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Nature and Art and Birds at Hopkins

March 16, 2017


I’ve written before about the healing powers of nature, and even where we can find nature and representations of nature in hospitals. I’ve been wandering around Johns Hopkins in Baltimore lately, looking at their amazing art collection (I love that this is a “thing” in many hospitals). One day I came across a long hallway with 26 framed photos of a water garden:


Each of them had a different smudge of paint on the mat, and the same color board on the bridge. At the end of the hallway was a description of what was going on. The water garden was, of course, Giverny, where Monet painted many of his most famous works. The artist in this case was Spencer Finch, who helped to design some of the exterior of the hospital using this color scheme. As the statement read:

…Finch distilled 26 shades of blue, green, purple, yellow and gray from the palette of the famous French Impressionist painter… Each of the 26 photographs documents a panel painted with one of the artist’s colors, poised on Monet’s footbridge and reflected in the lily pond. Finch’s paint brush and pencil notations below each photograph record the particular color as well as its descriptive name.

These colors are then replicated on the outside of the building (see above and here):

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Finch’s ‘alphabet’ of 26 colors can be found on the building’s reflective exterior, painted on aluminum panels and encased in glass shadowboxes… Along the eastern side of the building, on Wolfe Street, one can find Finch’s entire color spectrum, arranged as they are here, alphabetically by the name of the color.

More of Finch’s work can be found on many of the windows in that part of the hospital, including glass walkways.

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Recalling Money’s brushstrokes and the rippling of water, Finch developed a unique ‘frit’ pattern for the building’s glass. A two-layer composition, his hand-drawn strokes are fused onto the building’s glass curtain wall, reflecting and refracting light and shadows.

A benefit of this is that the glass becomes safer for birds! Birds can see the design, so are less likely to crash into the structure as they can’t see glass. A friend of mine who’s an architect well-versed in bird-friendly design said that the pattern would ideally be a little closer together, but that the design is still likely effective. I think it’s a great example of art meeting conservation biology, with the added bonus that this design is rather soothing to look at — in keeping with the idea that nature and representations of nature are healing to people.


If you’re interested in bird-friendly glass, check out this article from Nat Geo and this two-parter from NPR.


A wood thrush (the official bird of Washington, D.C.!), a species that has been found to collide with windows. (c) Cheep Shot, 2013, via WikiMedia Commons







Odds and Ends: March 11 2017

March 11, 2017

A couple of interesting articles today. First, Carl Abbott of Portland State University discusses the myth that DC was built on a swamp (it was not) in The Conversation.

Second, Vox interviews Patrick Gonzalez of NPS and UC-Berkeley about how the trend of DC’s cherry blossoms blooming earlier and earlier is a sign of climate change.


Species, Part Two

March 6, 2017

In the last post we discussed how to define the concept of species, how to determine whether an animal is one species or another, and how to define what constitutes a new species. In this post we’re going to focus on people, as conservation is often more about managing people than managing wildlife.

A few years ago I helped with some research that looked at the influence of species’ common names on support for the conservation of that species. It turns out (perhaps not surprisingly) that more negative-associated names garnered less support for conservation than more positive-associated names. We tested both real and fictional names in order to manipulate their connotations, but also measured which real names were seen positively and which were seen negatively. For example, the name that had the most support for conservation was the bald eagle, while the fictitious sheep-eating eagle had the least support for conservation.

Particularly interesting to me, and relevant to urban biodiversity, we included several names for coyotes. Of those, the American song dog (the word coyote actually comes from a word that means song dog) and the Great Plains wild dog generated the most support for conservation, while the coydog, coyote, Eastern coywolf (a name used by some researchers), and Eastern coyote (my preferred name for coyotes found on the east coast) beat out only the aforementioned sheep-eating eagle for species generating the least support for conservation.

The point is that apparently a song dog by any other name would not smell as sweet. Those of us who are concerned with biodiversity conservation would do well to remember the power of names while working with the public and policy-makers!

Karaffa, Paul T., Draheim, M.M., and Parsons, E.C.M. 2012. What’s in a name? Do species’ names impact student support for conservation? Human Dimensions of Wildlife. 17:4, 308-310.

Coyote Portrait

Coyote, (c) Matt Knoth via Wikimedia Commons


Species, Part One

February 25, 2017

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Darwin’s Finches, courtesy of Welcome Images

In the next few posts we’ll be discussing the concept of species and why that’s important to urban biodiversity conservation. I think a common conception of conservation work is that it’s all about protecting species, but that isn’t quite right. Conservation projects actually target three levels of diversity: species, yes, but also genetic and ecosystem diversity. However, being humans, we’re attracted to things we can relate to, and most of us can relate better to organisms than to genes (and even more so to individuals), and perhaps this is why there is so much focus on species.

Many people remember the definition of a species that they learned in high school biology: members of a species can interbreed with each other and produce viable (i.e., alive and non-sterile) offspring. This is what’s commonly termed the biological definition of a species. But the concept of a species is actually quite slippery – and that’s not even going into the differences between a species and a subspecies (deciding whether two populations are different enough from each other to belong to different species, or just different enough to belong to separate subspecies of the same species, can be quite the debate).

Canids provide a good example of why the biological definition of a species can be problematic. No one would argue that a wolf is not a dog, which is not a coyote, but all three can interbreed and produce viable offspring.

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Thomas Brown, 1829. In the Public Domain.

So, how else might we go about defining the concept? Traditionally, the morphology of animals was considered, with like grouped with like. This was done by looking at the color of specimens, taking measurements of various body parts (skulls, other bones, wingspan, and so on), body parts, and other physical components of organisms that can be measured and quantified. Statistical tests were then done to look at how these measurements could be best grouped together. If a bunch of specimens best group together into two groups and not only one, the theory goes, then you’re looking at two separate species.

These days we can also look at this from the molecular level, through genetic analysis of a specimen (or, rather, of a very small piece of a specimen – hair and scat can be used for non-invasive testing). In some ways this is similar to looking at the morphology of a specimen – you’re basically counting genes and seeing how many differences there are between one specimen and the other. That’s of course an over-simplification of both the process and the analysis, but for the purposes of our discussion, we’ll leave it at that.

On a tangent, I highly recommend a book that came out last year, The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish, by Emily Voigt. The book isn’t entirely relevant to the urban wildlife world (and yet is entirely relevant in some ways), but it does a great job of discussing the slipperiness of the species concept and the benefits and drawbacks of using a molecular definition.

More on species to come!


First Winter Weather!

December 17, 2016

Our first wintery-weather hit us last night. Not much — just a bit of ice — but enough to make us want to stay at home with some hot chocolate! It’s already starting to warm up, so the ice is not long for this world. 


Nature Helping Us Heal

December 1, 2016

Last week we had an unanticipated trip to the ER. While we were waiting for the doctor they pulled a curtain around us, and lo and behold it was covered in botanical prints! My husband pointed out that this might make for a good blog post, and it is a good example of using nature (or in this case representations of nature) in an effort to provide comfort in some way.

There was a landmark study in the 1980’s by Roger S. Ulrich that looked at recovery times for surgical patients. One group had rooms with views of trees and the other views of a brick wall.  Turns out the patients with the views of trees statistically had shorter hospital stays, and took fewer doses of narcotics for pain management, among other measurements of surgical recovery. So it makes sense that incorporating nature, or even representations of nature, in medical settings can be beneficial to all.

Ulrich, R.S. 1984 View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science 224: 420.


Letter to Students re: Election

November 14, 2016

This is what I sent my master’s students a couple of days after the election. I thought long and hard about what to say, and read a few other letters to students for some inspiration (including this great one from Josh Drew’s lab at Columbia University). I did think it was important to say something, though, since no matter who they voted for, given that they are in a masters of natural resource management program, my assumption is that environmental policy is meaningful to them. Given what the next administration is likely to do on that front, I think it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work no matter what other political beliefs you hold.

The only thing I wish I had added was a note that everyone is is always welcome in my classroom, virtual or otherwise. Because that’s the truth.

I’ve thought long and hard about what to say to you about this week, and, in fact, whether or not to say anything. However, this is a course on the conservation of biodiversity, and (most of you) are in a natural resource management program. And a large part of that, whether or not it’s something you want to work on directly, is environmental policy.

No matter who you voted for on Tuesday, or why, it’s clear that in the coming months and years we’ll be facing enormous challenges in our field, both nationally and internationally. I know that you are all up for the challenge, and that you will do great work, on whatever scale and scope you are able and willing to.

The work we do is important, perhaps more so now than ever. Our climate is changing; we are losing vital natural resources; our natural world is becoming impoverished in many ways; people who have less influence and who are disadvantaged both locally and globally have less ability to both combat these issues and survive them; and we are facing an anti-science crisis in this country, where many not only do not believe scientists, but think that we are purposefully attempting to mislead the public.

These are challenges we all must face, no matter our own personal circumstances. We might think that we’ll be insulated from the effects of climate change, or the loss of species in far-away parts of the world, for example, but in fact it is our job as people with the resources to make a difference to exercise that ability. I’ve had some energizing conversations with colleagues since the election, and I believe that there will be an ever-increasing number of ways to create change, so there will be something for everyone.

No matter your political beliefs, as members of this academic community I assume that these issues are of importance to you. I think it’s easy for some of us to despair when we think about what lies ahead, while others of us may look to the future with optimism. But I urge you all to dig deep and find it in yourself to rise to the challenges ahead. After getting to know you all during our discussions this semester, I know you can. I’m proud to be your professor.

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