Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always wanted to be someplace else.
Growing up in Midwood, Brooklyn, I dreamed constantly of exploring exotic lands. I remember imagining that my postage-stamp backyard was a jungle where I might at any moment come upon a snarling jaguar or agile monkey. Climbing our big magnolia tree and turning over rocks and flagstones, I felt like I got to know every bug that lived there and every bird that passed through.
I took more far-flung journeys in books: The Mysterious Island, The Lost World, any novel that took me to places like Mars and Middle Earth. I also devoured every nonfiction book of travel and adventure I could get my hands on. (Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, describing his childhood roaming free on the island of Corfu, was a favorite.)
When I began my writing career, I finally had my chance. Focusing on nature and the environment, I suddenly had the resources to travel to the distant lands I’d long dreamed of. A few times each year, I got to wake up where the air smelled new and the light looked different, to see the creatures that inhabited the world’s deserts, rain forests, and tropical oceans.
I thought I’d be living like that forever. But then, of course, the world changed, and like everyone I found myself stuck close to home. Once again, as during my Brooklyn childhood, my horizons shrank mostly to the flowers, trees, and rocks in my yard.
And, just as I’d done then, I started to check out those flowers and trees and turn over those rocks.
The first place I explored was our new pollinator garden, which in this season is swarming with an astonishing variety of butterflies, bees, and other little creatures, most of which I’d never even known existed till now. (Thanks to the invaluable Seek smartphone app for my ability to put names to them.)
Golden Digger Wasp. US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Perhaps the most striking current inhabitants of the garden are the bees and wasps. (I never knew so many species lived around here!) The huge purple-black and black-and-orange wasps with ever-flickering wings are Great Black and Great Golden Digger Wasps. Smaller but just as vivid are the Blue-winged and Noble Scoliid Wasps, whose most distinctive markings are the bright orange-and-yellow patterns on their abdomens. Then there’s the one with perhaps the most descriptive name in waspdom: the Four-banded Stinkbug Hunter Wasp.
Four-banded Stink Bug Wasp.
Like the spectacular—and unnecessarily feared—Cicada Killer, all of these fascinating wasps are parasitic, stinging and paralyzing a variety of insect prey to feed their young. They’re all also unaggressive towards humans. I’ll be writing about them, and parasitism in general, in more detail soon.
Among the bees, the constant presence of honeybees shows that there must be hives nearby, though I don’t know where. Familiar Common Eastern Bumblebees bumble around, as do rotund and shiny Eastern Carpenter Bees. And I’m always on the lookout for rarer species like the Black-and-Gold and endangered Rusty-patched Bumble Bees. (These last two are typically found on grasslands or prairies, so are much less likely in my yard than in the restored grasslands of nearby Croton Point Park. But you never know if you don’t look.)
And the caterpillars and butterflies! Of course we’ve had Monarchs around our butterfly weed and Black Swallowtail caterpillars on our fennel. What has especially intrigued me, however, are the less well-known species, ones I’d hardly ever noticed but now watch out for. They come with such evocative names as Summer Azure, Eastern Comma, Cloudless Sulfur, and the small, subtly beautiful Grey Hairstreak.
The Hairstreak, one of my favorites, has evolved a brilliant defensive technique: It can wiggle tiny “tails” on the backs of its wings independent from the wings themselves. Why is this brilliant? Because predators, mistaking the wiggling tails for the Hairstreak’s antenna, attack the back of the butterfly’s wings instead of its head, giving it a much better chance to escape.
All this is richness enough, and I haven’t even mentioned the moths (I recently found a gorgeous Delicate Cycnia resting under a winterberry leaf), the gaudy Milkweed beetles, or the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sipping nectar and American Goldfinches checking out the coneflower seeds. Taken together, the abundance and diversity of life on our Brooklyn-sized postage stamp is astonishing.
Delicate Cycnia. Photo: John Rinker. Maryland Biodiversity Project.
I will never lose my desire to travel. When the world finally and truly reopens, I know I’ll be out seeking new light, new air, new birdsong. But I will also never again forget what I knew as a child and was forced to re-learn this year.
There is a jungle out there. To see it, you just have to take the time to look.
For the past couple of weeks, a hummingbird has been visiting our blooming pollinator garden. We’ve loved watching it buzz around from flower to flower, and we’re happy to know that our garden is helping supply it with the food it will need for its long southbound journey this fall.
It’s a member of the one hummingbird species that we’re likely to see around here: a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Watching it, I’ve been reminded again of the problem with the species’ name: The bird in our garden is a female, and female Ruby-throats don’t have ruby throats. (Theirs are a dirty white.)
I could probably write an entire essay on species named after a feature found only in the male (and speculate on the fact that nearly every bird species was named by a man), but the Ruby-throat made me think of something else.
Our bird names are not only inaccurate, they’re boring.
I don’t mean the Latin scientific names, which experts use to make sure they’re clearly identifying the bird they’re talking about. Those are essential, with Latin (no one’s first language) serving as a kind of lingua franca worldwide.
I mean the English common names, which are merely handy ways for laypeople (and scientists, when they’re not working) to talk about a bird without sounding pretentious. (You’d be much more likely to say, “I saw a robin,” or even “an American Robin,” than try to impress your friends with, “I observed a Turdus migratorius.”)
And however much English has become “the world’s language” (too much, in my opinion), it is not the only language used to name birds. My field guide to the birds of Belize, for example, points out that Ramphastos sulfuratus, the Keel-billed Toucan in English, is called the Belizean Bill Bird in Belizean Kriol, the Selepan in the Mayan language spoken by the nation’s Q’eqchi’ communities, and the Pun by the Mopan Maya people.
Keel-billed Toucan. Photo Joe Wallace
So, since neither science nor the world demands it, why choose such a bland name as “Keel-billed” to describe this spectacular toucan? The answer, of course, is that the common name is most often designed to help us identify a species, to point us towards the feature that will allow us to go “aha!” and check it off our list.
This is a fine idea, but the truth is that birds’ common names often fail at even this modest endeavor. Too often, they’re both dull and unhelpful.
Take our example, the Keel-billed Toucan. I’ve never learned what a “keeled” bill looks like, much less how to spot one when the bird is perched in a tree a hundred feet up. And I probably never will, mostly because I don’t have to: This gaudy bird boasts at least four other more distinctive features, most spectacularly its enormous rainbow bill, which is unlike any other large toucan’s.
So why not borrow from the Kriol and call it the Many-colored Bill Bird instead? Or the Rainbow-schnozzed or Red-butted Bigbill? (Okay, those last two might be too much to ask.)
Why not? My guess is because scientists think that such names wouldn’t be dignified enough for the genus Ramphastos, which includes all the large toucans. (The makers of Froot Loops cereal might disagree.) Instead we get not only the Keel-billed Toucan but its close relatives the Channel-billed (I defy you to spot the “channel” in the field); Yellow-throated (that’s fine…except that many other Ramphastos toucans have yellow throats as well); and Citron-throated (um, “citron” is basically another word for yellow.)
Sadly, toucans are far from alone in being given names that are both dull and unhelpful. To find an example closer to home, take a look at the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Then take another look and try to spot its red belly. Or, rather, don’t bother: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d prefer to identify this common species by its barred back, red cap and nape, buffy face and breast, and distinctive, throaty call. (By the way, the reddish belly does exist, but is rarely noticeable.)
And then there’s the Black-capped Chickadee. While this species does boast a prominent black cap, so does the Carolina Chickadee (which overlaps with the Black-cap in part of their ranges) and a couple of other chickadee species. It’s not a very distinguishing characteristic.
I could go on, but I won’t. And, to be fair, some of our species have been given more vivid names. The Northern Catbird is named after its meowing call, the Bald Eagle is a livelier name than “White-headed,” and the Scarlet Tanager’s moniker seems to capture that species’ vibrancy pretty well. But such examples are too few and far between.
The most frustrating thing about all this is that it’s not even necessary! There’s no rule dictating what kind of common name ornithologists must choose. And with one family of birds at least, they have allowed their most poetic impulses to run free. That family is Trochilidae, the hummingbirds, the same one that contains our own (blandly and incompletely named) Ruby-throated.
I don’t know why hummingbirds have been treated differently. Perhaps they’re simply too beautiful to saddle with something dull. For whatever reason, most aren’t even called “hummingbird.” Instead, even a quick look through the plates of my Ecuador bird guide reveals such glories as the Crowned Woodnymph, Spangled Coquette, Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-vented Plumeleteer, Green-tailed Trainbearer, Empress Brilliant, Tourmaline Sunangel, Violet-tailed Sylph, and Amethyst Woodstar.
Tufted Coquette. Photo: ebird.org
Brilliants! Coquettes! Woodnymphs! Don’t those names make you want to drop everything and go chasing after the birds themselves? They do me. And they don’t even include what may be my favorite bird name of all, a hummingbird named by someone who must have been head over heels for the species and its whole remarkable family.
The Shining Sunbeam.
Shining Sunbeam. Photo: surfbirds.com
Looking at the picture of the Shining Sunbeam in my Ecuador guide, I’m struck by the fact that it isn’t even the most spectacular of hummers. (Take a glance at the Crimson Topaz or Rainbow Starfrontlet for ones that can make your jaw drop.) The name is also completely unhelpful as an ID tool; if you’re searching for a sunbeam come to life, what features do you look for?
But who cares? By giving hummingbirds such glorious names, scientists have made “helpfulness” secondary to something far more important: Reminding us that birds are themselves glorious, and that getting to share the planet with them is a gift worth celebrating.
Look, such names tell us. Look closely. Aren’t they beautiful, like sunbeams?
April and May in our region—and throughout the world’s temperate climes—is a riot of color. The varied greens of newly emerging leaves, the rainbow of blooming flowers…and the arrival of vividly hued migrating birds. Around here, warblers, orioles, tanagers, and others add ever-changing splashes of yellow, orange, crimson, blue, and green to the landscape.
By June, though, many of those species will have headed north towards their nesting grounds. What sticks around all summer from the vast flood of migrants are the American Robins, Gray Catbirds, House Wrens, Eastern Bluebirds, and others that stay to raise their young in our region. Over the course of the summer, we find their nests, hear their babies begging for food, spot their ragged, tailless, newly fledged young hopping around on our lawns. And we begin, quite naturally, to think of them as “our” birds.
But are they really ours? After all, most of our nesting migratory birds don’t arrive till May, and many start heading south again in September. The Northeastern U.S. is their home for only about four months, which means that they live elsewhere for a full eight months of the year.
Range map for Ruby-throated Hummingbird. From: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-throated_Hummingbird/maps-range
And while we might be very familiar with their summertime habits, most of us know little about their lives once they leave. How do they get where they’re going? What do they eat, and what eats them? Where do they even spend the winters? (After all, “south” isn’t a very specific destination.)
There are as many answers to those questions as there are species of bird, and over the coming months I’ll talk about several of them. Today, I’ll focus on the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
For those of us living in the Northeast (in fact, in virtually the entire eastern United States and Canada), “hummingbird” means just a single species: This little, shining-green, quicksilver bird whose male’s throat glitters a vivid red in the sunlight. That’s because the Ruby-throat is a true outlier: Among the more than 300 species that make up the vast hummingbird family Trochilidae, it’s the only one to brave our often harsh and unforgiving climate…even if for only part of the year.
Broad-billed hummingbird (male) in Arizona. [click image for more Arizona butterflies and photo credit.]
As you travel south and west into warmer climes, the hummingbird picture is very different. Arizona, for example, has more than a dozen regularly occurring species, Mexico 50 or so, and Panama around 60. Hummingbird diversity reaches a breathtaking peak within a few degrees of the equator, with Colombia and Ecuador—two small countries split by that line—boasting nearly 150 species each.
Most of these species spend all or much of the year in one small area, but Ruby-throats don’t have that luxury. Like all hummingbirds, they rely on a diet of nectar and tiny insects and spiders, neither of which are in much supply during our long winter. To survive, therefore, they have to fly.
And fly they do. These minuscule birds—perhaps three inches long and weighing about a tenth of an ounce—undertake an extraordinary annual migration. Most spend their winters in Mexico and Central America as far south as Panama, a trip that usually includes a nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. That flight—which can cover 1000 or more miles—can take 20 or more hours.
How remarkable is this feat? In a normal day, a Ruby-throat eats up to half its own body mass and drinks sixteen times that much. To expend so much energy without being able to replenish it makes their trip across the Gulf almost impossible to imagine.
As soon as they reach their destination, Ruby-throats’ habits change. Up here, for example, they’re birds of backyards and mixed fields and woodlands, but on their wintering grounds they choose landscapes as diverse as shade-grown coffee plantations, dry forests, and citrus groves.
None of their new homes provide for a relaxing winter vacation. On its nesting grounds, the Ruby-throat is usually the only bird that drinks nectar, but in Panama it joins those other 59 hummingbird species. Given how territorial most members of the family are, Ruby-throats must compete far more aggressively for a drink at a prized patch of flowers or feeder than they ever do up here.
During their months in Central America, Ruby-throats also must contend with myriad other threats. During the summer, their main predators are domestic cats, small, agile raptors (like Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels) and, remarkably, large insects like dragonflies and invasive Chinese Mantids. They face many of the same predators on their wintering grounds, but also must contend with wild cats like margays and jaguarundis, the small but fierce Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (which often hunts by day), iguanas and other large lizards, and even toucans.
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Scarlet Bee-Balm, Monarda didyma. From: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-throated_Hummingbird/id
And then, after enduring all the challenges and risks of the winter months, they must retrace their same incredible journey as they head north with the changing seasons. When the first Ruby-throat visits our flowerbeds or feeder in May, we’re seeing a true survivor.
During the long, cold winter, it’s easy to forget that “our” migratory birds even exist, except as part of our yearning for spring to come. For me, though, there’s a true sense of wonder in getting a fuller picture of their lives, the lives that take place far from our backyards.
Next up when I return to this series: That bold, brash bully the Eastern Kingbird, whose winter story is one of my favorite of all.
Odd duck. It’s such a strange, old-fashioned way to portray a person, but I’ve never found a better term to describe my father.
Stanley Wallace always stood out from the flock. A lifelong Brooklynite, he sounded like an English professor, never using the wonderfully clamorous accent that made his borough famous. He was a lifelong baseball fan, but unlike the hordes of Dodgers fans around him, he rooted for their archrival New York Giants. (And, later, for the Mets, which did reunite him with the rest of his borough.)
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when any sort of activism on racial or political issues could get you into deep trouble, he was a believer in social justice. Even though he graduated from Duke University at age 19 at the top of his class, his modest outreach—such as attending interfaith services and planning sessions in Black churches—nearly destroyed his chances of getting into medical school. (He was finally admitted to the 34th school he applied to, opening the doors to a celebrated, deeply fulfilling career as a rheumatologist, researcher, and educator.)
Dad stood out in another way, too: Decades before the environmental movement blossomed in the 1960s, he was an ardent environmentalist, enthusiastic amateur naturalist, and list-keeping birder. (Though of course it was called “bird-watching” back then.)
I grew up to share my father’s refusal to march to anyone else’s drum, his beliefs in social justice, and (alas) his devotion to the Mets. But perhaps the passion that lives on most strongly in me is his unwavering love of the natural world, his desire to see it preserved, and his enthusiasm for what inhabits it.
Especially the birds.
Among the vast array of species out there, Dad’s favorites were those found near water: the herons, egrets, and other wading birds, followed closely by the sandpipers, plovers, and other shorebirds. These may seem like still more iconoclastic choices (waterbirds for a man who lived in Midwood?), but Dad’s vision always stretched far beyond his urban backyard. Starting in the early 1940s, when both national enthusiasm for nature and access to the waters surrounding New York City were at a low, he found Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, hard by Idlewild (later Kennedy) Airport in Queens.
Jamaica Bay, which comprises 12,600 acres of open water, salt marshes, brackish ponds, and woodlands, came under the auspices of the National Park Service in 1972 as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. But when Dad started visiting it—and when he first brought me there two decades later—this unique spot was managed as a park and preserve by New York City.
In virtually every season, Jamaica Bay provided me (and, at various times, my two brothers) with an early education in the ebb and flow of bird life throughout the seasons. Even with its smoggy air, views of distant city buildings, and the occasional roar of jets coming in low to the airport, it felt like a visit to an older, purer world than the one we usually inhabited.
In spring and summer, the salt marshes and edges of the large, freshwater West Pond were dotted with birds you could hardly believe would even visit the big city. Great and Little Blue Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets would stalk the shallows, while American Coots and various ducks would paddle in the deeper areas.
The refuge was also home to the fascinatingly prehistoric Glossy Ibis, which to Dad and me truly represented the magic and mystery of birds. Even now, decades later, I’ve only seen this odd species, with its dark, iridescent plumage and scimitar-like beak, in a few other places. It will always represent Jamaica Bay to me.
The last stretch of the trail around the West Pond took visitors away from the water and through some woods. Dad and I always enjoyed this change of pace, which gave us the chance to glimpse colorful songbirds like Baltimore Orioles and Scarlet Tanagers, and—on peak spring-migration days—flitting little things like warblers and vireos. Jamaica Bay awoke in me a lifelong love of these tiny avian gems, though to Dad they simply moved too fast and hid too well to be much fun.
Our last stop was usually at the wilder East Pond, a haven for shorebirds in summer and fall. I always enjoyed seeing the Yellowlegs, Willets, and other larger species (and still do!) we spotted there. But Dad had a special affection for the little, hard-to-identify sandpiper species collectively known as “peeps,” which would always spur him to pull out his trusty Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. (He carried—and I inherited—a 1947 edition of that visionary forerunner to all other field guides.)
I rarely saw Dad happier than when we were carefully studying a bird, knowing that eventually we’d reach that “aha!” moment and give a name to the one we were looking at. I think the process must have appealed to the research scientist in him, as it appeals to the writer, amateur naturalist, and birder in me.
After our visit to the East Pond, we’d head home, a transition that always came as a shock to me. Within ten minutes we’d have left the wilds behind for the endless commercial strip that was Cross Bay Boulevard. Not that civilization didn’t have its benefits: We’d always stop for lunch at Buddy’s, a huge, noisy restaurant where we both enjoyed the hot dogs and I got to play the pinball machines.
But I always felt a sense of loss, of being thrown out of paradise, as we left Jamaica Bay behind, and I know Dad felt it too. I think it was that feeling, of something precious lost, that most spurred my lifelong love for nature, my drive to do whatever I can to help preserve what’s left, and my unquenchable yen to visit places as familiar as Croton Point Park and as exotic as the Serengeti Plains or the Great Barrier Reef. It’s not just wanderlust, but something deeper and more essential: the desire to recapture the wonder I felt back then, every time I saw my first ibis of the spring.
Stanley Wallace passed away in 1989, a dedicated physician, educator, conservationist, and birder to the last. Today I want to say Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thank you for showing me Jamaica Bay, and for being the odd duck you were.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were taking a morning walk in Croton. It was a typically lovely spring morning on a beautiful village street, with birds singing and new leaves glowing in the sun. Then we saw something that didn’t seem to fit: a red shadow moving quickly and silently across a lawn and into a patch of woods.
A few mornings later, I was birding up near the model-airplane field in Croton Point Park. I stepped around a bend and glimpsed, at the far end of a clearing, a quick movement. A shape against the green, dark eyes gazing at me in surprise (“What are you doing here?”) before a reddish shape vanished into tall grass.
Then, a week or so later, I was attending a family reunion up on Cape Cod, and it seemed like red shadows were everywhere. Only now I could see they weren’t just quickly vanishing shapes, but Red Foxes. Out in the open, trotting along roads and through yards, so clearly a part of the landscape that I decided I had to write about them.
My sightings weren’t unusual. Red Foxes have always lived in the Northeastern U.S., but though populations fluctuate from year to year, it’s clear that the species finds our mix of woodlands, brush, lawn (and the prey such an ecosystem provides) very much to their liking. In this they join Eastern Coyotes, Black Bears, Bobcats, and smaller hunters such as Mink and weasels, all of which have learned to coexist with humans.
The Northeast is far from alone in being prime fox habitat. In fact, the Red Fox is the single most widespread mammal species on Earth besides humans. It ranges widely across most of Europe, temperate Asia, and North Africa as well as nearly all of North America.
The Red Fox is comfortable in a variety of habitats within this wide range, thriving in landscapes as varied as Arctic tundra and sere desert. It can even adapt to cities: In the U.K. alone, for example, scientists estimate the population of “urban foxes” (yes, they’ve been given their own category) at more than 30,000 animals. The sight of foxes on the streets has become routine for residents, if always startling at first for visitors.
What makes Red Foxes so adaptable? First, they’re skilled hunters of mice, voles, rabbits, small birds, and large insects, often capturing their prey with a high, four-footed leap and headfirst dive. (In winter, they’ll sometimes disappear entirely beneath the snow, only to emerge, triumphant, with their prey in their jaws.)
Fascinatingly, researchers have discovered that nearly all fox pounces are oriented towards the northeast, regardless of weather, wind, or other conditions. The theory: The animals use the earth’s magnetic field to help them pinpoint their prey, even when it’s under the snow or otherwise out of sight. If this proves true, foxes will be added to the list of animal species—which includes migrating birds, butterflies, and whales—that use magnetic fields to orient and direct themselves.
Red Foxes don’t even need to employ their full stalking and pouncing arsenal to find much of their food, especially in our area. In fact, like many domestic dogs, they’ll eat almost anything: eggs, fruit, carrion, grain (they especially love sunflower seeds, which means they’ll thank you for feeding the birds in your yard), leftover food from garbage cans and dumpsters, and pet food left outside.
Notoriously, they also like chicken. As a result, many farmers loathe the sight of a Red Fox, even though on balance foxes’ impact on rodent populations make them beneficial even around farms.
Another reason that foxes do well: Not much hunts them. They are preyed upon by Coyotes, especially the nearly wolf-sized coyote-wolf-dog hybrids that have spread across the Northeast in recent decades. It will be interesting to see if expanding Coyote populations will lead to a decline in fox numbers.
You’ll rarely see more than one or two Red Foxes at a time, for unlike wolves and many other canines, they don’t tend to run in packs. Both parents, however, help to raise the kits, and if you see a fox abroad during the day in the spring, it’s likely a parent hunting for food to bring back to a nearby den.
So what should you look for if you want to catch a glimpse of a “red shadow”? Don’t rely on spotting a vivid coat, because Red Fox coloration can be remarkably varied. The coat can range from a dark red to pinkish/orange, while black, brown, and silver/gray forms also exist. Many but not all individuals have a white tip to the tail, yet some (called “cross foxes”) have a black stripe down their back and another across their shoulders.
So the best advice is to keep an eye out for a medium-sized, agile, doglike creature with a fluffy tail moving quickly out of sight. (Red Foxes are usually 36-40 inches long, including the tail, and weigh somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds, so anything much larger is either a Coyote or a dog.)
Or you can listen for them. Red Foxes don’t bark, yip, howl, or bay at the moon. Their bone-chillingly loud call (usually made in the depths of night), sounds like a human scream. The cry is usually over something as mundane as a territorial dispute, but try telling that to your pounding heart after you’ve been woken out of a sound sleep at 3:00 A.M.
A long look, a quick glimpse, an empty bird feeder, or a scream in the night—they all remind us that we live alongside a sleek, complex, and endearing little predator. In an increasingly crowded world, that’s something to notice, and to celebrate.
I was raised with the core belief that nature is precious and fragile, something that you explore and marvel at but never, ever interfere with. You are inside it, but you also stand apart, and you always leave it strictly alone. (Though I confess that as a child I broke with this philosophy when it came to catching the occasional frog, turtle, or interesting bug.)
By now I know that this is not how it works: However much we may want to, we don’t stand apart from nature. As long as humans have been on Earth, our actions have affected, often disastrously, the world we live in. Every time we clear a woodlot for development, replace an untended field or meadow with a pesticide-ridden lawn, or even remove a single dead tree so it doesn’t fall on our house, we’re making life harder for the species who live alongside us.
Fortunately, we can also recognize the changes we’ve wrought and take action to halt or even reverse them. Among the results of our efforts over recent decades: Cleaner air and local waters and other regulations that have allowed populations of Bald Eagles, Osprey, Mink, and many other species to rebound.
Yet even now the belief that we should simply leave nature alone remains a hard one to abandon. This is especially true when it comes to confronting the plague of introduced, invasive species humans have brought here: plants and animals that gravely threaten countless species native to our region.
We want to reject the very idea of labeling parts of nature “good” and “bad.” Doing so feels like an example of the same arrogant, godlike attitude that got us into this mess in the first place. Yet when it comes to invasive species, I believe we must exercise our power over the world around us. We are responsible for the presence of these alien species on our shores, and it’s our responsibility to do something about them.
This, however, is much more easily said than done. Together, the following three examples—so different on the surface but so similar in deeper detail—illustrate just a few of the challenges we face as we try to reconcile what we want to do with what we must do.
Lesser Celandine is a beautiful plant, with glossy dark-green leaves and lovely, sun-shaped yellow flowers. An ephemeral (short-lived) bloomer, it’s also one of the first signs of spring, providing early splashes of color to a monochromatic landscape.
On first glance, Lesser Celandine would seem like a welcome addition to any spring woods. But the truth is that it’s a horrendously—and nearly unstoppably—invasive species that can wreak havoc on nearly every ecosystem in our region, from backyard gardens to the largest state parks and preserves.
Lesser Celandine is native to the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa). It was first brought to the U.S. as an ornamental in the 19th century, but has become increasing popular in recent decades, especially in the East. After all, who wouldn’t want a lovely spring carpet of green and yellow in the garden?
Yet keeping it in the garden has proven impossible, as Lesser Celandine finds the New World an ideal place to invade and conquer. It thrives in everything from full shade to full sun, and while preferring moist soil, manages just fine in rockier, less welcoming habitats.
And it’s still spreading west and south. The first Lesser Celandines in the Cleveland area, for example, were planted in just two gardens in the 1970s. Today, the plant has spread to more than 300 acres of nearby parkland, making up more than 50% of the ground cover in much of that land.
What makes the Lesser Celandine so successful an invader? It’s brilliantly designed to spread relentlessly. Relying on three different methods of reproduction—seeds, tubers in the soil, and bulbils, which are essentially tiny, easily spread clones of the plant located on the flower stems—it can quickly create thick, virtually impenetrable mats covering an entire forest floor.
Native plants have little or no ability to withstand a spreading mat of Lesser Celandine. Since it sprouts so early, by the time native ephemerals (such as spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, and trilliums) start to emerge, there are simply not enough air, light, or soil nutrients left for them.
On top of all that, Lesser Celandine is hellishly difficult to control or eradicate. While on its home turf, insects, fungi, bacteria, and other species help keep it in check, our local defenders simply don’t recognize or control it.
The tubers on the roots—easily broken off and left behind while digging up a plant—make removing even a small patch of Lesser Celandine into backbreaking work. You may have to dig up a patch repeatedly over several years. Yet its effects on our forest habitats vividly show the importance of controlling this relentless invader before it drives fragile native species to extinction.
Unlike Lesser Celandine, House Sparrows (first imported from Europe in the 1850s) are not beautiful (though males in fresh plumage can look attractively natty.) They’re not ephemeral at all, sticking around all year in our region. And they can’t clone themselves or spread via tubers.
But in the most important ways, House Sparrows check off the boxes an invader needs to succeed. They’re comfortable living close to humans, especially in cities and suburbs. They eat a wide variety of grains and seeds and are happy to supplement that diet with discarded human foods and insects of many different kinds.
Most critically, they are aggressive and adaptable breeders. They evolved to nest in natural cavities in rock and trees, but have adapted easily to holes in buildings, streetlight fixtures, roofs, and nest boxes originally designed for threatened Eastern Bluebirds or Tree Swallows. House Sparrows will aggressively commandeer both human-made and natural nest sites used by these and other species, killing the original nestlings and even parent birds sitting on a nest.
Actress, environmental activist, and National Audubon Society board member Lili Taylor has dubbed the male House Sparrow’s monotonous, single-pitch chorus the “chirp of death.” When you hear the chirp of death, you know that nearby nest sites have most likely already been taken over and their occupants chased away or killed.
So what’s to be done about House Sparrows? Unlike native birds, they are not protected by law, so the best solution may be the toughest one: killing or trapping the birds. (Some raptor rehab facilities welcome trapped sparrows as hawk food.) Few communities or individuals may have the stomach for such campaigns, however.
At the very least, though, we can keep an eye on local nest boxes. By evicting any House Sparrows who start building nests there and destroying any eggs they’ve laid, we can take an important step in limiting the damage this aggressive invader can do.
This section is the one that makes me saddest. I have no fondness for Lesser Celandine, and I frankly loathe the presence of House Sparrows and their “chirp of death.”
But praying mantises? They’ve been my favorite insects since I was a child. I love them for their hunting prowess, unsettlingly human gaze, flexible necks, and amazing camouflage. (If you never have, Google “Leaf Mantis” and “Dead Leaf Mantis.”)
But it turns out that the mantid I’ve loved the most ever since my Brooklyn childhood is the Chinese Mantid, an invader from Asia introduced accidentally in 1896. (And still sold as a “pest control” solution at garden centers and online.) But far from helping control pests, this huge insect (individuals can reach 5″ in length) has nearly extirpated the small, slender native Carolina Mantid, both by outcompeting it for prey and eating it outright.
And smaller mantises form only a tiny part of a Chinese Mantid’s prey. An indiscriminate feeder, it uses powerful, barbed front limbs and lightning-fast reflexes to snatch and eat virtually any creature it can handle, including insects, small birds, lizards, and even an occasional mouse or other small mammal.
Native bees, wasps, butterflies, and other crucial—and besieged—pollinator insects are major parts of the Chinese Mantid’s diet. So are Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, also an important pollinator species. Even the perpetually endangered Monarch Butterfly—left alone by most predators due to its toxicity—isn’t immune. Not affected by the toxins, a single mantid may stake out a patch of milkweed until it’s devoured every last caterpillar and butterfly in the area.
So what’s to be done about Chinese Mantids? Here the answer is clear, however much I hate to say it: If you find one, kill it. Last fall I came upon a huge individual in our pollinator garden, and by the time I steeled myself for the unwelcome task, it had captured and was devouring two small and beautiful native wasps, one in each forelimb.
During the winter, you can also keep an eye out on bare branches of bushes and shrubs for the species’ distinctive egg cases. Remove and destroy any you find. (Or, if you don’t happen to raise chickens, give them to a friend who does—the birds love this tasty snack.) Eliminating egg cases, each of which can contain up to 300 eggs, can be an important step in controlling the species’ local populations.
Despite the realities facing us, the concept of destroying any living thing—even an invasive one—can still feel deeply, painfully wrong, like breaking a heartfelt promise. But the truth is clear: Many of our most precious native species, crucial parts of the web of life in our region, are under intense pressure. If we want to preserve and nurture what’s left, then we can no longer simply leave nature alone.
Every year, there’s a certain day when I finally believe that spring is coming. It’s not necessarily on March 20th or 21st, whenever the calendar decrees the season has arrived. Nor is it that first warm day after a long winter, the time I spot the first hardy crocus, or even the first dawn that’s greeted by the songs of Robins, Cardinals, and other birds that have been silent—or absent—all winter.
No…that day comes the first time I walk in a local park and hear the Pinkletinks calling.
Or, as we know them, Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), the minuscule frogs whose calls fill the late-winter woods in our area. “Pinkletink” is what they’re affectionately known as on Martha’s Vineyard. (I suggest we appropriate this glorious name.)
The rhythmic, high-pitched Peeper chorus begins as early as late February in the Northeast, even before the skunk cabbage sends out its first shoots. It emanates from the hundreds of frogs that can gather in small ponds (frequently temporary ones created by melting ice and snow) and other wetlands. Here males call for mates, vying for the females who will choose them.
While I’ve enjoyed this chorus for many years, it wasn’t till this spring that I began to wonder: How can these tiny creatures be out and about when the snow has barely left the ground and temperatures at night still frequently fall below zero? After all, they’re as cold-blooded as any other amphibian and reptile, most of which don’t emerge till much later.
The answer is antifreeze. Like overwintering insects and seeds, Peepers produce chemicals called cryoprotectants—often glucose and glycerol, the same chemical we use to keep our cars from freezing. They allow the frogs to survive in leaf litter or under loose bark during the coldest months and become active again as soon as the weather thaws.
You might be able to spot a recently emerged Spring Peeper as it makes its way to a nearby pond. But you’d better have sharp eyes: Peepers reach no more than an inch and a half in length and weigh in at between a tenth and a fifth of an ounce. They’re brown or tan with a darker cross- or x-pattern on their backs. (It’s the cross that gives this species, its scientific name; crucifer means “cross-bearer.”)
Once the males reach a pond, they carve out a tiny territory and begin to sing. The result may seem like an undifferentiated wall of sound to us, but it’s actually just one part of a fascinating process.
Nearly always, three frogs whose territories adjoin sing in competition. The one with the deepest voice usually begins a round of calls, and the one with the loudest, most persistent sound (not always the same individual) is most likely to attract a female.
Yet this “survival of the loudest” process comes with one major complication: The territories of singing males are haunted by “satellite males.” These individuals don’t sing at all; instead, they hang around the periphery of the other males’ territories, hoping to intercept—and force themselves upon—females as they hop in to choose their mates. As many as 15% of all the males in an assemblage may be satellites, and they often succeed in their goal.
Studies have shown that these silent males are often smaller and less robust than the males they preempt. Therefore, they’d rarely be a female’s choice. Yet this widespread behavior seems to offer the whole species a surprising evolutionary benefit.
Spring Peeper populations have ebbed and flowed during the series of Ice Ages that swept across northern North America over the past two million years. At the depths of the freezes, the surviving populations have often become isolated from each other, sometimes for thousands of years. During these long separations, the species split into several different lineages, which scientists have been able to identify through DNA analysis.
With the retreat of the most recent Ice Age (about 18,000 years ago), separate Peeper lineages rejoined each other. These populations hadn’t diverged enough to form separate species, but even now they often feature significant differences in size and voice. Researchers have found that satellite males often originate from a different lineage than the predominant one in their area. Meanwhile, females prefer to stick with the males from their own original population.
When a smaller satellite male takes the place of the stronger one a female would have chosen, it would seem to directly challenge the evolutionary philosophy of “survival of the fittest.” The result, however, may bring greater diversity and strength to the species as a whole. Simply by increasing the gene pool, this mixing of lineages can help reduce the risk of harmful mutations, increased susceptibility to disease, and other threats common in populations that are inbred.
Regardless of her mate, a fertilized female typically produces about 900 eggs in a single clutch. These are hidden amid vegetation and leaf litter at the bottom of the pond, where they hatch in 6 to 12 days. Surprisingly, the tadpoles then take an unusually long time (as much as three months) before maturing into frogs. Every year, vast number of young Peepers perish when their temporary ponds dry up.
Even so—and despite the ongoing wetland pollution and development that have reduced their population in some places—Spring Peepers remain a common species in undisturbed and regenerating woodlands throughout our region. As long as we continue to give them the space they need, our noisy Pinkletinks should serve as an unmistakable harbinger of spring for a long time to come.
My wife and I were walking along a familiar path in Rockefeller State Park when we glimpsed a sudden movement at the edge of the trail. A small animal, something quick, agile, and unpredictable, dashing around on the forest floor so quickly it was hard to focus on.
What on earth was it? My brain cycled quickly through the possibilities. Not a mouse, mole, vole, or rat. Maybe a Red Squirrel? No: Aside from the size, the little creature at our feet—pausing for a moment to stand on its hind legs and glare at us, showing off its white belly—was all wrong for a squirrel.
Then the animal dove into a pile of brush, and its speed and strange, almost snakelike motion revealed the answer. It was a Short-tailed Weasel, just one of six members of the family Mustelidae native to New York. Its local cousins, the Long-tailed Weasel, American Marten, Fisher, American Mink, and North American River Otter, can also all be seen in the Hudson Valley.
Can be seen, but rarely are. With the exception of water-loving River Otters, which sometimes appear—as if out of nowhere—in bold family groups in the Hudson River and the region’s lakes and reservoirs, mustelids are often extraordinarily wary. Weasels, Martens, and Fishers tend to stick to dense woods, while Mink prefer the forested edges of remote ponds. The truth is, if you’ve spent any time in the woods, you’ve likely been observed by many more mustelids than you’ve ever glimpsed.
Mustelids are native to every continent but Australia and Antarctica. Unlike the species in our region, members of the family can be found in a wide variety of habitats: Badgers, for example, prefer grasslands, Wolverines the frozen tundra, and aquatic Sea Otters the kelp forests of the Pacific Ocean.
Regardless of their habitat, though, nearly all mustelids share some essential characteristics, the ones we saw during our brief weasel encounter. Most are quick, agile, aggressive, and absolutely fearless. Together, these attributes make them peerless hunters, pound for pound (or ounce for ounce) among the fiercest of all carnivores.
Much else about mustelids’ life story remains little known, however. They are hard to find and hard to study. Even radio collars (a go-to for field researchers hoping to follow elusive species in the wild) don’t usually work on weasels and other small members of the family. The problem: the animals’ extraordinarily supple bodies allow them to wriggle easily out of the collars.
Scientists do know, however, that the animals’ relentless energy requires constant refueling. Weasels’ metabolism is extravagantly demanding (their hearts beat at an astonishing 350-400 beats per minute), which means that each day a single individual must consume a third to half its body weight in food.
This constant need for fuel means that weasels can’t wait patiently to ambush their prey, as most wild cats do—doing so would take too much time. Nor can they pursue their prey until it slows or drops from exhaustion (a method often used by wolves and other wild dogs), because this would expend too much energy.
Instead, weasels roam their landscape and—upon seeing potential prey—attack it without hesitation, depending on their speed and agility to end the chase quickly. (And nearly anything they encounter can be a target; weasels will take on rabbits ten times their weight.) They then quickly immobilize their prey by severing its spinal cord with a single bite to the back of the head.
Weasels have evolved other distinctive—and controversial—habits to cope with their constant need to eat. Unlike many carnivores, which demand fresh meat, they often kill far more than they can eat in one sitting, caching the rest in “larders” (often found in burrows or rockpiles). The ability to store food today means that they might not starve tomorrow.
Unfortunately weasels can’t always tell wild prey from domestic. This has made them notorious among farmers for raiding henhouses and killing all the hens inside.
This reputation is at least partly unfair, as studies have shown that rats turn out to be the real culprit in many cases. In addition, weasels tend to keep farmyards and buildings clear of rodents, which carry disease and are extremely destructive to crops.
And even when weasels are responsible for killing chickens, it’s important to remember that they’re filling their larders, not engaging in purposeless slaughter. (Not that this distinction is any consolation to the farmer.)
Regardless, weasels’ hunting habits—along with their admittedly unsettling speed, snakelike movements, and ability to get into seemingly predator-proof places—have made their common name into a common insult. “Weasel” has come to refer to sly, sneaky, untrustworthy people, ones who will betray you with “weasel words” as they take advantage of you. You should never trust weasels…or even take your eyes off them.
While we weren’t concerned about betrayal that day in Rockefeller State Park, we did find it hard to take our eyes off the one and only Short-tailed Weasel we’ve ever seen there. But that was because we were watching a tiny, glorious predator, perfectly adapted to survival in the environment we were fortunate enough to share. And, even more impressively, it was a member of a fierce, independent family that has somehow managed to survive—and even thrive—in our crowded, human-dominated world.
A few weeks ago, while scanning for ducks, unusual gulls, and other birds the Verplanck waterfront, a group of birders spotted a large, hump-snouted, definitely non-birdlike head sticking up from the Hudson River’s surface. It was a male Gray Seal, a rare species—even a rare class (Mammalia)—to glimpse in in these waters.
Rare…but not unprecedented. Late fall to early spring is seal season in the Hudson and its tributaries, and over the past few months waterfront observers and lucky kayakers have also spotted the more commonly seen Harbor Seals (a smaller, sleeker relative of the Gray) off Croton, Saugerties, and other locations. In recent years, other seal species, including Hooded and Harp, have also made appearances in the river.
The most remarkable of these sightings involve a Harbor Seal first spotted in the river and nearby Esopus Creek in Saugerties on August 21, 2019. The animal then spent 533 (seemingly contented and healthy) days in the area. It was last reported on January 14, so it may finally have departed, perhaps due to extensive ice floes in the Hudson or the muddy quality of Esopus Creek in this season.
A white tag placed on the seal’s flipper when it was a pup—and reported many times during the animal’s subsequent wanderings—allowed scientists to track its journey. Rescued as an abandoned pup from an island in Maine, the seal was rehabbed by the Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Program, tagged, and released off Rhode Island in the spring of 2019.
The young animal then traveled 80 miles up the Connecticut River before encountering an impassible dam, where it reversed course and headed back to the ocean. It eventually ended up in New York Harbor and then the Hudson River estuary. Traveling upriver, it reached Saugerties, where it decided to stick around for a while.
It’s impossible to know for sure if there are more seals in the Hudson now than in years past, but it seems likely. The river is cleaner and fishing regulations are stricter than they have been in decades, making the river a much more welcoming environment for these fish-eaters.
But it’s more than that: The seals that visit the Hudson are also part of a much wider phenomenon taking place all along the coasts of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. Throughout the region, populations of both Gray and Harbor seals are booming, with some breeding colonies growing at an annual rate of twenty percent or more a year.
It’s important to realize that this encouraging trend merely represents seal populations reclaiming what had previously been lost. In historical times Gray Seals were abundant across the North Atlantic, while Harbor Seals—the world’s most widely distributed seal—thrived in northern oceans around North America, Europe, and Asia.
Unfortunately, what happened to these two species during the 19th and first half of the 20th century is a familiar story of human exploitation. In the United States and Canada, they became the targets of intensive hunting for meat, oil, and their skins. They were also culled, supposedly to protect local fishing stocks. (In Massachusetts as late as the 1960s, each seal nose turned in earned its hunter a $5 bounty.)
The consequences of this decades-long persecution were predictable: Seal populations plummeted. By 1970, the region’s entire population of Gray Seals, for example, may have dwindled from as many as 150,000 to as few as 5000 individuals, almost all off Canada. Both species were virtually extinct along the U.S. coast.
In the 1970s, however, a series of laws in the U.S. and Canada granted both seals significant protection, and almost immediately their numbers started to rebound. The increase has been ongoing since then, and today scientists estimate that there are 140,000-150,000 Gray and 70,000-100,000 Harbor Seals off the northeast coast.
Even apart from Hudson River sightings, it’s easy to notice the increase. When I was a kid on Cape Cod, no one ever saw—or expected to see—a seal. These days, however, a quick scan from an ocean beach on the Outer Cape will usually reveal at least one Gray Seal rolling and diving just offshore.
And sometimes far more than that. In winter, my family and I have watched thirty or more Gray Seals congregate close to the beach, seemingly as interested in us as we are in them. (A reliable way of attracting a seal horde: Jump around or dance on the sand, something my own kids enjoyed doing when they were little.)
Along with the animals’ entertainment value and the fulfilling knowledge that we can still coexist with other large mammals, booming seal populations have had more complicated consequences. It all starts with the simple fact that there are a lot more humans around here now than there were the last time seals were so abundant, and thus a far greater demand for the fish that both seals and humans depend on.
With commercial fisheries and the sport-fishing industry both already under pressure, the increasing number of seals has provoked an outcry all up and down the coast. (Gray Seals especially have been known to take big Striped Bass and Bluefish right off lines within full view of the person who’s reeling in a catch…not a behavior designed to win friends.) Despite some scientists’ belief that seals have only a negligible effect on fish stocks, calls for renewed hunts or culls are rising.
Making the issue even knottier is a recent phenomenon that has drawn attention worldwide. Great White Sharks, which feed on seals, have followed Gray Seals close to the shores of Cape Cod, often to within a stone’s throw of the most popular beaches. More than 150 Great Whites were recorded around the Outer Cape in 2019 alone.
Several times in recent years, beachgoers have watched—and filmed—a Great White Shark as it killed a seal in the exact spot where they’d swimming just minutes before. And though attacks on humans are very rare, they aren’t unknown: In September of 2018 a surfer was killed by a shark off a popular Wellfleet beach.
Much of Cape Cod’s economy relies on tourist dollars. While some businesses have embraced the Cape’s new “come see the real-life Jaws!” reputation, most worry about the ultimate fate of a beach resort area where people don’t feel safe going in the water. Alongside calls to kill sharks, the chorus to reduce the population of seals has grown even louder.
So what’s to be done? For now, both seal species remain fully protected and the sharks unmolested. And Cape Cod’s residents and visitors are trying to stay safe through education, signage, aerial surveillance of offshore waters, satellite tagging of sharks, and other methods. (For example, high-tech buoys near some beaches ping a warning when a tagged shark is nearby.)
But the longer-term story remains to be written. Right now, both Harbor and Gray Seals stand as emblems of how, through strong regulation and careful management, we can help wild creatures survive in our increasingly crowded and complicated world. Yet they also illustrate one of myriad challenges we must face in the years to come: Once we’ve allowed a species’ population to recover, what happens to it—and to us—next?
It had already been a long night. I’d worked late, and after finally making it to bed had tossed and turned before finally slipping into an uneasy sleep.
I’d given myself permission to sleep late the next morning, but it turned out the choice wasn’t mine to make. At first light, a joyous song—“Teakettle Teakettle, Teakettle, Tea!”—rang in the new December day from just outside the bedroom window. A moment later, it was joined by a second. And then a third.
I lay there for several minutes, listening to the three vocalists vying to show who could greet the day most enthusiastically, before bowing to the inevitable and hauling myself out of bed. I knew who these songsters were (as, I’m sure, do many of you): Carolina Wrens, the definition of persistently noisy neighbors. There would be no more sleep for me that morning.
Today, the boldly patterned, endlessly active, and bright-eyed Carolina Wren is one of the Northeast’s most familiar year-round species. But it wasn’t always this way. The first time I saw one, I was a teenager on Cape Cod, birding with my dad. When we spotted a buffy little bird perching on a nearby branch and letting loose with a ringing song, we had to pull out our trusty Peterson’s field guide to tell us what it was.
This was in the 1970s. The Carolina Wren was already breeding in parts of the Northeast back then, but its true home was largely the Southern states. (It’s the state bird of South Carolina.) In the decades since, though, the wren has steadily expanded its breeding range northward, today nesting as far north as Ontario and Quebec. It has also begun to overwinter in some of its northern range; hence the clamor that awoke me to a December dawn.
As with other “southern” species (e.g., Black Vulture) that now spend the winters here, the wren’s expansion is partly due to our warming climate. Other human-wrought changes to the environment, however, have also helped.
For example, the birds’ preferred habitat includes vine tangles, woodpiles, and secondary forest with dense underbrush below, all of which are in abundant supply in northern suburbs and parks. And, like many other birds that eat mostly insects and spiders during warm weather, the wrens switch to a mainly seed-based diet in the winters, and therefore can rely on backyard birdfeeders. (Where, I can report from personal observation, they shovel large quantities of seed to the ground while seemingly searching for the most delicious ones.)
Yet the story of the Carolina Wren’s recent success in our area goes deeper than the warming climate, habitat, and food supplies. Many of its most distinctive (and entertaining) advantages are specific to the wren alone.
For instance, most birds sing almost exclusively during nesting season, but—as we well know—not Carolina Wrens. Vocal all year round, and territorial, too, they are on the lookout for a mate at any time of year. And once they’ve paired up, they usually stay together for life.
This means no muss, no fuss, no wasting precious warm-weather days seeking a partner. Come the first hint of spring and they’re ready to get to work on the nest.
Nor are they picky about where they choose to raise their young. Although all Carolina Wrens nest in cavities, their definition of that word is exceedingly generous. Along with the traditional holes in trees, they’ve been known to choose boots, mailboxes, working light fixtures, the pockets of jackets hanging on nails, and a host of other “cavities”…and to raise their young successfully in every one.
The rewards of an early start and flexibility in nesting sites are dramatic. While most species raise only a single brood each year, Carolina Wrens can successfully rear as many as three—with as many as seven eggs each time—in a single breeding season.
In the north, severe and snowy winters will often cause wren populations to crash. But the birds’ ability to produce so many young means that these populations usually bounce back quickly. In fact, the number of Carolina Wrens in the Northeast has been increasing steadily during the past few decades. (Recent Christmas Bird Counts throughout our region turned up record totals of the species.)
While I confess that didn’t feel much affection for them as I lay awake that cold winter morning, Carolina Wrens have become among my favorite birds. By singing anytime, eating anything, and nesting anywhere, they seem like true survivors, ever ready to take on whatever challenges the dangerous world throws at them. That’s a bird I’m happy to sing the praises of—day, night, or crack of dawn.