Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

“Science: A Candle in the Dark” podcast on Urban Ecology

Posted 18 Feb 2016 / 0

2016-02-18b.jpgIn my search for good podcasts on urban ecology I ran into a real gem in Madhusudan Katti‘s Science: A Candle in the Dark. The podcast is an accompaniment to a science café series that happens monthly in Fresno, California. I love the idea of a science café as a hub of public-academic interaction and a place to create community around common concerns. It seems like Fresno is lucky to have this tradition going. Dr. Katti is an ornithologist and urban ecologist with diverse interests, including how to reconcile human environments with the need to conserve biodiversity. I checked out two of his episodes with strong connections to urban ecology: one called Birds in the City and the other called Urban Ecology.

The Birds in the City episode features an interview with Pedro Garcia, a former student of Dr. Katti’s who now works on citizen science projects aimed at quantifying the patterns and causes of urban bird diversity. Garcia had a really interesting story about how he got into birding and urban ecology as a young boy just by joining a crowd of people gawking at a raptor. His story illustrates how important urban wildlife can be as a bridge to caring for global biodiversity. Garcia talked about some interesting research into how birds adjust the frequency spectrum of their songs in order to deal with the background noise created by urban environments. He and Katti also discussed the “luxury effect” in urban ecosystems, a phenomenon that leads to higher overall biodiversity in more affluent neighborhoods.

Katti’s Urban Ecology episode was a summer dispatch from a science meeting in Chicago, which put him in the position to talk to a diversity of scientists working in different regions. Emily Minor from Chicago and Kaberi Kar Gupta of Fresno compared notes on the nature of urban biodiversity, particularly of bees and birds. Interestingly, the landscaping choices of citizens have a big impact on biodiversity, and in some places more people can translate to more flowering plants which can increase bee diversity. Gupta compared a sprawled city like her hometown of Fresno to Minor’s more-dense Chicago, and the two came to the counter-intuitive conclusion that larger yards not only have more lawn, they tend to have a greater proportion of lawn. Apparently if you give people a big space they tend to think “immense lawn” but if you give them a smaller yard they are more likely to put in other plantings. This is consistent with what I see in Brooklyn: if people have any yard at all, it is almost never planted with grass. In this episode and the birds episode it also became evident that the cheap availability of water has a big impact on how people choose to plant their yards; obviously this is mostly an issue in drought-prone areas such as California.

The Urban Ecology episode also featured a brief interview with John Marzluff, who studies birds and has written a cleverly-titled book called Welcome to Subirdia. Marzluff had some interesting things to say about the role of suburbs as corridors for birds, including movement of birds into more urban areas. He talked about how flying gives birds a big dispersal advantage and — given the right suburban landscape — can allow birds to thrive in human-dominated environments. Echoing ideas voiced by Garcia in the Birds episode, Marzluff suggested that assuring an appreciation of urban-tolerant species is a gateway to getting people to care enough to reserve truly wild spaces for species that are not so tolerant of human activities.

And to add to the value of the Urban Ecology episode, there was a short tutorial provided by Kim Eierman (as interviewed by Stephanie Slonka) on how to maximize the biodiversity value of one’s home landscape. Eierman emphasized how a change our yard aesthetics can have big benefits for urban species.

Candle image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A Minor Post, Biodiversity Loss, Birds, Citizen Science, Conservation Biology, Habitat Destruction, Habitat Fragmentation, Public Outreach, Public Policy, Radio & Podcasts, Urban Ecology, Urban Planning

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