Nature’s Recyclers

Fungi Decomposing Fall
Leaves Outside the
Stokes Nature Center
Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore
Stokes Nature Center

Redworms Eisenia fetida
from Stokes Nature Center’s
vermicomposting system
Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore
Stokes Nature Center

On Tuesday, November 15th, our nation celebrates America Recycles Day. While the day itself tends to focus on human recycling activity, I thought we should also give a nod to nature’s recyclers. Worms, maggots, fungi, beetles, and bacteria – it sounds like a list of leftover Halloween horrors. But in reality, we should be more afraid of what our world would look like without these creepy-crawlies, for these are nature’s recyclers. Scientists call these organisms saprophytes, and as important as their role in life is, they are more likely to evoke a shudder than any feeling of gratitude.

What decomposers actually do is break dead things down into smaller and smaller pieces, until all that is left are the basic molecular components that make up all living things such as nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and potassium. Once broken down, this material is then free to be taken up again by plants and animals that use them to live and grow. This cycle of nutrients is vital to life on Earth, and our saprophytic friends make it all possible.

While decomposition would occur even without the help of the decomposers, it would take much, much longer. In some landfills, newspapers have been unearthed that are more than 20 years old, and still quite readable. This is because landfills often create anaerobic environments, where oxygen-loving insects, fungi, and bacteria cannot live and therefore cannot aid decomposition. If without decomposers, a newspaper can last 20 years, what would happen to much larger and hardier items such as tree trunks and roadkill? I shudder to think about it.

Did you know that the U.S. throws more than 33 million tons of food waste into landfills each year? This organic material goes to waste there – taking up valuable space and taking longer than normal break down. So this year, celebrate America Recycles Day by employing some of nature’s recyclers in your yard. Consider starting a compost pile where your fall leaves and food scraps can get broken down into nutrient-rich all-natural fertilizer for next year’s garden.

If you’re in Cache Valley and are looking for a way to mark America Recycles Day, please join the Stokes Nature Center for a tour of the Logan landfill to find out what happens to your garbage and how recycling programs ensure there is less of it. This free tour will be held at 4:30pm on Tuesday, November 15th. For details, visit the Stokes Nature Center website at

For composting tips and more information about nature’s recyclers, visit Wild About Utah online at Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic. For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.


Photos: Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore,
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center,

Composting Tips & Information:

Farrell-Poe, K. and Koenig, R. (2010) Backyard Composting in Utah. Utah State University Cooperative Extension.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Composting.

Additional Reading:

Fogel, R. (2002) Waste Not, Want Not: Fungi as Decomposers. Utah State University Herbarium.

Hoff, M. (2009) Young Naturalists: Nature’s Recyclers. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Newsletter. July-August 2009.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011) Basic Information About Food Waste.

A Big Year in Utah

Utah Big Year Records

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

Birders are flocking to theaters to see the new movie The Big Year. The story is based on a real life competition among birders in which they race around to count the most birds within a particular geographic boundary in a single calendar year.

To do a Big Year, you need to follow some simple rules. To count a bird it must be alive and wild and unrestrained when encountered. You have to see enough or hear enough of the bird to absolutely be sure it’s the species you are claiming to see. And the bird must be within the prescribed area and time period of your particular Big Year competition. For instance if you are doing a Big Year for the state of Utah, you can’t count a bird that you see across the border in Idaho. However, you can be standing in Idaho looking at a bird in Utah, and you can count it.

To be competitive in a Big Year you have to find ALL the usual or common birds in your designated country, state or area. This means hitting all the major birdwatching spots at critical times during the year. In Utah you might want to start in the southwestern corner of the state picking up desert species such as vermillion flycatcher and greater roadrunner . Then head to the high Uintas to see Rocky Mountain alpine and subalpine birds such as the rosy finch and northern goshawk. You’d want to check out the Great Salt Lake in all four seasons and make frequent trips up and down the Wasatch canyons as different elevation zones harbor different species. Whenever possible you should be scouring wetlands and riparian zones for whoever might be perching, wading or fishing.

To push your count up beyond that of your competitors, you would need to spot rare birds, esp. vagrants. Vagrants are birds who have wandered or been blown off course. For example, when setting the Big Year record in Cache County, Ryan O’Donnell saw an Iceland Gull who was obviously terribly lost. And a Mexican Whip-poor-will that had somehow drifted up from Southern Arizona.

Modern communication technology is incredibly useful for locating rare birds and vagrants. Big Year participants monitor chat lists like Birdnet and BirdTalk run by Ebird also helps spread the news of sightings. Email hotlines operate in several Utah regions. It always helps to maintain a network of birding friends who can text you the location of birds you haven’t seen yet.

Thanks to Frank Howe and Ryan O’Donnell of Utah State University’s Dept. of Wildland Resources for their assistance in developing this Wild About Utah story.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Table: Courtesy
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

American Bird Association

Utah Birds


Bridgerland Audubon Society Cache Birders Hotline

Official movie site:

Migratory Birds and Coffee

Western Tanager
Courtesy & Copyright © 2010
Michael Fish

For many of us, the day has not truly begun until we hold a warm mug of richly flavored coffee in our hands. But how often have you considered where that coffee comes from and how its culture impacts wild Utah?

We tend to think of migratory birds as our residents who take a winter vacation to the south every year. But it is more truly the other way around. They are representatives from groups of tropical birds who venture north to take advantage of less crowded nesting and a seasonal abundance of food for their young. For instance, of the 49 species of true tanagers, only 4 summer in the United States. Much of our coffee originates in Central and South America and its production directly affects birds who fly north to nest in Utah.

Traditionally, coffee bushes are grown under a diverse canopy. Some of the trees in the overstory yield timber, others fix nitrogen and still others like papaya provide food. This multi-tiered habitat supports a wide variety of birds that is only exceeded by undisturbed tropical forest itself.

About twenty years ago, coffee production changed radically with the development of varieties that tolerate full sun. This has allowed huge areas of land to be cleared of forest and planted exclusively to row after row of coffee bushes that demand intensive management. More fertilizer and pesticides are needed leading to toxic runoff. Soil erosion increases. Much lovely bird habitat has been destroyed for this barren coffee monoculture. Many migratory bird populations are in trouble due to the loss of their forested winter habitats.

But there is hope for coffee lovers because many farmers still grow coffee in the traditional way. These grower-owned farms tend to be smaller and provide a more reliable income for the farmer due to the diversity of crops. Soil quality is maintained while providing critical habitat for tropical frogs, insects, plants and birds. When purchasing coffee, look for bird friendly or shade grown or certification by Rainforest Alliance or Smithsonian. Our warblers, tanagers and thrushes will thank you.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Michael Fish
Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Shade-Grown Coffee, National Audubon Website,

Song Bird Coffee, American Birding Association,

Some Coffee-related Resources, American Birding Association,

Why Migratory Birds are Crazy for Coffee, Migrants and Coffee: What’s the Connection?, National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution,

Why Migratory Birds Are Crazy for Coffee, Atlanta Audubon Society,

Smithsonian-Certified Shade Grown & Bird Friendly Coffee, Caffe Ibis,

Owls and iPods

Great Horned Owl and Chick, Courtesy US FWS Digital Library, George Gentry Photographer
Great Horned Owl and Chick
Photographer: George Gentry
US FWS Digital Library

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

In early spring, my friends and I went owling in a northern Utah canyon. We were hoping for modest success—just to see or hear a northern pygmy or great horned owl — both common owls in our area.

To better the odds we brought an iPod with prerecorded owl sounds. We played the northern pygmy call for 20-30 second intervals and listened intently in between intervals.

After 10 minutes of off-and-on playbacks we heard an answering call from a nearby conifer grove. We were ecstatic that we had made contact with an actual owl. But wait! Was it an owl we heard or just another iPod user?

Pygmy Owl, Courtesy US FWS Digital Library, Bob Miles Photographer
Pygmy Owl
Photographer: Bob Miles
US FWS Digital Library

According to David Sibley, author of the Sibley Guide to Birds, the proliferation of digital audio devices and recorders among birders has both pluses and minuses. On the plus side, you can often entice certain birds out of hiding using playbacks. For example, if a territorial male thinks a rival bird is threatening to encroach on its territory, he may come out to confront the intruder. Or he may sing his “I’m Here, So Stay Away” song. A female bird might approach the recording source as a potential date. Using playbacks, you can target specific species to see or hear without disturbing others.

On the flip side, overuse of these playback devices can cause unnecessary stress and distraction in the target birds—and annoyance among other birders. In one study, the use of playbacks upset the avian apple cart by causing high-ranking black- capped chickadee males to lose status. The rest of the flock perceived them as losers as they were unable to drive away an unwanted phantom intruder.

Because the widespread use of recorded playbacks is relatively new, proper etiquette is still evolving. But here are some key points.

  • Keep the volume low and use only occasional snippets of sound—less than 30 seconds at a time. Leave a long pause between snippets. Definitely do not broadcast loud or continuous sound.
  • It is illegal to disturb endangered or threatened species. And these recordings can be interpreted as disturbance. So stick with sounds of non-threatened species.
  • Finally, check the rules at your birding location. The use of playback is prohibited in some parks and refuges.

For source material and websites with bird sound recordings, go to

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Photos: Courtesy US FSW Digital Media Library
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Sibley, David. 2011. The Proper Use of Playback in Birding. Sibley Guides: Identification of North American birds and trees. [Accessed May 19, 2011]


Soundscapes for Birders by Kevin Colver shared bird sounds from the whole world

Beletsky, Les, editor. 2010. Bird Songs Bible: The Complete, Illustrated Reference for North American Birds Contains digital audio player.

Ipods and mp3 apps:


Audubon Birds Field Guide

The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America