Your average North American can recognize 150 corporate logos without effort or preparation. Our evolutionary gifts for pattern recognition, once wielded by our ancestors to understand and embrace the complexities of nature, are now being clogged by companies from which we purchase the necessities. Most of us are incapable of missing a Tim Hortons on the highway, but are, by the same token, unable to name the vast majority of living things giving our world beauty and diversity.
When this business of 150 logos was brought to my attention at the beginning of 2018 I was horrified, recognizing this disconnect even in myself. Sure, I could spot a maple, but neither love nor money could empower me to distinguish between a silver, sugar, striped, mountain or Manitoba maple. In order to correct this egregious mismatch I vowed last January to personally identify 150 of the species making up Canadian ecology before 2019, hoping to replace McDonald’s, Walmart and Shell with the ruby-crowned kinglet, American beech and Plains bison.
I can say with confidence it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Even I, a self-proclaimed crusader for biodiversity, expanded my knowledge and appreciation for nearby wilderness tenfold. I fell short of my 150 species (I dedicated the year to birds in particular), reaching 143 before the snows of winter drove me indoors, but I harbour no regrets.
This divide I speak of, between you and nature, has been blamed for our willingness to destroy the ecosystems we depend upon. Efforts to correct this problem and to make biodiversity the most important word in the English language have been underway for years now, trying to educate our citizens and inspire sustainable change. Among these efforts was the creation of iNaturalist.
iNaturalist is a smartphone app, but rather than bombarding you with celebrity gossip or aiding your quest for affordable sushi, this app allows you to photograph any living thing, be it your cat, your friends, or the mysterious tree occupying your backyard and have it identified by professional and amateur naturalists alike, attaching a species name to each and every shot, usually within minutes. If enough people agree with the identity of your species, the sighting is added to a global database of biodiversity, available for research as well as conservation. Yes, we’re more ignorant of nature than any generation before us, but we are also the best equipped to fix this problem, able to download a free app and identify to our heart’s content. Without it, I would never have identified my 143 birds.
In 2016 the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco decided to take this leisurely reconnection with nature a step further. They organized a friendly competition, seeing which city could use iNaturalist to bag the most overall observations, identify the most species and encourage the most participants over a single weekend in April. This bioblitz, as it’s called, ended with national media attention and the victory of San Francisco, but when they competed again in 2017 they were not alone. Sixteen cities participated, most on the west coast, and last year 68 urban centres across the planet signed up. This year there are 162 in the running, including three from Canada – Richmond, BC, Calgary, AB, and now Halifax.
“The City Nature Challenge began as a modest attempt to raise awareness of iNaturalist, and it’s exploded into probably the largest coordinated bioblitz effort in the world,” said Dave Ireland, past curator of conservation with the Toronto Zoo, managing director of natural history at the Royal Ontario Museum, and now a Nova Scotian resident, taking active part in Halifax’s enrollment in 2019’s City Nature Challenge.
The Halifax competition will take place within the borders of the HRM, so that anyone actively using iNaturalist in the area will be automatically contributing to the effort. This year’s competition will last four days, midnight to midnight, April 26-29, and much like a professional basketball team, Ireland and his colleagues are recruiting beyond their turf. Already they’ve been in contact with a suite of environmental, conservation and research organizations across the Maritimes, hoping experts on plants, birds, insects, lichens and more will flock to the HRM for the weekend, bolstering their numbers and their range of expertise. Anyone with a smartphone and a pulse is encouraged to help bring a win to Halifax.
Ireland admits that cities farther south, with denser biodiversities, have an edge over us frostbitten Canadians, particularly in April when we haven’t quite thawed, so he’s been pushing for a Canadian rivalry, specifically between Halifax and Calgary which seems to be heating up.
Whether or not you can take part in this global competition to see more life, please know that one of the most important moves you can make on behalf of our dwindling biodiversity is to use iNaturalist, and learn the names of the species we’re trying to rescue, big and small, leafy and fleshy, strange and gorgeous. We can’t protect what we can’t name.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.
Shown above is an infant Roseate tern, photographed on Gull Island off Nova Scotia’s south shore. (Zack Metcalfe photo)