get kids outside.

Elk Alert: Motorists should be aware of elk on I-84. And check out our tips for lending wildlife a "helping hoof" this winter.

The High Value of Wildlife: The Idaho Statesman's Roger Phillips reflects on why wildlife makes our state such a special place.

Keep Farms as Farms, Not Houses: The Idaho Working Lands Coalition's new web site tells how you can protect working farms, ranches and forests.

New Conservation Blog: The Nature Conservancy now has a national blog, Cool Green Science. Read the daily opinions and essays by 15 Conservancy writers and scientists.