Disappearing birds: the ecological disaster society is ignoring
A report in the academic journal Science of the disappearance of three billion wild birds over 50 years in Canada and the United States ruffled the media for one day, maybe two, and went away.
Canadians’ response to these latest statistics of the Anthropocene extinction — just under 30 per cent of the northern continent’s total bird population vanished in half a century — came as close to being non-existent as can be imagined.
So a question: if the numbers don’t distress us, don’t lead us to demand instant government action, should we tell the story in a different way, maybe plug it into the spiritual cosmos?
Ten years ago I interviewed worldrenowned University of Toronto philosopher Ian Hacking in his back garden. As we talked, Prof. Hacking suddenly pointed to a wasp flying past a rose and began describing the physics principle of non-locality, the direct influence of one object on another distant object. Just suppose, he said, that the whole universe is governed by non-locality, that everything in the universe is aware of everything else.
His words gave me the eerie feeling of looking down a deep well into the mind of Creation. We and the birds are together on this planet.
Thirty-five years ago, I was with a young doctor, Klaus Hornetz, who worked with a German medical aid agency at a United Nations famine refugee camp in Ethiopia. Together one afternoon we walked through a gathering of 2,000 people without food.
Dr. Hornetz pointed to one child and then another held in the arms of a parent. “This one will die in maybe seven days,” he said. “This one will die in two weeks. This one ... ” — he pointed to an unmoving child, its mouth at its mother’s empty breast — “this one ... ” Dr. Hornetz shrugged and walked on.
I wrote in a newspaper the following day: “Only God should know what Klaus Hornetz knows.”
The Canadian public and politicians responded to the Ethiopian famine, sent aid, money, clothing and food.
What is our responsibility for three billion disappeared birds?
Conservation scientists are now cautiously examining a new approach: save those species for which there’s enough cost-effective money available. And maybe the rest? Shrug and walk on.
Populations of grasslands birds in general have dropped by 69 per cent since 1970. Will the conservation scientists conclude that they have another halfcentury before survival is too pricey?
The population of the bobolink, once a common sight in meadows, pasturelands and plains across much of southern Canada, has shrunk by 88 per cent since 1970. Maybe they have a decade or so left? The burrowing owl, with fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs left in Canada? The conservation scientists shrug and walk on.
The main threat to bird species is destruction of habitat. Destruction of habitat is fixable. Natural pasturage and native grasslands are our most imperilled terrestrial ecosystem. They support biodiversity — birds and the insects they feed on — and are giving way to single annual crops like corn for biofuel. What limits can governments set on biofuel production?
Dianne Saxe, Ontario’s environment commissioner until her job was abolished by Premier Doug Ford, has called land use policy in Ontario the province’s oilsands. Birds that have nested in the same area for generations suddenly find their breeding areas have become parking lots and housing developments. Do we allow development to go on like this? What birds will be left for the next Science report?