Accounting for Counting

January 10, 1994|By BARBARA TUFTY

Washington -- How many stars in the sky? How many tigers still roam the Indian forests? How many whales in the sea? How many butterflies did you count on a summer's day? Water insects in a stream? How many birds will you count at your bird feeder this winter?

It's human nature to count. Some things are simple -- the fingers on a hand, hours in a day, letters of the alphabet. But soon we get astronomical numbers -- 150 million extra-galactic galaxies; 100 billion stars in the Milky Way; 1.2 million species of inspects; 250 million species of wildflowers (190,000 dicotyledons; 60,000 monocotyledons); 326 million cubic miles of water, in, on and around the earth . . . 120 drops of water in a teaspoon; 257,519,000 people in the United States on April 1, 1993.

On September 9, 1992, 233 broadwings, four bald eagles and a peregrine falcon streamed past Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. Last summer's butterfly count in western Montgomery County produced three Zebra swallowtails (as compared to 1 in 1991); 351 clouded sulphurs (24 in 1991), 122 Eastern tailed blues (50 in 1991).

What is this obsession with numbers? Why do we quantify and dissect nature, rather than being content merely to observe and enjoy? Linnaeus started collecting, counting and documenting plants; Darwin counted finches and turtles; Audubon counted birds to identify and paint.

Today we are becoming more complex -- and refined -- in our craving to collect and count. The powerful tools of computers, electron microscopes, telescopes allow us to penetrate deeper into forests, oceans, molecules and universes.

But why do we count? For one thing, we are insatiably curious, fidgety and our pragmatic Western mind wants to control nature, to ''neaten'' it. We feel challenged by infinite varieties of rock, minerals, chemicals, plants, animals, insects, human behavior. We are overawed by the night stars; overwhelmed by hurricanes and floods; bewildered by nature's unorganized, non-linear, holistic messes of changing complexities.

So we try to put everything in order by counting, measuring, quantifying, classifying, analyzing -- transforming nature's sporadic chaos into neat linear, numerical arrangements.

How do we count? Throughout the ages, we've filled ledgers and notebooks with facts and figures. Yet even in this age of computers, we still use many ancient methods of counting. Entomologists count insects by walking through fields, or by shaking a tree and counting the creatures that drop onto a sheet below; botanists throw down a hoop onto the ground and count the plants inside the ring; geneticists peer through microscopes; astronomers through telescopes. And anyone can count birds in winter, wildflowers in spring and dragonflies in summer.

So what does it all mean? By counting, we can obtain a baseline of information, the current status of an organism. And by keeping periodic records, we can determine long-term trends over the years -- populations that increase or decline, or remain stable. Counting rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, macroinvertebrates in the Potomac River watershed, birds that migrate south in winter -- all this gives us an indication of what fish and insects and birds are where and what is the health of the bay, the rivers, the forests, the world.

If we ever run out of things to count, there are always grains of sand on the beaches, drops of water in the oceans. ...

Barbara Tufty is a conservation writer and editor.

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