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Plants and animals respond to extremes

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We look forward to the coming of spring but not the extremes that pose challenges to our security. We are not the only creatures experiencing extremes that bring disruptions and joys to daily life. Warm sunny days brighten our spirits, warm our hearts, and bodies. We look forward to shedding heavy layers of clothing needed to protect us from the biting cold. Days without gloves allow greater finger dexterity and the ability to work outside more freely. Hopefully we have found opportunity to spend many hours outdoors throughout the winter. 

For centuries the Great Lakes water levels have fluctuated above and below an average to highs and lows. The lows bring about wide sandy beaches and highs create no beach with waves that undercut the shoreline causing homes and trees to tumble. 

Many plant species have survival adaptations that do not protect individuals from extremes but help the species survive. During decades when water levels are higher than average, plants are drowned as surely as homes are lost by falling into the lake when the shoreline erodes. Plant populations with adaptations to fluctuating shorelines reproduce and their offspring hopefully find suitable growing conditions where habitat is reduced. 

Prior to our usurping much of the shoreline for homes, more space was available for plant populations to move inland when beach loss shrunk living space. Populations were reduced during tough years when water levels rose but increased when below average levels created habitat that provided suitable growing conditions. 

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan along with other conservancies around the Great Lakes work to enlist support for wild shoreline protection essential for people, plants and animals. Insects, mammals, birds and plants have a vested interest in nature’s extreme processes. People like to think we are in control of natural processes even when evidence proves us wrong. Each year tornadoes devastate human shelters, hurricanes level communities, and winter storms end lives. It is the extremes that bring greatest notice. 

This year’s mild winter has allowed many animals to survive that could not several years ago when the region experienced below average temperatures. Eastern Bluebirds took shelter in one of our bird houses during the minus 30 F weather. When I bundled warmly for a short pleasurable cross-country ski in the extreme cold, I saw a dead bluebird hanging from the nest box entrance. Moisture had caused its wing to freeze to another bluebird’s dead body. It could not pull free from the second and it hung outside the box where it froze.

During a violent spring storm that toppled trees onto homes and caused multiple power outage days, a Baltimore Oriole nest was ripped loose from a branch killing the mother and her clutch of eggs on the ground beneath. At the Howard Christensen Nature Center, one nest was torn almost free and hung precariously in an unsuitable condition for use. Any eggs or young inside needed to be abandoned. The mother likely survived and could rebuild to begin a new family. Such tragedies are common for humans and wildlife, including plants. 

People might wonder why it is important for us to design with nature. Ian McHarg wrote a book titled Design with Nature describing an ecologically sound approach for planning communities. I read it in college when being trained to help communities thrive with best design practices. Read it and pass it on to a city planner.

Along shorelines, Piping Plovers have lost essential nesting habitat and it has become necessary for us to create the Endangered Species Act to assist plants and animal survival because we do not design with nature. Other species are not the only creatures being devasted by our inadequate design with nature. Over 50 years ago we were advised to address human caused climate change but it fell mostly on deaf ears. Greater devastation awaits us if we do not embrace behavioral change away from fossil fuels more rapidly and toward more ecologically sound alternatives to protect present and future generations of people, plants and wildlife. Our long-term economy and social structure are tied closely to sound ecological practices. Effective leadership is needed from community planners, and local, state, and national officials to support a sustainable future. What is your role?

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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