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Requiem for a microhabitat

I don't really mind that much that they've cut down all those fine old trees to make room for the new wing of Jones Hall. We are very tight for classroom and lab space on this campus, new space has to go somewhere, and it might as well be close to the center of campus. But some of those trees are old friends of mine, and I'd hate to see them go without some reflection on what we've lost.

Being called a tree-hugger is not an insult in my book. Especially this time of year, with temperatures over 100, we can all appreciate the value of shade. That particular grove, though, was once one of my favorite refuges from the stress of student life.

When life just got to be too much for me, especially wrestling with calculus and the Feynman physics course, I just had to get away. Not having a car, that meant hoofing out to the west side of campus, hanging out at some of the campus's beautiful natural spots. Turtle Bay was called the Duck Pond back then, and it was much like it is today. Toki's Bridge existed back then, but connected to a tiny island that was separated by an arm of the lake from the golf green on the east bank of the lake, where Macey Center is now. The same two typos are on the sign at Toki's bridge: the ends are flared, not flaired, and Paul Krehbiel once pointed out that Toki's surname is Kitagawa, not Kittagua.

Sitting on the bridge with my bare feet dangling, watching the ducks, I could decompress a little and flush some of the accumulated crud out of my thoughts. This area is still good for that, and I'm sure that the couples strolling and lunchers basking there nowadays appreciate it too.

Back then, the little building north of Workman was the headquarters of Hildebrand and his grounds crew. They kept some exotic birds in cages in the back: some parrots and quail and gamefowl, as I remember. They also tried to ride herd over the unruly mess of peafowl that tended to hang around Workman. Our president, Dr. Stirling Colgate, lived in an apartment located on the second floor over the northwest corner of the old Workman building. It was not air-conditioned, so Stir would leave all the doors and windows open at night. He did not appreciate the peacocks' tendency to walk in and wake him up at 5:30 ``letting go both ways at once,'' as he put it---screaming that eerie, blood-curdling scream that sounds like a human baby in distress, and crapping on the rug. The peacocks were one fixture of campus life I can't say I really miss. Noisy, dirty varmints.

One of the nicest spots on campus within an easy walk of the dorms was a little patch of ground that was generally called the Wilderness Area. It was a patch of wooded land centered on the grounds crew's headquarters building, where Jones Hall is now, and extended out to Olive Lane.

The grounds crew back then seemed to be more tolerant of underbrush. The various trees in this patch were good-sized even then, and there were plenty of young trees and even downed brush lying around, with leaf litter on the ground. This gave it a bit of a wild feeling. There was a little meandering path that started by the bird cages and went back into the brush. You could sit down with your back to a tree-trunk and not see anything but trees and brush and just feel the stress subsiding.

For me, the loss of this wild feeling came many years ago, when they cut down all the less-than-perfect trees, carefully pruned the rest of the underbrush, and installed the usual manicured lawn demanded by proper European culture. I suspect insurance considerations here: after all, a limb could fall on someone, and the school could get sued; better just sanitize the whole place.

Yes, this is a pleasant environment---Tech's inner quadrangle is like one big friendly park. But what it lost for me was more than just that wild feeling, the feeling that I was not in town anymore, but off in the wilderness.

The other loss is the loss of wildlife habitat. I'm a pretty fanatic birdwatcher and really enjoy walking around campus with binoculars and looking for birds. We have a lot of species of birds around, not just the regular kinds you see around here, but frequent rarities. Birders will tell you that sightings like Chestnut-sided Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Red Crossbill are pretty special here.

We still have a lot of birds on campus, but the sanitizing of habitat---removing dead trees and brush and replacing a substrate of dirt, leaf litter and low plants with an uninterrupted sea of mowed grass---makes it unappealing to some birds.

Take, for example, the Northern Waterthrush. This bird is found in a particular microhabitat: small branches low over water. I see them sometimes during migration around the shores of Turtle Bay, where there are still some good brushy thickets near the water hazards on the golf course. Once I even saw a Lousiana Waterthrush here, a remarkable rarity anywhere in the state.

The grounds crew recently sanitized another spot wher I had often seen waterthrushes: the pair of ponds just below Faculty Hill. The lower pond here used to be a little brushy in spots, with a mud bank. A couple of months ago a crew pruned all the low branches of the trees, removed the underbrush and also took out some dead trunks and branches. They covered up the mud bank with crushed rock. It's probably easier now on the golfers who hit into this water hazard, but I doubt I'll see another waterthrush here for a while.

Photo of a Spotted Towhee Another bird of the underbrush is the Spotted Towhee. This big sparrow is common but rarely seen because it just loves to skulk. It feeds by digging for bugs in leaf litter. It won't stay where there is no cover to skulk in or where the ground is just lawn.

I guess it comes down to your definition of beauty. For me a spot is more beautiful when it has more kinds of life. So where are the new trees being planted to replace the ones that died for the Jones Hall annex? Where is the thicket where people can go to shed their stress if they haven't got a car that will make it to Albuquerque or the Magdalenas? Where is the new thicket where birds can go that don't get along with a sanitized parkland?

Because they breed and roost in cavities, some woodpeckers and owls will only stay where there are dead trees. Other birds specialize in gleaning small invertebrates from rotting limbs and peeling bark. These birds too will depart when trees are kept scrupulously well-groomed. But appearance, and insurance liability, and suitability for wildlife are all different values. I hope we can find a balance between these values that has room for as much diversity of wildlife as we can manage.

This is a lightly modified version of an article that originally appeared in Paydirt, the NM Tech student newspaper, in July 1988.

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2004/01/07 22:21:27