SciSun: Riding the Rails   Leave a comment

One day, the future world will be to us an unfamiliar and foreign place. This may appear to be a dramatic statement, for a relatively un-dramatic truth: Trains and automobiles were viewed as deafening, noxious contraptions to those who depended upon horses; space flight, or even international air travel, was new and mysterious only seventy years ago (we’re still waiting on those personal jetpacks and flying cars we were promised); and our always-connected, smart-phone, data-driven lifestyle can be misunderstood and confusing by the separation of only a generation or two. Yet, humanity, history indicates, adapts and changes as the future dictates. But does wildlife, with whom we share the world, possess the same ability to ‘change with the times’ – or will we, in our rush for the new and the different and the improved, create a world where’s there no longer room for nature?

The California Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), isn’t a high-speed train system, but a rather common, pocket-sized bird found mainly along California salt flats and Midwestern wetlands. This marsh-loving avian lives a very low-key and un-assuming life, content to wonder along the waters’ edge, seeking out insects, small water creatures, seeds and other plant material, not asking for much and happy to be generally un-seen and un-noticed. But through the severe drought California – and much of the West – is now struggling, there are fewer, and smaller, natural waters-edges to wander. Scientists and researchers generally accept the rule that many generations must pass for species to adapt to changing environmental conditions; and during these generations, some individuals adapt just enough to get by, while other individuals never catch on and aren’t heard from again (which might be one reason we don’t see mammoths and mastodons and sabre-tooth tigers on our daily commutes; but their disappearance probably has as much to do with early human activity, than a failure of adaptation to changing times). However our friend the Rail seems to be bucking the system and entire populations are moving from ever-shrinking natural wetlands, to the artificial marshes created by leaky pipes, livestock watering stations, irrigation ponds, and even drainage canals. And once discovered, the more scientists look the more rails they find living among the neglected maintenance and artificial sprinklers of man; so much so, some populations now depend upon these man-made ponds and muddy fields, raising the question: With all these rails, how long before someone builds a train station? No, actually the question is, have Rails become dependent upon man; and if so, is that healthy for the Rails – and for the environment?

This is not a Black Rail.  It's a beaver.  It's also an example of how when wildlife is searching for water, most any pool will do.

This is not a Black Rail. It’s a beaver. It’s also an example of how when wildlife is searching for water, most any pool will do.

Of course the Rails – and all wildlife that find life-sustaining water, shelter, and homes in and near man-made ponds, marshes and drainages haven’t sought out these locations only because of the pleasant atmosphere – if this were true, there would be a lot more Rails at water parks. What the rails are seeking are the insects and aquatic life attracted to the water, and in turn, the riparian ecosystem that supports not only the smallest animals, but mice and rabbits and hawks and coyotes and any species that needs water, shelter, and safety to survive. Which is just about every species. These unique ecosystems, the result of human engineering to benefit ourselves and our livestock, just happens to be the exact environment the Black Rail, and dozens or hundreds of other species, need. While the drought continues – and the forecast for this summer is bleak – farmers, ranchers, range-managers and ultimately all of us could be forced to make the choice of protecting and preserving natural environments; or dedicating more money and effort into the repair and replacement of existing, leaky and disintegrating pipelines, canals and holding ponds – some over 100 years old – in an attempt to save water, but at the same time draining artificial marshes and water sources wildlife have come to depend upon. It seems that, adapt or not, the Rail and other species could suffer.

From the seemingly unlimited resources of the past, today we are faced with more and more trade-offs and concessions that must be made not between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, but between multiple ‘goods’: Conserving water; protecting wildlife and their habitats; or providing the food and services humans need and demand. Maybe the answer isn’t an all-or-nothing decision, but choices of give-and-take, flexibility and living a more simple and less demanding life. After all, that’s what the California Black Rail would do.


Michonne Says: Birds drink a lot more water than marmots. I think that’s because things in water float and birds float in the air so they need all that water or else they’d live on the ground. I don’t know how they can sit in trees, though. They probably hold on really tight or else they’d float away.

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