Environment File: free bike fixes and evolving birds

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Fancy a tuneup?

St. Albert cyclists can tweak their tires for free now that some long-planned public bike repair stations have finally opened up on the Red Willow Trail.

City crews installed two free bike repair stations along the Red Willow Park bike trail last week. The stations, located next to the Woodlands skate park and the stone statues behind St. Albert Place, are the creation of the St. Albert Bike Association and are meant to encourage cycling as a way to reduce air pollution.

The association got an $8,000 Environmental Initiatives grant to build the stations back in late 2015, said group treasurer Carleigh LeClair. (The project ended up costing about $7,000, so the association will return the surplus cash to the city.) They’ve spent the last two years designing, building and finding a location for the stations.

While the association could have bought these stations off the shelf, LeClair said they decided to have Edmonton’s KR Fabs company build them to keep their money local. They also had Cranky’s Bike Shop and Wheelz Scooter Shop help with the design so the stations would work with other wheeled forms of transport, such as skateboards and scooters.

The stations consist of a metal pole covered in a bike-themed green wrap. The pole has a rubberized post on which you can hang a bike, as well as a variety of wrenches, screwdrivers, and hex keys secured with steel cables. Nearby is a winterized foot-powered pump for tires.

The stations are designed for basic bike repairs such as fixing flats or tightening loose pedals, LeClair said.

“Our aim was to have the repair stand set up for people of all mechanical ability,” she continued, so there’s a QR code on the station you can scan with your phone to view tutorials on bike repairs.

LeClair said she’s yet to see anyone use the stations, although she tested them in her garage prior to installation. The association has a third station ready to go into the Lacombe Lake region as soon as the city pours the concrete.

Cranky’s owner Andrew Phelps said these stations were similar to ones he’d seen in many U.S. cities and were great for emergency repairs. He had originally planned to install one in front of his store before he heard the city was working on these ones.

“We’re not open 24 hours a day, so it’s nice to have something beside the paved trails somebody can use in a pinch.”

LeClair said the association hoped to build more of these stations in the future.

Feeders drive evolution

British and Dutch scientists have found genetic evidence that bird feeders are giving great tits bigger beaks in the U.K. – an example of evolution in action.

A team of U.K. and Netherlands researchers published a study in Science this week on evolution in the great tit (an European sparrow-sized bird which looks a bit like a chickadee with yellow sides and a black stripe down its chest).

The team had studied this bird for many years and wanted to see if it could find genes in them that had caused evolution by natural selection, said study co-author Jon Slate.

By studying the DNA of about 3,000 great tits, the team found signs that a specific gene that controlled beak length, dubbed COL4A5, differed strongly between British and Netherland birds. The British birds were more likely to have variants of it associated with longer beaks, and birds with that variant tended to be more successful at reproducing in Britain, but not the Netherlands (i.e. long beaks were only an advantage in Britain). Historic observation of the British birds also found a slight increase in beak length since the 1970s, Slate said – a remarkably short period over which natural selection to occur.

The researchers noted that great tits in both regions had the same diet, but that British ones were more likely to be exposed to bird feeders – the British spend about twice as much money on birdseed than all of Europe – which great tits are skilled at using. Using RFID tags, the team found that British birds with the long-beak trait were more likely to visit feeders than those that lacked it. They concluded that bird feeders might have driven great tits to evolve longer beaks in Britain.

They’re not sure feeders are the cause, but the data matches up, Slate said.

“Our data suggest that longer bills are better adapted for extracting seeds or mealworms from feeders, and so there was selection favouring the evolution of longer bills.”

University of Alberta bird ecologist Lu Carbyn said he wasn’t surprised by this finding. Previous studies have shown that bird feeders can make birds more vulnerable to predators by concentrating them in one place, for example.

“Anything that changes the environment can create new evolutionary responses.”

The study can be found in the Oct. 20 issue of Science.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.