02 May 2006

on bird watching and conservation

I've never really been a fan of birds. Never found them very interesting, and in fact, I've always thought they were a little creepy. Those beady black eyes... My distaste for birds only grew when I dated a boy in high school whose family owned a cockatiel (I think it was a cockatiel; big white bird anyway) that alternately screeched and mumbled demonically, and two bitey African greys (though they were very good at mimicry, which was pretty neat). The eyes, the talons, the skittishness, all contributed to my opinion that birds were best avoided.

But I've come to realize, over the last few years, that birds are actually pretty cool. Even amazing. I mean, dude, there's a bird that can moonwalk! How many other animals can claim that? And March of the Penguins showed the world just how awesome penguins are. But what really interests me is watching the birds in my own neighborhood. The diversity just in this small area is kind of astounding to me. Birds I've seen in our backyard include robins, crows, sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, starlings, woodpeckers, blue jays, and morning doves, off the top of my head. There is a pair of geese who have taken up residence in the neighborhood (this morning one of them stood on the roof of one of the buildings and honked incessantly for at least ten minutes, while the other stood below on the ground, beating his wings and strutting around). There are also hawks in the area, though not in our immediate neighborhood, and there's the occasional seagull flying through. That's a dozen that we've seen, right here in one little corner of the world. I still wouldn't want to own one -- I don't like the way they look at me -- but to watch them in the wild is pretty interesting.

Thinking about the diversity of birds makes me think about the diversity of life in general on this planet. I like reading books about animals and extinction (two of the best I've read are Monster of God by David Quammen and The Ghost with Trembling Wings by Scott Weidensaul). I think the diversity of life on this planet is unspeakably amazing, and to learn about how different animals have evolved and learned to survive is fascinating. That's why I was so sad to read this article about a report from a Swiss-based conservation group that predicts the extinction of more than 16,000 species of plants and animals, thanks in large part to humans' destruction of natural habitats. It's a hard situation, though; I recently read Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey, and that book really impressed on me the difficulties of conservation work when it comes into conflict with local people. It's easy to be a conservationist from the vantage point of a middle-class suburban American, but it's a different story in developing nations where people are struggling just to survive from day to day. If the only way to feed your family is to cut down trees and sell the wood, or to kill animals and sell their parts, what will your priority be? Who's going to starve their family to allow an animal to survive? When it's a choice between conservation and personal survival, I don't blame people for choosing their own lives.

But it is tremendously sad for me to think about the world my children are inheriting. The Yahoo article says that the most widely accepted estimate of the number of species on the planet is 15 million -- how many will be left when my sons are adults? The article says there are 65 species that exist only in captivity -- how much higher will that number be when my children are grown? I don't know whether there's even a way for humans and nature to coexist peacefully, to maintain a balance. Our track record so far shows that it's pretty near impossible on our part to live and let live. As our population increases at alarming rates, it will probably only get worse.

Sorry to get all depressing there. Consider this my late Earth Day post. Consider donating money to a conservation organization, or even visiting your local zoo, since zoos are often involved with conservation work too. We've got a totally amazing, wonderfully diverse planet, but it's disappearing. We've got to at least try, right?

1 comment:

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