Biodiversity at Home: Tallying the Region’s Varied Species

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

On the weekend of May 16, I plan to be out on the property of my cohousing community with my wife and a neighbor or two counting as many non-domesticated species of plants and animals as I can. The immediate reason is to raise money for the Hitchcock Center for the Environment’s Biothon, an event where teams of people identify and tally up the region’s many different species and enlist friends to support their efforts. The fundraiser aspect is reason enough to participate, but another is to inform myself and all my neighbors as to who else occupies this space with us—to learn something about its biodiversity.

For those who haven’t heard of the term, biodiversity refers to how many species live in a given area and in what proportion. It tells us something about the general condition of the region we’re examining: In very crude terms, a place that supports many species is thought to be “healthier” than a similar one that has fewer species. Nature, however, can achieve relative equilibrium with a few species or with many species in a particular system, so calling one more or less healthy than the other may simply represent our preference for species-rich environments. Nonetheless, it’s still fair to say that biodiversity matters.

One of the most significant factors in maintaining or enhancing biodiversity is habitat diversity. While pollutants certainly play a major role in the decline of species around the planet, habitat loss as a result of human activity is more often cited as the cause. Conversely, when we see many different kinds of plants and animals, we can be pretty sure we’ve done a decent job of preserving or providing a wide variety of habitats that can support them.

We have several habitats in my own North Amherst community: a patch of woods that separates us from the golf course to the east, fields that we mow once a year and forested wetlands along Eastman Brook to the west. Squirrels, rabbits and birds frequent the areas occupied by our houses, as well as the occasional skunk. My wife, who is a good tracker, has identified fox, opossum, raccoon, coyote, deer, field mice and other animals while snowshoeing in and around our 22-acre property.

Here on our land, we can take some steps to preserve its biodiversity. We can remove invasive plants like Euonymus (“burning bush”) and bittersweet and put up nesting boxes to attract bluebirds, whose comeback is related to availability of nesting sites. We can continue to mow the field, or perhaps arrange for sheep or goats to graze there periodically. (In addition to keeping the field from growing up into a woods, annual mowing will also keep autumn olive—another invasive—from spreading.) Most important, we can plan to keep the land and its numerous edge habitats (the borders between different habitats) open. In these ways we’ll do our part to keep this small piece of land available to the native fauna and flora of our region and as undisturbed as we can manage.

Of course, I’ll have an even better idea of how we’re doing when my fellow Biothoners and I tromp around Amherst and other communities getting a sense of the area’s biodiversity and learning about our collective sense of place. “Place” for me includes not only the sights I see every day—the views, the glorious sunsets, the occasional red-tailed hawk and the seemingly ubiquitous mockingbird—but also the ones I see seldom or not at all. Tree frogs serenade me after dark. A wood thrush sings from the edge of the woods behind  our house. What plants will I find in the old field? What insects live there? They’re a part of this place as much as—or more than—all of us folks who’ve built houses and communities here. I look forward to getting to know who my neighbors are.

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and a member of the Hitchcock Center board.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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