We need to talk about ALAN

Ellery (2)Posted by Ellery McNaughton @EJ_McNaughton

Like Santa, ALAN probably sees you when you are sleeping. ALAN will be trying to get in through your window tonight. Perhaps you haven’t noticed ALAN. But ALAN is always there. ALAN may be having serious impacts on your health. ALAN kills innocent birds and baby turtles for fun.

ALAN will be following you home tonight... and when you get there, ALAN will already be waiting for you

ALAN will be following you home tonight… and when you get there, ALAN will already be waiting for you

And yet, who doesn’t love ALAN? Who hasn’t invited ALAN into their homes and cities?

Artificial Light At Night (ALAN) is a global issue. If you live in an urban area you cannot escape it. Streets, buildings, sports fields, parks, monuments – all are lit up come night time, and it’s easy to see why. Light enables us to see better, feel safer and do more at night. Plus it looks pretty. Bonus!

Sydney - an example of cities' typical love of ALAN. When has pollution ever looked so fetching?

Sydney – an example of cities’ typical love of ALAN. When has pollution ever looked so fetching?

Light pollution doesn’t get the same attention that water or air pollution does. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t add a physical pollutant to the environment. Perhaps it is because it is seen as transient – once the lights are switched off in the morning, problem solved. Or perhaps it is because we have forgotten what the night sky should look like, so we fail to realise just how polluted our skies are. Whatever the reason, traditionally light pollution has only been an issue of concern among astronomers.

Recently however, there is light on the horizon in addition to light in our skies. There has been a surge of research into the myriad effects of ALAN on the environment (e.g. this special issue in Proc. R. Soc. B). Citizen science is being used to better understand variations in the levels of light pollution. The United Nations proclaimed 2015 to be the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, while the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2014 was awarded to the inventors of the blue light-emitting diode. This recent focus on light, light technologies and ALAN in particular opens up opportunities for discussion and thought on these issues. And really, this needs to happen. Because ALAN is most definitely on the naughty list, and we need to talk about it.

Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project will investigate the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, Kevin Gaston (University of Exeter, UK) and Daryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

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Teenage mutant ninja ecological research

Posted by Josie Galbraith

Pizza!What does it take to pull off a successful project in the urban jungle? The short answer is courage and people… pizza helps too. Last week I (along with my PhD supervisors) had a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – Supplementary feeding restructures urban bird communities. This was a big milestone for me, but also hugely important for getting urban ecological research and the practice of bird feeding into the spotlight. Urban ecology has only relatively recently become a thing – before then it was just a clandestine notion, whispered in dark corridors and laughed at at meetings of ‘real’ ecologists. Now though, the urban environment is a place where real ecological science happens. Bold, brave, big science! It certainly takes a great deal of courage to plunge into the ocean of urban ecological research. It is awash with houses, high-rises, industry, roads, gardens, parks, and of course people. As such, there are a myriad of challenges and barriers associated with working in these areas that just don’t exist in more natural habitats.

Native silvereye at experimental feeding station

Native silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) at an experimental feeding station.

One of our experimental bird feeding stations, complete with radio antenna for scanning PIT-tagged birds, in the garden of a volunteer household

One of our experimental feeding stations, complete with antenna, in the garden of a volunteer household.

So how can we meet the challenges urban research presents, and make the most of inevitable time and funding constraints? Urban areas hold the greatest human resource of any habitat an ecologist will encounter – make use of it!  There are plenty of keen folk willing and ready to get involved. In our study we recruited 24 householders purely through word-of-mouth and emails asking people to forward on our request.  We had many more people respond than we needed, so could be more choosy with our property selection. What we were asking of these householders was pretty major – a 2-year commitment to an experimental feeding study, with those selected as “feeding properties” having to put out food for the birds every morning. We expected over the course of the project a number would find the study too onerous and drop-out. In fact, only one did. Our volunteer householders were brilliant to work with, and, while I did the key data collection, they provided plenty of additional observational information, which has been really valuable.

Urban areas are also fantastic fountains of goods and equipment, from pizza to nunchuks. We ecologists often need the weirdest things for our projects – we’ve all had those looks before at our local hardware store…

Ask and you shall receive! We found exactly what we needed for our study (a mountain of bread) by asking around.

Ask and you shall receive! We found exactly what we needed for our study (a mountain of bread) by asking around.

Them: “Why do you need such a small piece of piping?”

Me: “I’m making an aspirator to suck up ants…”

Them: “Uhhhhh…*you’re so weird*…”

Local companies or businesses may be willing to donate materials support to the project, particularly if the things you need are someone else’s trash – off-cuts, end of lines, seconds. You never know what you’ll find, so it pays to ask. Our study required a mountain of bread (1580 loaves to be exact) – and we found one. Literally. A staggering amount of food gets wasted these days, and I didn’t want our study to be using food that could’ve been on someone’s plate. After a few phone calls we found what happens to our cities’ bread waste – it gets trucked to a food recycling factory before being turned into stock feed. The manager happily let us collect the bread we needed for the study each month – it was such a tiny fraction of the volumes that they process. Thanks Ecostock!

There are fascinating ecological things happening in our cities, and they are crying out for ecologist heroes to come and study them. Heroes that will boldly go where there are plenty of other humans. Heroes who will remember to involve their fellow humans and make use of all the resources cities have to offer. Heroes who are willing to push the boundaries, to redefine ecological science. Heroes that have the number for pizza delivery on speed-dial ‘cos you just never know when you might discover mutant turtles in the sewers…

Josie Galbraith is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs and Daryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

 

What’s the point of urban ecology?

Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1Margaret

What’s the point of urban ecology? This is a question I get asked a lot. Many ecologists believe ‘real ecological research’ occurs outside of city boundaries, preferably the further the better from a city. While the focus of ecologists and conservationists is often on biodiversity outcomes within protected areas or in rural areas, the perceptions and values of city-dwellers disproportionately (in terms of numbers of votes!) influence decision-making around management of biodiversity outside cities. Therefore, the often limited experiences city-dwellers have with nature, such as seeing a tūi in their backyard, can greatly affect biodiversity outcomes. However, we also know that there is an increasing disconnect between people and nature as we become more urbanised. How many city-dwellers have visited a regional or national park in the last year? Reconnecting people with nature in the city not only benefits their mental and physical wellbeing, but can also have positive effects on how they value biodiversity and take action on conservation issues. The 2008 Erfurt Declaration also recognises the intrinsic value of urban ecosystems. Globally, urban areas can be hotspots for biodiversity – cities are often built in very fertile areas, and can be centres of evolution and adaptation.

Josie Galbraith’s project on the effects of backyard bird feeding on bird communities. Washing lines for hanging birds bags and deck furniture for banding and microchipping birds are a blessing for the urban researcher!

Josie Galbraith’s project on the effects of backyard bird feeding on bird communities. Washing lines for hanging birds bags and deck furniture for banding and microchipping birds are a blessing for the urban researcher!

There are a range of exciting and interesting research questions to be asked about biodiversity in cities. While some drivers of change are unique to cities, most are just modified versions of what’s happening outside cities (e.g. habitat loss) or are agents of change originating from cities (e.g. pollution, invasive species). My lab group are tackling questions, such as whether people feeding birds in their backyards can restructure urban bird communities, how light pollution might influence ecosystem function (eg. pollination) and how robust connectivity is for bird-dispersed plants within fragmented urban landscapes.

Two of the most frustrating things about urban ecology are: firstly, you can’t escape people (more social scientists please!); and secondly, there are no large, homogenous landscapes in which to put untold replicates. Experiments are critical for untangling drivers and interactions, but conducting experiments in urban landscapes can be very challenging: the high levels of variability over short distances, negotiating access to sites from many landowners/householders, and the high risk of vandalism to equipment. Even the main health and safety fieldwork issues are unusual: domestic dogs and dubious people, rather than getting lost in the bush or being injured far from a hospital. But if it all comes together, the results can be great. Watch this space within the next week or two for PhD student Josie Galbraith’s PNAS paper, where we report on our 18-month bird feeding experiment in suburban Auckland.

Road ecology research often requires the use of an orange flashing light on your car! Esther Dale (L) and Dr Cheryl Krull (R) during Cheryl’s postdoc research on rodent behaviour around roads.

Road ecology research often requires the use of an orange flashing light on your car! Esther Dale (L) and Dr Cheryl Krull (R) during Cheryl’s postdoc research on rodent behaviour around roads.

There’s also an unfortunate but realistic reason why urban ecology is attractive to ecologists. Science is getting more expensive, funding is declining, offshore islands and national parks are expensive to get students to. Urban ecology is a much better option in terms of science output/$ of funding. And then there’s the unexpected bonus of doing fieldwork in the city – the ability to order pizza for the cold, hungry field crew…

Pizza delivery to Josie Galbraith’s field sites

Pizza delivery to Josie Galbraith’s field sites

Dr Margaret Stanley is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is the programme director of the Masters in Biosecurity and Conservation. Her interests in terrestrial community ecology are diverse (particularly in terms of taxa), but can be grouped into three main research strands: urban ecology; invasion ecology; and plant-animal interactions. The most interesting and challenging projects are where these three strands overlap!

Feeding our feathered friends

Posted by Jacqueline Beggs

New research by Josie Galbraith, Jacqueline Beggs, Darryl Jones, Ellery McNaughton, Cheryl Krull, and Margaret Stanley

PhD student Josie Galbraith measuring urban birds to assess their health status.

PhD student Josie Galbraith measuring urban birds to assess their health status.

People love feeding wild birds, even in New Zealand where most urban birds are introduced species. More than 5 million loaves of bread, 13 million pieces of fruit and 5 million L of sugar water are fed to birds in six New Zealand cities each year. That is almost 3 loaves of bread per person! The food used is not usually at the expense of the household budget as most people are feeding scraps to birds.

As well as putting out food, people like to provide water baths and plant trees to encourage birds into their gardens. Those who live in Wellington (New Zealand’s capital) were least likely to feed birds, but if you owned a free-standing house or a dog you were more likely to provide food.

Introduced birds are probably the main beneficiaries of bread and seed in urban New Zealand since not many native birds found in urban areas are grain feeders. Potentially, this may increase populations of introduced birds at the expense of native birds.

Disease transmission from birds congregating at a feeding site was also identified as a risk. However, given the importance of ensuring urban dwellers connect with nature, we are certainly not arguing that

Silvereye are on of the few native birds in urban areas that eat bread.

Silvereye are on of the few native birds in urban areas that eat bread.

people should stop feeding birds, but improving how they clean feeding stations and considering putting out food more suitable for native species would be a good idea.

Questionnaires were sent to 3000 households in Whangarei, Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Dunedin and Invercargill. The study achieved a 27.1% response rate, or 801 replies.

Read the published research online now at Biological Conservation http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.09.038

Jacqueline Beggs is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, University of Auckland.


Media links:
http://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/10644341/Kiwis-spend-dosh-on-bird-nosh

http://www.voxy.co.nz/lifestyle/backyard-bird-feeders-spend-millions-study/5/205292

http://home.nzcity.co.nz/news/article.aspx?id=195803&fm=newsmain%2Cnrhl

http://www.3news.co.nz/nznews/study-kiwis-love-feeding-birds-2014102208

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/CU1410/S00443/backyard-bird-feeders-spend-millions.htm

http://www.newstalkzb.co.nz/auckland/news/nbnat/45026651-bird-feeding-habits-on-offer-in-study

http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=72074

http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/20154420/bird-feeders-in-nz-feed-more-than-5-million-loaves

Auckland Kereru Project

The Auckland Kereru Project: Following the movements and diets of urban kererū (NZ pigeon) in Auckland. 

Joint Graduate School in Biodiversity and Biosecurity PhD candidate Alice Baranyovits is investigating how kererū move around fragmented landscapes and more specifically how they utilise the urban environment. In particular she is interested in their diet, particularly where and when they are eating introduced plants. In order to do this she needs your help!

There are two ways to contribute as a one-off; by recording your garden plants and/or by recording urban kererū sightings (although you can enter as many kererū sightings as you like).

If you would prefer to have a more continual involvement you can register to take part in the phenology study (recording when your plants fruit) or the quarterly kererū count or both!

To sign up, please visit the Auckland Kereru Project website