The times they are a changing. Just not fast enough, apparently. As I write this on Earth Day, 2019, I wonder what’s going to happen with our environment in this crucial time. I hope I’m wrong but it looks like many of the chickens we’ve been hearing about are coming home to roost. We ignore or abuse the air, water, flora, fauna and resources at our own peril.
I see a lot of bumper stickers around here that say, “Don’t suck the Fraser dry.” But it’s too late for that. Denver owns our water and apparently that is forever. Whoever signed on to that deal really sold our valley down the river. What a shame.
There are too many of us around here who deny that humans influence the atmosphere and environment that support us. How frustrating this is for those of us who want to make a significant shift from the top down and the bottom up. We are not talking about a religion or belief system. We are talking about taking care of our own nest.
American dippers are an indicator species. If you have a lot of dippers diving and dipping you have a healthy riparian habitat. Apparently dippers are like a canary in a coal mine for waterways and riparian habitats. The designation as an indicator species makes sense and should provide a feathery face for local water issues.
American dippers have long been my favorite birds. The fly fast and low. They hang out on rocks in the middle of the river. They dive to the bottom like an otter and float on top like a duck. They have a wonderful habit of bending the legs and dipping up and down.
American dippers are like humans. There are only certain safe places where they can nest. The nest has to be safe from floods and predators. Sound familiar? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology this limitation on nesting sites limits their population. If human habitats shrink and become less hospitable, humans might not propagate so damn fast.
Unlike humans, American dippers have a low metabolic rate, a thick coat of feathers and extra oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood. This lets them survive naked outside in the winter. I have watched American dippers dipping, swimming, diving and floating in the Crystal River on some of the coldest days of the year.
Despite the feathers and the metabolism American dippers are sensitive to agricultural fertilizers, organic pollutants like PCBs, and heavy metals. They feed on water bugs and their larvae. They even like mosquitos. They will also jump on worms, fish eggs, dragonflies and other flying insects. Pollutants in the environment reduce the food in and around the rivers and can harm our great American dippers.
I remember sitting outside up near Maroon Lake one time strumming my guitar. I noticed an American dipper bouncing up and down to the rhythm of the song. Coincidence? I hardly think so.
You know what else is an indicator species? Buzzards. There are many buzzards circling, waiting and watching our folly as we speak. If we carry on we may become carrion.
You know what else is a good environmental indicator? Common dandelions. I have gone from not appreciating these yellow beauties to having them for dinner and recording songs about them. You can eat any part of the dandelion from root to flower and enjoy the beneficial consequences. Unless, of course, they have been sprayed with chemicals to kill them and keep them down. If you eat those ones you may get sick.
We can learn a lot from the way we treat our American dippers and common dandelions. They are sensitive to human interventions and let us know that we are doing it wrong by disappearing.
Steve Skinner hopes that you come across an American dipper and a wild dandelion today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.