Conserving Nature, or Learning to Love the Pigeon

“Rats with wings.”  Is that how you think about pigeons?

If ecologist Matt Palmer from Columbia University has his way, you’ll look at these urban dwellers (and maybe even rats) with new eyes. A handful of new phone apps can also help us to connect with and think differently about wildlife in the city. And that change of mindset may be a vital and necessary step towards conserving the world’s resources.

The Pigeon Paradox

At a conference on biodiversity sponsored by Columbia’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation this week, Palmer spoke about the “Pigeon Paradox,” a concept proposed by Robert Dunn and colleagues in 2006.

The tremendous human footprint on the Earth’s resources is one of the hallmarks of this new age, dubbed the Anthropocene. Current conservation efforts are not sufficient to keep pace.

Palmer discussed the impact of urbanization on biodiversity. Most people across the planet now live in urbanized areas. Even though urban areas cover only 2% of the Earth’s surface, they account for 75% of resources consumed by humanity. Many rapidly growing cities, such as Delhi, Sao Paulo, and Jakarta, directly affect highly biodiverse regions through land use changes. And recent research by Eric Sanderson of the World Conservation Society indicates that the indirect effects of urbanization — through urban consumption — also impacts areas of great biodiversity.

Next, Palmer pointed out that direct exposure with nature shades perceptions of the world and contributes to a “conservation ethic.” This mentality broadly influences consumption, spending behaviors, and voting patterns. As more people live in cities, environmental leadership — for both local stewardship and global conservation — will have to come from urban residents.

The problem is that the growing numbers of people living in cities will also have less contact with nature. Out of sight, out of mind. Even though conservation efforts can preserve and even restore some habitats around urban areas, the range of urban flora and fauna will remain limited and certainly be less “charismatic” than those shown on nature programs on TV.

The “Pigeon Paradox” then means that fostering a “conservation ethic” — and conservation behaviors — may rely on developing a direct connection with what wildlife there is in urban areas.

So where to find wildlife in the city? Here in New York City, Palmer noted that one has to look at the parks and beyond — backyards, community gardens, street trees, highway medians, even cracks in the sidewalks. Other resources include institutions such as nature centers, zoos, and science museums (New York is blessed to have many), and activities specifically directed at celebrating local nature, such as NYC Wildflower Week.

Pigeons are often considered a nuisance because there are so many, but Palmer notes that if you actually look at them carefully, they are pretty good looking birds. What about raccoons, sparrows, crows, even rats and roaches? Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, but when framed differently, familiarity can also lead to understanding and appreciation.

Cities as hotspots for biodiversity?

Since Dunn and colleagues wrote their paper, some studies have suggested that urban areas actually have higher biodiversity than other lands impacted by humans, such as suburbs and agricultural fields, which have been turned into monocultures. Even New York City can claim to be a “hotspot” of biodiversity, according to an article by Robert Sulllivan. In part because of  environmental protections over the last 50 years, there’s a resurgence of wildlife here. They’re just lost amidst the other spectacles of the city.

So part of the challenge is opening the eyes (and other senses) of urban residents to the diversity of plants and animals around them.

Palmer’s presentation tied into a discussion on environmental literacy later in the day. Representatives of CERC discussed the challenges of fostering both an awareness and deeper understanding of nature and environment through education, especially among children from low-income and immigrant communities who have few opportunities to go to a beach, explore a marsh, or otherwise learn in a different environment.

Learning with WildBird

The pigeons in Palmer’s talk brought to mind another recent discussion about urban birding, education, and citizen science. On a panel during Social Media Week, “Research Gone Social: Leveraging the Web to Advance Scientific Discovery,” Gabriel Willow spoke about using the WildLab – Bird app with elementary school students in New York City. Students learn how to identify birds and record their observations, which are then added to Cornell’s eBird database. Check out this video (Willow’s presentation starts at about 16:00).

There are other fascinating wildlife- and environment-related apps, such as Project Noah and WildObs, that bring a technological assist to bridging that nature divide.

These tools offer great potential value, in large part because they require students and other amateur users to venture outdoors. The reality that is “augmented” starts with an individual’s senses and becomes enhanced by an array of references and connections about wildlife and ecosystems. Being part of a citizen science project can also make a child’s nature observations meaningful in new ways. These functions contrast with most social apps (and other technologies), especially those involving geolocation, that largely preserve or augment the divide with the nature that surrounds city dwellers.

Minosca Alcantara, CERC’s Director of Education Programs, noted that because of the relative lack of resources for the students that she works with–even though many are savvy with the internet and cell phones–technology is only a plus.

With more people living in urban areas, the ability to appreciate the nature around cities will be an important “bridge” to caring more broadly about conservation.

As Ahmed Djoghlaf, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, claimed: “The battle for life on earth will be won or lost in cities.”

Photo credits (Flickr CC): (top) Wouter de Bruijn; (bottom) Jason Lander. Click on photos for links.


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4 thoughts on “Conserving Nature, or Learning to Love the Pigeon

  1. Pigeons are also absolutely amazing flyers, as a few moments of observation will attest. To those who do call them “skyrats,” let’s not forget who made the mess they exploit. We are the reason they have been so successful.

  2. I participated in Cornell’s pigeon watch for a brief time when I lived in Berkeley. I should try again in NYC; it is one of my son’s favorite things to do!

  3. I have great admiration for pigeons. As Matthew says, they are gorgeous in flight. Also peaceable, monogamous and amusing to watch. Their numbers, along with those of rats & city animals, can be best controlled through a change in how we handle our trash. Over-abundance of food due to feeding by humans (whether direct hand-outs or indirect through garbage), is at the root of species over-population in cities. So yes, let’s educate to appreciate AND to control.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Matthew and Melissa, we’re kindred spirits with pigeons and rats, kind of weedy and opportunistic, interesting to watch. Not so great at flight. The pigeons not only benefit from our food/trash, but also evolved as cliff-dwellers–so we build great habitat for them. And so true about education…

    Georgia, great idea about Pigeon Watch. I’m sure your son has a wonderful partner for observing nature : )

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