This past week, a number of diarists have written pieces for DKos Greenroots, in part to honor Johnny Rook and his Climatecide diaries. Though it wasn’t explicitly stated when this was organized, I think another principle was this: We’re looking at an ambitious list of priorities for the Obama administration and congress and, though the environment is on everyone’s list, it’s almost never near the top. Yet it’s impossible tackle that list intelligently without focusing on the environment.
As birders, we have an interest in the health of the planet. From the dawn of recorded time, humans have looked to birds as a way to understanding the world around them, and our language shows that link. The ancients looked to the behavior of birds for signs of what was to come – the “auspices” - rooted in the Latin words for “bird” and “watch”. Many expressions reflect those observations...
The Early Bird Gets The Worm.
Worm-eating Warbler (photo by Walter Kitundu, used with permission)
The early bird has some advantages. The bird who’s up at dawn or before gets first crack at the food source. The bird who’s back from migration first gets first pick of nesting (and feeding) territories. Over the millennia, birds have synchronized their arrival on territory with the appearance of food resources. They need to have the greatest supply of food available as they’re feeding a mate, feeding nestlings and teaching fledglings to find their own food. But as our climate has changed, that equation has shifted a bit. The birds take their cues to start migration from day length, which remains fixed, but food resources are appearing earlier than they used to – plants are sprouting, flowering and going to seed earlier; insects are emerging earlier; snow is melting and small animals are having their litters earlier; water is flowing and drying at different times. The peak of food production is moving up rapidly (in geological terms) and the birds have not been able to adapt as quickly. Technology may assist us in somewhat, but we are still gambling with our most basic needs and there’s no way to guarantee that we can adapt quickly enough either.
The Worm-eating Warbler is not just an early bird, it’s also a....
Canary In A Coal MineIn the traditional meaning, birds were used as early environmental monitoring devices. Miners brought them below ground to warn them of dangerous conditions, knowing that birds (with their sensitive respiratory systems) would succumb to pockets of gas before humans would feel the affects. As long as the birds stayed lively, the miners were safe – but if they fell ill, the miners knew it was time to clear out. We now see declines in bird populations as a sign that ecosystems are failing – a situation brought to widespread attention in the book “Silent Spring”.
But Worm-eating Warblers are a more modern canary in a more destructive coal mine. In the old days, a few birds might die underground, but the mine tunnels still allowed life to continue more or less undisturbed on the surface. The development of mountaintop removal mining has produced coal at lower prices, but at a cost of destroying all of the land above the coal seam, and the waterways around it. When the forest goes, so goes the warbler (and thrush, and woodpecker, and hawk, and owl, and...) who lives there. When the streams go, so go the fish and birds and people who depend on the water. The extreme changes to the terrain and destruction of headwaters will keep these place from ever returning to their previous state. All of this to ensure a cheaper source of the fuel that is doing the most to fuel climate change.
One Swallow Does Not A Summer Make
... and one Cerulean Warbler does not a stable population make. At this point in time, there’s no getting away from extraction industries but we can make better choices about how the extraction is done to help reduce the impact to wildlife populations. It’s not just the amount of habitat destruction that makes a difference, it’s also the patterns of destruction. Species adapted to mature woodlands often avoid forest edges, and won’t nest there. Say you have a 100 square mile parcel of forest, and 50% is to be logged (or removed for mining). If it is cleared in a checkerboard pattern of small cuts and small patches left standing, birds may not be able to find territories far enough from the forest edge to nest. Making larger cuts, but leaving larger intact parcels provides more of the deep woods habitat that some birds require. (Yes, it would be better if the whole thing could be left standing, but...)
A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The BushActually, probably thousands in the bush. It’s unfortunate that most arguments in favor of the environment need to be made in economic terms if you’re going to get any traction. It’s not enough that sharing our space with birds brings us joy; if we want to do what’s needed to preserve them they’ve got to have a dollar value. Thank heavens ducks are tasty, because that means that a whole lot of hunters are willing to put their money into duck stamps – and that money funds the national wildlife refuge system. Those refuges benefit waterfowl (and waterfowl hunters), but they also give much needed habitat for hundreds of non-duck species who rely on wetlands. Want to help birds who are getting squeezed off their land elsewhere? Buy a duck stamp. You don’t ever have to pull a trigger, but I bet you’ll still be savoring the sight of all those teal.
Juvenile gulls at Lake Merced, San Francisco, shortly after the Cosco Busan oil spill. The bird at right had some oiling, visible at the neck (feathers are spiked and matted) and as darker spots on the wings; the breast and belly were also moderately oiled; the bird to its left shows a little oiling as well. In addition to affecting the bird’s waterproofing, it also harms them when they ingest oil as they preen while attempting to remove it.
Like Water Off a Duck’s BackAnyone who’s watched a duck dive and surface understands this one – it pops up from the water and it looks as dry as a bird on shore. Feathers have, over time, developed into a remarkable form of protection – providing warmth and a barrier against the elements, using the very lightest material imaginable. Humans have tried to duplicate those qualities in materials for our own use, but fall far short. This expression might give a clue to our failures – we use it to describe something that that comes naturally and seems effortless. But the water repellence doesn’t just happen; birds work constantly to keep their feathers in order, to clean them and maintain them. All of the parts of the system have to be there in good condition, or it begins to fail. A duck can cover for a few missing feathers here or there, but if a large number go missing or become fouled, it loses its protection - with lethal consequences. Likewise, we can cover for small changes in our environment, but when we neglect our surroundings, and remove or foul large sectors of ecosystems, the results can be catastrophic. It can be hard work to maintain or restore habitat, but that’s what it takes to ensure our survival.
Birds Of A Feather Flock TogetherIndividually, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage. One pair of eyes can’t keep watch for trouble as well as many; one voice can’t sound the alarm as well as a chorus; one individual only has the strength to fight back for so long. Banding together, we can see the problems sooner, we can let many more know what we’re up against, and we can sustain the fight to protect ourselves. We can do this – but we’ve got to strengthen our connections among ourselves and band together. The forces we’re up against are powerful, but together we’re more numerous and more powerful than they are. We’re going to lose sometimes along the way, but WE CAN DO THIS. We can turn it around.
We have to.
Finally, thanks to desertguy, shaniriver, maxxdogg and tgypsy for hosting Dawn Chorus during my June Swoon. The downtime was much needed, and it was easier to recharge knowing that there was someplace to flock on Saturday mornings. Be sure to show them some love if you run into them in the comments...