As ecosystems begin to collapse and food supplies dwindle and the sirens are sounded – moments arise, interspersed with the chaos. Movie moments when the camera pans away from the mass hysteria and frames a solitary tragedy. Last week, the picture of an emaciated sparrow lying dead on a New Mexico desert was that moment for me.
But if it were only sparrows and only a few of them. This is a not so isolated unfolding saga. Hundreds of thousands of migrating birds had their migrations cut short: sparrows, western wood pewees, warblers, flycatchers, swallows; in all about 40 different species. The scene on Aug. 20 was reported as an “atypical” event; the birds were described as “anorexic.”
In regard to our own fate, the metaphor of “canaries in the coal mine” is too handy to pass over. The mass die-off was not confined to a single location but spread out from New Mexico to Colorado.
Unlike some of the more mysterious tragedies — like that of a pod of more than 400 pilot whales that stranded themselves on a Tasmanian beach recently, the causes for this aviary carnage are largely known. These are migrating species that await nature’s cue to begin their annual journey. That cue came a bit too soon this year, and then there was the obstacle course of wildfires to contend with, floods, droughts and vast agricultural tracts laced with neonicotinoids (pesticides). The final blow was a temperature shift from the high-90s to the mid-30s over a 3-hour timeframe, along with hurricane force winds.
Almost makes you pine for the good old days of DDT.
“It’s staggering,” says Ken Rosenberg of Cornell’s Ornithology Lab, although he isn’t referencing this particular event. He points to a trend: since 1970, the U.S. bird population is down some 3 billion birds or 29 percent. (According to a Wildlife Fund report released last week, the population sizes of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish have dropped 68 percent in the same time period). What is even more staggering though, is that as unique bird songs and symphonies vacate our planet we stand on the sidelines, observe, catalog the damage and cough up some grant money so a handful of researchers can investigate and author a post-mortem.
“There is a general ecosystem collapse that could be happening here,” posits Peter Marra, conservation biologist at Georgetown. Did I hear him qualify that? Forty percent of the globe’s 11,000 bird species are in decline. Shoreline birds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by a third. Grassland birds like meadowlarks and bobwhites have nosedived 53 percent. And now we are witnessing more mass bird starvation in Alaska in the form of puffins, murres, auklets — their numbers have plummeted 70 percent since 1970. They too are headed the way of the passenger pigeon.
By any measure, we (and your average birdbrain) could reasonably conclude that the web of life is in a perilous state.
We are not simply passive witnesses to anorexic birds that fall from the sky on occasion, or kamikaze into our patio sliders or are swept into a plane’s jet engine or slammed into a wind turbine; we aren’t witnesses to wild habitat turned into corn fields or skyscrapers or the expanse of concrete and condos that line our shores; nor are we bystanders to the light pollution that plays havoc on their navigation done by moon and stars. Then there are our feline companions whose claws account for three-quarters of non-natural bird deaths.
While some still thrill to the sight and sound of backyard arias, many of those songs will only be heard by our children and grandchildren on digital recordings. Like so much of the natural world, humans will pass along “what it used to be like” in the form of stories.
Let those stories place us squarely in the center of the plot. How in the midst of the recent mass die-offs, the Trump administration has proposed to scale back the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as a nod to big petroleum. Let the children lie on their backs and look up at cloudless, vacant, song-less skies and fathom the consequences of our choices and move forward with better ones.
After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Resist News: https://www.usresistnews.org/.