Wednesday, November 12, 2008

First Juncos, Bad Cats, Dead Squirrels

I noticed the first few juncos in the yard today. (I can't remember, what are we calling them these days, dark-eyed or slate-colored?) When I see these handsome little birds, I know winter will soon be upon us, but they always help to lift the mood a bit.

In other news from the yard, I've been enjoying the antics of a few young red squirrels in the back yard. They've been scampering up and down the big Norway maples and eating maple seeds from the driveway. I have mixed feelings about these rodents. Just as I feel I'm turning the tide in my war with the many generations gray squirrels that have been chewing holes in my house, I'm pretty sure these reds are getting into the eaves as well. I haven't issued any war declarations yet because they're pretty discreet in their comings and goings and they're awfully cute. I also like they spunky way they chase the gray squirrels who must be twice their mass.

Just the other day, I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out at the falling leaves and the gamboling squirrels when an orange cat who frequents the yard streaked a good 30 or 40 feet from under the deck across the yard to the base of the maple by the garage to nail one of my little reds. By the time I jumped up and ran outside the cat was already trotting away with the squirrel hanging limply from its jaws.

The very next day, as I walked by the back door, I heard some thumping out by the deck. I looked out to see the same cat struggling to subdue yet another red squirrel. I ran out, but was too late again.

I assume these were young squirrels that didn't get a second chance at their survival lessons, but this cat certainly does seem an efficient predator. I must confess to having some mixed feelings. As they say, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Although these little guys are fun to watch, I don't relish the prospect of spending more hours repairing the exterior trim on the house. On the other hand, red squirrels are not that common here and for every red, there must be 20 grays. I appreciate a little diversity in the yard.

I know that predation by house cats is a real problem that takes a heavy toll on native wildlife populations. If I saw this one cat kill two animals in two days, I shudder to imagine how many he and all the other cats I see around here kill in the course of a year. There are those who say cats will be cats and hunting is instinctive. But these cats are not native to this area, and they have the advantage of warm homes, regular meals and veterinary care, so they are healthy, strong and more numerous than they would be in a natural system. Their killing seems recreational rather than for food.

I saw the cat again today and noticed it had a collar. It turns out Hobbes is a friendly (to humans) cat and it was a simple matter to approach him and read his name tag. I discovered he lives with neighbors I know quite well, and, in fact, the man of the house is quite an environmentalist, so I figured he would receive my phone call in the spirit in which it was intended. I called tonight, told my story, and suggested that a larger bell might help to warn potential victims. I'm happy to report "Calvin" seemed quite understanding and I feel sure he'll get a new bell. I could tell he wouldn't have been as receptive to a suggestion to confine his pet to the house and I didn't push that point.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bill Nye, Science Guy

Back in mid-October we were at our son's parents' weekend at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. We've attended the so-called Brick City Festival for each of the five years he's been there. No, we're not helicopter parents, we just like Central New York in October, the crisp days stimulating fond memories of college days in Syracuse so many years ago.

Among the many fun activities at the festival is an annual keynote speaker. Over the years we've heard from people like Robert Redford and Erin Brockovich. This year the speaker was Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I'd certainly heard of Bill and his famous TV show, but I don't think I ever actually watched it. His talk was entertaining and thought-provoking. He touched on many of the sort of things that have been on my mind lately, particularly alternative energy sources and wise use of resources. Knowing he was at a tech school, he exhorted (in a funny way) the hundreds of students in the audience to come up with solutions to many of the problems he discussed, telling them if they did, they would "GET RICH!". I'd like to touch on a few of the topics he discussed.

He talked at length about transportation and how we need to find ways to free ourselves of fossil-fuel powered vehicles. It will take some time to wean us off oil, but it is foolish not to use the technology we have NOW to slow the depletion of our oil reserves. Eventually, however, he sees us moving increasingly to electric vehicles and had an interesting idea. One of the problems of renewable energy is storage. How do we run things when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining? He imagines a day when we will all have plug-in electric cars with big batteries. When we're not driving, we'll plug the cars in and SHARE the power. When renewable energy is flowing, all the batteries will charge. When power is low, cars with full batteries will loan some electricity to those who need it. We'll all be part of a decentralized, mobile power company. You can imagine how we'd need plenty of techies to engineer a system like that.

He spent a bit of time on vehicle efficiency, talking about, say, the relative efficiency of his Prius and his neighbors Suburban. He also talked about the HKEV, the "highest-known-efficiency vehicle" - the bicycle. "One bowl of oatmeal - thirty miles!" For what we spend on a typical road engineered to bear 18-wheelers, we could build covered bikeways with big wind scoops so the cyclists would always have a tailwind.

Nanotechnology was another area he encouraged his young hosts to explore. He described how buckytubes of carbon might one day be used as super-low-resistance conductors that might vastly improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and all manner of electronic devices.

Regarding nuclear power, he was less optimistic. He pointed out that it is the most expensive source of electricity and that the waste problem remains unresolved. He acknowledged that France gets most of its power from nuclear plants, but got a chuckle from the crowd when he said they haven't solved the waste problem either. They just store it in caves in the mountains. Over near Germany.

I like it when people think about turning big problems into big opportunities. He described how huge quantities of fossil fuel are used to produce the nitrogen fertilizers we need to grow our food. Then he talked about the tremendous pollution that comes from huge pig farms in the South and how one farm can produce as much waste as a small city. Rather than view hog farm runoff as waste to be treated, why not collect it as a valuable resource to feed our crops? He didn't come right out and say it, but I think he meant us to understand that the same could be said of human waste. Why dump all that treated sewage into our waterways when it could be recycled onto farmland?

Now I'm not one who believes technology will solve all our problems, especially when that belief is used as an excuse to perpetuate old bad habits while we wait for high-tech salvation. But I do have some faith that visionary and courageous political leadership that supports scientific innovation can help us build a better world and a brighter future. I'm glad there are guys like Bill Nye out there spreading the word.