Nature and Environment

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National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

When you spot a bird in flight or perched on a fence row and you simply can't rest until you know what kind of bird it is, what family it belongs to, where it ranges and how it sounds, then you, my fine-feathered friend, may be a birder. And this encyclopedic bird guide may be just the thing for your bird-watching pleasure.

At 700+ pages, the National Geographic Complete Birds of North America probably isn't something you'll schlep around with you on a camping trip, and, arguably, an app might be more useful in the field. (The smaller, lighter-weight National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America would be easier for schlepping.) Still this big book is a large delight. I spent an afternoon dreamily thumbing through it as I did when I was a kid, sitting in my room surrounded by encyclopedias. I had no particular destination, and I certainly enjoyed the journey.

This second edition is a fully revised and updated version of National Geographic's most popular birding guide, with fascinating, detailed information on more than 1,000 species of birds. Edited by best-selling birding author and field-guide illustrator Jonathan Alderfer, the book is a comprehensive reference that covers all North American wild bird species, as well as a variety of exotic species that are already becoming established or simply frequently visiting our climes.

More than 4,000 annotated illustrations by expert bird artists fill its pages, along with color photos and updated range and migration maps. More than 800 maps can be found in this edition, showing range, routes and historical data.

My one complaint is with the index, which required a bit of frustrating detective work on a couple of species. It seems intuitive that, if I want to read about the Tennessee Warbler, for example, somewhere in the index I might locate it under "Tennessee" or "Warblers." I did find it (see below), but only after thumbing through several pages on "Warblers."

If you have a birder on your holiday gift list, this might be precisely the thing to delight and inspire them. It is available on the National Geographic website as well as other retail outlets.

By the way, if you want a way to identify birdsong when you're out in the field, some dandy apps can be had for not too much money. The Nature Conservancy has rated several, and the comments on their blog provide additional feedback. I like iBird Pro, designed for iPhone or iPad, which has been around for years, and friends who have Android phones have recommended the Peterson's app.

Here are some illustrations to give a sense of the visual detail and bird-y personality found in National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, Second Edition. Many illustrations are new to this edition and replace those in the first edition.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler
Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt

This diminutive but full-throated singer nests on the ground at the base of small shrubs or trees, loves to eat spruce budworms and can be found in forests and bogs. Adults are less than 5 inches long, but those tiny wings take them from Southern Mexico and Panama up to the Great Lakes area and even into Canada. If that doesn't make you feel better about taking a walk today, what will?

Mallard Ducks (Anas Platyrhynchos)

Mallard Ducks
Illustration by Cynthia J. House

When I say, "Duck," you'll probably see "Mallard." The most widely recognized (and widely distributed) duck in North America, mallards can be found throughout most of Canada and the United States (other than Hawaii). The male have a distinctive, flirty flip of feathers at the tip of their tails, and both sexes feature distinctive bright blue speculum feathers that telegraph, "I am a mallard and don't you forget it!"

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Barn Swallows
Illustration by David Quinn

This beautiful, ubiquitous bird is familiar throughout North America. Their striking blue crown and back contrasted with the rich dark-cream to rusty-brown under-parts look designed by someone paying close attention to a color chart. Though their cup-sized mud nests can be an annoyance when they're plastered to your barn, they're a lovely bird to watch as they kite across the skies.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern Cardinal
Illustration by Diane Pierce

These spiky-headed singers are found in gardens, thickets, woods and backyards throughout the eastern part of the U.S. and Mexico. The male's vibrant plumage makes him an especially welcome backyard bird, along with his mate, who is more discreetly decked out in her subtle buff and brown motif. 

Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)

Pine Grosbeak
Illustration by Diane Pierce

This plump little finch is a "true" finch, unlike those phony waxbills and buntings that often are mistaken for finches. It's sort of the pug of the bird kingdom, with a stubby, curved bill that can make quick work of the seeds, buds, berries and bugs that form its diet.

Cover and all illustrations courtesy National Geographic Complete Birds of America, 2nd Edition

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. She grew up in rural Oklahoma where watching wildlife was called "childhood." Find her on .



“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.”― Edward O. Wilson

As the holidays approach, many of us scatter to all parts of the globe to celebrate the passing of another year with our families, or close friends who are chosen family. Wherever you find yourself over the holidays, take note of the frequency with which you find yourself drawn to, or immersed in, nature. With time away from our day to day existence, some people gravitate toward green spaces, or snow-covered open spaces, for those in northern latitudes. Why do some find themselves drawn to these natural places when there is time to relax and reflect? According to one of the most eminent biologists of our time, E.O. Wilson, it is because the natural world is essential to what it means to be human--to what it means to feel whole.

For the first time in human history more than 50 percent of the world's population lives in urban environments. In the U.S. this number is closer to 80 percent. We are inhabitants of built environments, which are hugely fragmented, carving green space up into smaller and smaller areas. With this can come a separation from that which makes us feel whole.

Community green spaces may have a vital role to play in mitigating the detrimental effects of urban life by providing a critical outlet to reconnect people to nature. Aside from providing a place for mental and emotional peace, these spaces also combat the urban heat island effect, reduce air pollution, reduce city noise, and increase the health of city inhabitants by providing a place to exercise. They also provide wildlife habitat in otherwise low biodiversity areas. Preliminary research reveals that animals can thrive in conjunction with urban landscapes, like the bumblebee populations that take refuge in San Francisco city parks. City planners, designers, and urban landscapers are taking E.O. Wilson’s words of wisdom to heart and redefining what it means to be urban by taking the role of green spaces in city life seriously.


YardMap is a part of a growing movement to encourage green spaces in our communities. In addition to nearly 9,000 maps of homes--429 schools, 254 city parks, 237 nature preserves,126 community gardens, and 66 offices are documented. Many of these community sites are mapped in and around urban areas. This does not even include the growing use of wildlife medians and curbside storm water gardens as a means to both protect natural resources and green our urban landscapes.

San Francisco

Even while our understanding of the complexities of human/nature systems grows it is clear there is still work to be done in our more urban spaces. Individual gardens on private property are the most common place that urbanites find green spaces. The next wave of this green space movement is to supercede viewing our isolated gardens as individual entities by piecing together all the gardens that exist in our urban centers. How can all these spaces benefit from being seen as a small part of a larger whole? This unification will make our cities even more habitable to bird, bees, butterflies — and humans —by creating green or wildlife corridors. Similar to work done by conservation biologists who are building strategic bridges, overpasses and underpasses for mammals near busy roads, creating green corridors in cities provides space for urban wildlife to move more safely, and with greater access to resources in the urban environment.

Our urban ethos is shifting. We can seek a sense of community everyday in the places we inhabit and with the people who share our built environments. We can connect daily, not just around the holidays. Community green space can be at the center of those connections. Take an inventory of what is around you, and consider getting to know it well enough to add it to your YardMap.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Big Tree

Often the design feature of a suburban yard is a big shade tree. What do you do when that big tree in your yard begins to die? For a suburban lot there can perhaps be no greater change. All of a sudden that deep shade becomes full sun and it may take 30 years to grow another tree to replace the one you just lost. But, when you finish grieving, the loss of that tree is a great opportunity to increase the diversity of your habitat.

There are two permaculture principles that apply. The first is to creatively use and respond to change. The second is to produce no waste. Consider having the tree processed in place and using the logs and wood chips to build a hügel mulch.  You will save the expense of having those materials hauled away and the expense of establishing a lawn in the old area of shade. The hügel mulch can then be planted to a guild of plants that will support each other using the materials from the old tree as nutrients for up to 30 years. That saves the expense of mowing, fertilizing, and watering the lawn. Instead of spending time and money maintaining a lawn that is seldom used, you will have created a habitat for beneficial insects, including the pollinators, and an annual supply of food for people and other visitors to your garden.

In the Denver area we have this opportunity coming from two different directions. First, as Denver was developed, a popular landscape tree was the silver maple. Many of those trees are coming to the end of their lives and becoming a hazard. They are at risk of blowing over or losing large branches during high winds. The other potential for tree loss is the emerald ash borer. It has recently been found in the Denver area and if it spreads about 20 percent of the urban canopy is at risk. All those trees being lost could mean a great deal of expense for landowners who remove the trees and landfill the wood. There is even more expense to amend the soil and lay sod to put in a lawn the old fashioned way. An alternative is to creatively respond to the change and not waste any of the material.

Plant Propagation Cooperative

We are taking steps to take advantage of this opportunity by forming the High Plains Plant Propagation Cooperative. This new form of organization has six ways to participate for anyone who is interested. Working together these six elements will save home owners money when faced with the loss of a tree opportunity. By changing the way landscaping is done we will improve the health of our urban and suburban habitat.

The central piece is plant propagation. With a little instruction, some used pots, potting soil, and a little time collecting seeds or cuttings, anyone with a sunny window or a balcony can start plants that will fit into the forest island guilds. We want to identify and propagate specific varieties proven to thrive in this precise climate for each species we want to include in a guild. That will increase genetic diversity and the ability to respond to climate change in the same way as saving seeds and line breeding domestic animals. Permaculture designers familiar with the concept of plant guilds and others familiar with local plants can participate by designing plant groupings (guilds) that will do well in these forest islands. That will help our plant propagators to know which plants to propagate. People with larger lots can make space available to grow out the plants until they are large enough to plant out in the forest islands.

 Apple Tree Recycled

I envision people learning to work with converting old trees to hügel mulch forest islands and offering their services to home owners and getting paid both for their contracting services and labor. Anyone who thinks that it is important to change the way we do landscaping can participate by spreading the word. We can plant demonstration plots and provide tours to show how beautiful and productive a forest island can be.

Here is how everyone benefits:

• The plant propagators will own the plants and can sell them wholesale to the contractors and at retail prices to do it yourself home owners.
• The designers can get a royalty whenever a home owner selects one of their designs.
• Landowners can get a per plant fee for plants sold from their property.
• Contractors will charge for their work the way they do now except that they will include the charges to compensate the other participants.
• There will be plenty of call for labor to help with installations.
• People interested in improving the habitat who are out talking to their neighbors about alternatives to traditional landscaping can earn a commission when they help arrange for a home owner to work with the co-op.

We have set up a cooperative membership structure with full members who agree to contribute both time and money to the success of the cooperative and associate members who agree to contribute time. Full members will assess themselves to cover the expenses of the cooperative and have a vote in determining how each of the participants is compensated. Each participant will make their own decisions about how and when to participate. If we have good designs then neighbors will show each other. That will create demand for the plants and demand for help in processing trees and building gardens.

Start a Co-op in Your Region

This is about changing the way landscaping is done in urban and suburban areas. Each locality is unique. The guilds that we develop for the Colorado front range will differ from those developed for another locality. Therefore each region needs a co-op of its own. Each new co-op will increase the diversity of species participating in the regional system. The more diversity we foster the more we improve the resilience of our system.

If you want to start a co-op of your own, get in touch with local permaculture practitioners and show them this blog. Other sources of participants are organizations in your area that are working to promote local food, increase pollinator forage, reduce pesticide use, improve wildlife habitat, reduce water usage and any number of other issues that can be addressed by changing the way that humans interact with the living things around us.

 Forest Island

This is an experiment in creating the kind of world in which we want to live. Many of us wish for fewer toxins released into the environment and more beautiful and healthy places. We cannot expect either the government or the corporations to make these changes for us. The government, by design, represents the status quo. Corporations, by law, must produce a monetary return for their investors. The system can and will change when individuals begin to work with their neighbors to repair the damage that has been done. When we do that, nature can resume building resources back into the system to create the kind of beautiful and productive places where we would like to live.

We call it using your resources strategically to enhance the pattern of interactions within the range of your influence. Indeed, the only way that change ever happens is at the level of the individual interaction. Governments and corporations will come along eventually.

Special thanks to my gardening team mate Donald P. Studinsky who helps me translate these complex interrelated concepts into understandable bites. To the extent there is clarity here the credit belongs to Don.  To the extent it is not clear the fault is mine.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


I was recently trying to get a mortgage for a house that my wife and I were looking at buying. After 30 minutes on the phone, answering questions about my income, assets and debts, I was declined for the mortgage. I asked if there was any room for flexibility, and the mortgage broker said something that really struck me: “Sorry sir. Everything in our industry is black and white.”

Jonny Price Kiva Zip Senior Director

At the end of a long, slouching call, that one sentence made me sit bolt upright, write it down, and now write a blog about it. Because at Kiva Zip, we’re trying to disrupt that paradigm, and this (lending) industry. We’re trying to inject shades of grey, or (even better) rich, vibrant colors into the process by which small business owners can access the capital they need to launch or grow their businesses.

There are a myriad of ways in which we are challenging the conventional “black and white” approach, but I’m going to highlight two – firstly, how we underwrite loans; and secondly, how we approach delinquent payments.

Character-Based Lending

When I was applying for the mortgage I mentioned above, I was underwritten on a purely financial basis. What was my credit score? How much money did I have in my bank account? How much did I earn last year? How much did my wife earn? What debts do I have? What is my net worth? At no point was I asked for character references. And the mortgage broker did not know me personally. It’s all about numbers and statistically-tested algorithms. I didn’t qualify for the mortgage because, on average, people in my financial standing would not be able to keep up with the payments in more than (e.g.) 10 percent of cases. Now don’t get me wrong, this numerical, financial approach is very useful. And it works. It’s why banks and lenders are able to maintain high repayment rates, and make money.

But it doesn’t paint a full picture. By failing to take into account the character of the borrower, or social data points (like the strength and extent of a borrower’s trust network) on an individual, case-by-case basis, this average-based approach misses out on nuance, and thereby disqualifies many would-be borrowers that deserve, and could pay back, a loan. At Kiva Zip, by focusing on these information gaps that exist in conventional, financial underwriting, we can introduce flexibility and “color” into our underwriting process, and help a lot more people think a “black and white” approach allows.

Grace Periods

In July of last year, we launched Kiva Zip in Richmond, Virginia – thanks to funding from Capital One, and support from Senator Mark Warner and Mayor Dwight Jones. Unfortunately, one of the borrowers we made a loan was taken seriously ill just as she received the money. In a “black and white” lending world, this personal tragedy would have been met with stern letters, late fees, and spiraling interest payments. I imagine there would have been no “exceptions”. In the Kiva Zip community, the borrower’s proactive communication on her conversations tab was met with no fewer than 15 comments from her lenders – every single one of them positive, affirming and understanding. The unanimous message was “we are so sorry to hear of your sickness. Make sure you focus on getting back to full health first. You can pay back the loan later.” This empathy and grace on the part of her community of Kiva Zip lenders blew me away, and epitomizes the “color” that comes from re-injecting human relationships and people into a financial system that (over the last couple of decades) has become overwhelmingly transactional, and subsumed by the pursuit of profit at all costs.

Now the borrower has recovered, and is paying off her loan. With any other lender, the accumulation of late fees and interest rates might have made hers an unbearable debt burden by this point, and she may have weathered one crisis of health, only to be confronted with financial bankruptcy. But on Kiva Zip, even a year later, she still has only and exactly the $5,000 principal to repay. This might be stretching the point, but on some small level, I can’t help but wonder if the flexibility she experienced from her community of Kiva Zip lenders, in stark contrast to the intransigence that she probably would have encountered from a more conventional lender, might even have helped her emotional and physical recovery. There is ample evidence linking financial worries with emotional stress, the detrimental physical effects of which are also well known. If our financial system was more people-focused, would we all be a little less perpetually worried about money, and a little happier as a result?

In a black and white lending industry, we on the Kiva Zip team want to thank all of you, our lenders, for enabling us to dream of splashing vibrant colors on the canvas.

Now I’m not saying that I should have qualified for the mortgage. But that’s because of my shady character, and dubious circle of acquaintances, rather than the paltry state of my finances.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


 Accelerating Appalachia is the first green business accelerator of its type

As one of my colleagues, Dayna Reggero has informed me, Accelerating Appalachia is accepting applications NOW for the next intensive accelerator to begin in 2015!

Businesses in the following sectors are encouraged to apply: soil, seed, grains, grasses, weather, water, sustainable food farming, clean energy, forests fiber/textiles, green building, craft brewing/distilling and nutraceuticals/ integrative medicine.

"Accelerating Appalachia attracts and scales high-impact, seed-stage businesses and connects them not only with investment opportunities, sustainable supply chains and expanded customer base, but also with peer networks, mentors, and lasting connections," says Sara Day Evans, founder of Accelerating Appalachia. "More than 35 jobs created and 50 retained, more than 106 new sustainable farm acres and 12 new farmers added to supply chains, and continuing connections across Appalachia and beyond."


Businesses awarded in the past include: Appalachian Botanical Alliance, Carolina Ground, EchoView Fiber Mill, Riverbend Malt House and Smokin' J's Fiery Foods. Appalachian Botanical Alliance is a herb grower’s cooperative that supplies high quality Western and Chinese herbs to practitioners, distributors and manufacturers; Carolina Ground is the only mill in the Southeast producing organic wheat, rye and barley flours - Carolina grown and milled; Echoview Fiber Mill is the first fiber mill built in North Carolina in 40 years and is the only GOLD LEED certified mill in the U.S.; Riverbend Malt House is unique on the East Coast as a processor and purveyor of barley, wheat, rye malts for brewing and distilling; and Smokin' J’s Fiery Foods is the only grower of ghost peppers in U.S., and maker of proprietary base pepper paste sold wholesale nationally to salsa and hot sauce makers.

"All the entrepreneurs that participated display characteristics of scalable, socially and environmentally responsible businesses that will further develop the growing sustainable economy in Appalachia," says Evans. “Accelerating Appalachia created a unique opportunity for Riverbend Malt House to interact with the successful entrepreneurs, finance professionals, and business leaders throughout our region. Those interactions helped guide our company through a period of explosive growth that continues to the present day,” says Brent Manning, Riverbend Malt House.

“Accelerating Appalachia creates a bridge between the new wave of nature based businesses and an amazing array of mentors, venture capitalist firms, and business leaders who are eager to support a more durable, localized economic model for our region.” Applications for the next cohort are currently being accepted.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Wild turkeys

It’s hunting season, which means that my and my husband’s lives go on hold for 5 weeks to try to fill our freezer. Actually it goes on longer than that when you count in upland bird season, fall bear, and anything else we care to look for when it comes to meat.

Despite the reports of great hunting, we we’ve been struggling to get all our tags filled. Yes, we got our two antlerless tags filled, and occasionally managed a wayward grouse, but everywhere we’ve went, we’d run into the wrong species, sex, or the wrong unit to hunt the critters.

That’s why when we ran into the Tom turkeys, we were surprised.

Talking Turkey

I raise a few mixed heritage breed turkeys. Although I have a small flock of them, this year I was loathed to thin the turkeys because none of the turkey poults survived longer than a week. That’s really the way with turkey poults. They’re tough to get to hatch and even tougher to raise until they’re a few months old. After that, they’re really wonderful birds and I’m fonder of them than chickens.

Even the broad breasted turkeys are charming. My very first turkey was a broad breasted white hen that fell in love with me. (No, I’m not kidding.) Turkeys bond to whatever they see as poults. So, if you’re the one caring for them, they think of you as “mom.”

Although the domesticated broad breasted turkeys are a bit short on brains, the heritage ones are smart. In other words, they didn’t get as dumbed down as the standard Thanksgiving turkeys. Which brings me to the wild variety.

Wild Turkey: The Bird, Not the Booze

Having seen and dealt with both the wild and the domestic versions, I can truly say that the wild turkeys are impressive. When I first saw wild turkeys oh so many years ago on a road, I was stunned. I didn’t know what to think. What were they? Emus? Yes, I can laugh now, but then I had never seen one.

When I moved to Montana I was soon surprised to see wild turkeys around. I remember walking with my husband and we heard something that sounded like a stricken aircraft overhead, only to discover it was a wild turkey in flight. Yes, they’re loud when they soar. We soon saw them all the time on the road and in the forest. Whenever we went to purchase hay or go places we’d see them in fields.

The Underpants Gnomes

Come hunting season, forget it. Wild turkeys are notoriously crafty. I nicknamed them “the Underpants Gnomes” after characters in Southpark who are only seen by one child and disappear when he tries to get other people to see them. The turkeys move on foot at an astonishing rate, so when you see them, you’d better be ready to shoot.

The flock of four toms were on a small hill. My husband managed to get a shot and we saw the bird flop around and then disappear into the woods. One thing to be aware of is that not only are these critters crafty but their camouflage makes them impossible to see even when down. We ended up finding the blood from the shot and through some tense minutes of looking, I was able to see where the feathers lead to the bird. He was still alive, so we dispatched him and called it a day for hunting. With less than a week before Thanksgiving, we now had our turkey.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Manarda In Restoration

A new approach to conventional agriculture would unite not only row crops and prairie plants, but farmers and environmentalists. In his New York Times editorial, Mark Bittman highlights the STRIPS program and its incredible potential for commodity grain farmers throughout the Midwest. STRIPS stands for Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips. From Iowa State University researchers, this new conservation method converts 10 percent of a crop field to diverse, native perennials. This relatively small change reduces soil erosion by 90 percent and nitrogen loss by 85 percent.  

Prairie Plains Resource Institute(PPRI) of Aurora, Neb., is a non profit organization with a 34-year history of doing just this kind of work in the Great Plains. Specializing in high-diversity restoration, their program Ribbons of Prairie hopes to engage landowners in turning their streams and waterways into stable, diverse strips of nature that resist erosion and runoff. “We believe it should have a much wider application,” says Bill Whitney, Executive Director of PPRI. “Also, it seems to me that the heartland could go through a major transformation in land use in the next generation or two, due to climate change, fossil energy availability, water and societal changes. Prairie is certainly not the answer to everything, but it is a sustainable resource that is fundamental to life in a semi-arid environment.”

Pokorny Prairie Seed Collectors 

Similar to the STRIPS program, PPRI encourages reseeding ditches with high-diversity regional mixes. Ditches are like field strips in terms of land coverage, but carry water away from fields. If re-designed for higher plant diversity, they would store water in the soil more effectively and create a diverse insect and plant habitat that encloses a crop field, from previously unused land.

Mike Bullerman 

Learn more about the STRIPS Research Team at their website. Publications on prairie restoration may be found at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture website. If you are interested in connecting with a prairie restoration organization in the Great Plains, you may contact the Prairie Plains Resource Institute at or 402-694-5535.

High Diversity Restoration

(Top) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute: A PPRI Restoration: Monarda in bloom.

(Second from top) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute: Pokorny Prairie seed collecting, next to a corn field.

(Second from bottom) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institure: Mike Bullerman, Restoration Ecologist with PPRI, reseeds a ditch.

(Bottom) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute: High Diversity Restoration.

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