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Where the Wild Things Could Be: A Walk with David Hoferer

Bacon Creek in Sioux City
Mark Munger
Bacon Creek in Sioux City

David Hoferer: I'm Dave Hofer, H, O, F, E, R, E R. So one “F” and two “ers.” And I just saw Goldfinch over here, by the way.

Well, we're going on the trail here at Bacon Creek. Bacon Creek Park in Siouxland. There he goes. There's the… he's right up there in that branch, right there.

See, if you stop and look at this. This is, this is kind of neat. This is, on the one hand, this is a really nice park, because as we look down slope here, you can see that we have the creek that becomes a lake. There's a lot of recreation opportunities. There's a fisherman over there, up that way, on, on that hill. If we go, if we go past all this and go up on that hill, that's where, last month, I was able to photograph a number of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, which are these amazing birds. They're related to the Cardinal, hence the name grosbeak: very large beak.

So the grosbeaks are over there. I know where the, you know, like I said, the Yellow Warblers, the Red-winged Blackbirds are. So from that standpoint, it's, this is a park that's good for nature. If you heard that, that's a Gray Catbird? They're all over the place here in Siouxland. But the other thing that always strikes me, too, is, okay, let's look at the trees. This is kind of like a park, right? You got either a tree or a couple clumps of trees, and then we have this lawn in between, so obviously they got to come in and mow it. And I always wonder about that. Why do we have this lawn you have got to come in and mow if we're going to have a nature park? Why does it have to be so manicured? Let's have a nature park. If you have prairie, or you have an oak savanna through here, which also would have been akin to the types of ecosystems that used to be here, you'd have even more wildlife here, and I think it'd still be safe for people to come out with their families. So,I always wonder about that.

The whole idea of managing these places is there's only certain things that are supposed to be here, and let's get rid of the things that we think should not be here, rather than just let them be. We, see, we don't want the public officials to know, because there are ordinances. There are laws about that where, you know the DNR workers might have to do something about that, or might be called in. And so we're like, “Um, okay, let's not tell anyone.”

Mark Munger: So it's like an underground nature conservancy?

Dave Hoferer: Almost, almost, it's those who see it happening. They're like, "Oh yeah, hey, you know what? I saw beavers." Don't tell anyone, you know?

"Oh yeah, I saw the otters." Do not say.

We need laws that will actually say, “Hey, wait a minute. The wildlife is actually precious, and we need to preserve it.”

Now here, I always like to stop and look. You see the creek, the water kind of looks mostly clear right now, although you can easily see kind of the brown and some little bit of the algae beneath. Then I look over here because it flows underneath the culvert here, and then it's…. Oh, yeah, that's just all algae infested. This spring this was flowing brown. Every time I was here, it was just all brown. So there's just a ton of runoff at the head of the watershed. And now that it has all this algae and everything in it, it tells me there are way too many nutrients in here.

Well, that's Iowa in a nutshell for you. It's probably way too much nitrogen in there.

Whatever you grow up with, you just assume that's normal, right? Kids haven't studied history. They haven't, you know, you just assume that's normal. And so if we grow up with a hugely altered and depleted wildlife, with streams that run brown instead of clear, then everyone's just going to assume, yeah, that's normal. And so every generation, we reset what we consider normal to be. So what I realized is that in my experience growing up, I used to watch Nature on public television just about every Sunday night. So it was pretty religious for me, and I… [Woodpecker makes alarm call]. Hey, he's right up there.

I really got the sense that nature is elsewhere. Nature's not in Iowa. If you want to experience anything that's wild.

[Pointing to the woodpecker] You can see him? You can just barely see him moving around.

So to finish the story, I really got the sense that, you know, nature is not in Iowa, and if you wanted to go to a park, you wanted to go to a lake and go fishing or something like that, it's always, "Okay, let's get in the car and drive somewhere." It's never, "Let's walk through the woods, out the back door, go along the trail a little bit, hike along the creek, and just find a good spot."

That's not what Iowa is. And in many ways it's a tragedy. You know? Our kids are growing up not really knowing what the environment's like.

I had a really cool experience about a month-and-a-half ago through here. We had Swainson's Thrushes. A thrush, basically the Robin is a type of thrush, but mostly they're brown birds, and then they have various levels of spotting on their breasts and bellies. So telling some of them apart can be difficult. But these guys were probably Swainson's. Swainson's look very much like the Gray-cheeked Thrush. The Gray-cheeked Thrush has this light gray on the cheek.

Okay, I'll just go Swainson's.

And they were all through here, a little flock of them. We counted about six of them, and they were just, they were moving through. It was migration season, and it was a really cool find.

So this, I think, is sumac, and this may well be wild grape, although it looks like that has a lot of fungus on it. I'm not sure how the wild grapes are gonna… see? You can see it here too. Wild grape as a vine is kind of interesting because it doesn't have the clingers that a lot of the other vines have. And so what it does is, as it grows up, like with a young tree like this, you can see it's crawling up there, what it does is it kind of loops itself over the tree, and then as the tree grows up, it kind of pulls the grape up.

Yeah, if you see one that with kind of like hairy roots coming out of it, that's the one you don't touch. That's poison ivy. Useful things to learn. It's not bad to go for a hike with a botanist every now and then.

Oh, you smell that? See, that's what I'm talking about. So you look down here and look up there. Last time I was here, it wasn't as full of algae as it is now. Now it's stinking because the algae breaks down. So what I would say to those who are interested in conservation is to take the word conservation seriously.

Algae overwhelms a pond in Bacon Creek Park in Sioux City
Mark Munger
Bacon Creek in Sioux City

So, root word "serve."

So nature serves us. Yes, we can take from nature. We can take food, you know, that sort of thing, from nature, recreation, all this kind of stuff. But the prefix "con" is really "with": “to serve with.” And so the word "conservation" really implies this reciprocal service.

This is, I think, the problem that we have with all environmental issues. They either seem larger than ourselves. What can we do about them? Or we don't really realize that they're happening, because we take them for granted. So if you had an intact pond, here, for instance. You had good, clean water coming into that pond, what would it look like? It wouldn't have all that algae. It wouldn't be so scummy, right? It wouldn't smell bad. There would be better populations. So what was here in spring were populations of Red-winged Blackbirds. Also, this is where the Yellow Warblers have been. And so I could just walk through here and see the Yellow Warblers. And last time I was here, I saw Baltimore Orioles as well, and I'm not seeing them right now. So if that's intact, what are we getting from that? Nature will clean our water for us. It'll clean our air for us. It will grow our topsoil. There are a variety of what we call ecosystem services that nature will provide with us. So as nature serves us, I mean, it's basically gifting us with natural abundance. What is the proper response to a gift? You know, is the proper response to a gift to say, "Well, this isn't exactly what I wanted, so I have to take this back." You know? Or is the proper response to a gift to say, “Thank you. Now I want to also return a gift.” And the nice thing about that is, basically what it means is, if we control ourselves and stop a lot of the deterioration, nature will thrive, and then we keep getting those ecosystem services. We can still go out and [Sees a deer on the path]. There's a deer right there.

We can still go out and hunt deer, although that deer might disagree with that, we can still go fishing,

but we can also… I like to shoot birds, but I shoot them with a camera.

We can have amazing recreational opportunities. You can have amazing educational opportunities, plus you get the benefits of water cleansing and, you know, air filtration, and all the other benefits that you get from nature, and it will be intact. I think that's a better life, but...

There are ways of making money while conserving nature. But the problem is, you might not realize the same amount of short term profit. So we can still have good jobs, we can still have good lives, but, you know, you put up a strip mall, you can make a lot of money real quick.

There goes a Yellow Warbler right there.

So it's even this brighter gold. And if, if we had binoculars, and I'd put binoculars on it, the male has these stripes down his breast and belly, and they're red. And so it's just about the most gorgeous bird that you can see. In fact, yeah, they're in that... there's the Catbird right there. See him. He mimics a lot of other birds.

He's part of a family called Mimidae, which they mimic all kinds of environmental sounds, including the songs of other birds. So I can tell them simply because, if the song continually changes, that's probably what it is. But the interesting thing is, the Catbirds, just like the other birds, to us, they sound the same, but bird hearing is so good that they can hear subtle differences in pitch, timing, and timbre, which is the quality of the note. So to us, that sounds like a Catbird. And once we hear another Catbird, it sounds like a Catbird. But to them, it sounds like, "Oh, Bob, yes, you're my neighbor." "Yes, George." You know, that sort of thing. And they [Sees a goldfinch]. There's the finch right up there, the Goldfinch. And they can, they can tell each other apart that way.

We always have another message, another email to respond to. It's like, just go out, sit, listen and observe. That's also when you calm down, mentally, emotionally. It's so much better for us, and there are even studies on that, too, but we just recover better. We're not as quick to anger, we're not as stressed, if we have good nature experiences. So a park like Bacon Creek here, even though it is kind of manicured and not as natural as it could be, turns out to be really good for us. And so when citizens come out and use the good trails here, and they hear the birds and, you know, just have an experience in nature, even if you can't name anything, it's actually good for you.

It's like over the summer, like when I think about the new semester that's going to happen in the fall, and all I got to do to prepare, and I have this talk coming up, and, you know, all this kind of stuff, then I can feel anxious, and I can lose sleep and that sort of thing. But then when I come out to a park, that's when I no longer feel anxious, and that's when I feel good.

Now, see this, I'm going to point that out, even though it's a young tree, and obviously a lot of the barks been stripped, and so it's now dead. That is still standing. Next to it over here is one that has fallen down. That is the sort of stuff that woodlands need. It's right next to a trail. And so if that thing falls further, they're going to cut it up. But there is so much life that's supported by a dead tree.

A lot of our woodpeckers are going to have a much easier time drilling into a dead tree than into a live tree. They produce an abundance of, you know, like beetle larva and other insect larvae that are eaten by a variety of different birds. We need dead trees.

That's something that we clean up from our parks all the time, and it annoys me. Just let, also, the dead trees stand, because that's also part of the natural ecological process. We don't need to manicure everything. We don't need to make it look pristine and good. We're not like, you know, House Hunters, the program, where you come into the kitchen, you're like, "Oh no, no, no! Those cupboards are so 90s. They've got to go!" You know?

Nature, in some ways, larger trees that are standing, that are dead, like that, are gonna be fantastic for woodpeckers’ homes. They can be squirrel homes. They can, you know, they can be homes of other species. And once woodpeckers are done using them, other birds might nest there, etc.

Leave them there.

The decay process is also part of nature. It's not just returning the nutrients back to the soils, which are then taken up by new plants, etc, etc. But it's also the process of decay that supports life directly. So when we try to circumvent that and get rid of that, we're saying there is a variety of species we do not want around.

Okay, that's a squirrel up there. I was wondering what that brown was, and it's a squirrel.

But there are trees, there are birds that are singing out around here, so I was gonna see if I could identify him, but I'm not seeing him right now.

That's the other thing you that we have to get used to in nature. Other species don't like our voices. They don't like the traffic noise and all that kind of stuff. But of course, what do we look like to them? We look like huge predators. So they're going to stop moving around. They're going to stop singing and everything when we come around and when we're talking. I always tell my ornithology students this, go out to an area and stand there for 10 to 20 minutes, try not to make sounds, because what you'll see is, then the forest, the prairie, the wetland that you're in, will come alive. Things will start moving around again. Things will start making noise again. That's the other thing we need to do. Learn to just be.

That comes from poetry. Now, I forget the name of the poet, but you know, it's about the hustle and bustle of life and the idea of doing versus being. You can always do something. Can you just be?

If you're just being. That's when you experience serenity, that's when you experience calm, that's when you learn patience, and that's when you can actually learn to identify other species, because they're actually moving around you now. Yeah, instead of asking what someone does, we should ask who they are [Sees a Yellow Warbler].

Aha, Yellow Warbler!

He's down in here and, see, there's a little pond down over there. They like the trees near the waterways, but look at that pond. Oh my gosh! That's just brown. Man, has there been a lot of runoff into there with the recent rains? Wow!

We are a moral species. We are caring people, and we care about more than just our human neighbors, and if we understand that life itself is precious, that's why you rewild. Just a little clump of coneflowers in your garden instead of non-native flowers, will support native insects, which will support some native birds. It helps. Every little bit helps.

If we degrade the natural systems around us, we are, in some ways, degrading ourselves. We may not realize it, but we are. Sioux City is not number one in Iowa for asthma rates for no reason. Iowa isn't known for low water quality across the nation, for no reason, right? Iowa, I heard recently, is now number two in terms of rates of cancer in the nation. There are reasons for all these things, even if we don't perceive that we're degrading ourselves. We are. That's why you rewild. To improve yourselves as well as the rest of nature.