Saturday, February 21, 2009

Carolina parakeet, RIP

On this day in 1918, the last Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinatti Zoo. Gone. Extinct. Not just extirpated, but obliterated. Once numerous throughout the eastern half of the U.S., they steadily declined throughout the 19th century due to overhunting and land clearing. Essentially, the narrative of the last days of the Carolina parakeet is the same as that for the more widely known passenger pigeon. And our collective shame at causing it should be just as great.

Image from Wikipedia

How many more species will go extinct, recorded or not, before we make a better peace with the rest of life on Earth?

Read More......

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Happy Birthday, Wallace Stegner

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner. Born in 1909, Stegner helped create a genre of literary fiction that, while not strictly grounded in natural history, placed its characters in real landscapes that became important parts of the story. From the West (The Big Rock Candy Mountain) to the East (Crossing to Safety), Stegner used landscapes from his own life's experience almost as additional characters in his stories. In a very real sense, he was a true practitioner of natural history through is detailed practice of observation.

Wallace Stegner passed away in 1993. His absence is still felt today.

Read More......

Monday, February 2, 2009

Engaging fully with where you live

As usual, I am behind on my reading, so it was just this past week that I cracked open the Autumn (2008) issue of Living Bird, the truly excellent magazine produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Two articles leaped out at me from the issue, in part because they both relate to topics I care deeply about, and in part because I think they intersect with each other in a way that perhaps neither author fully appreciated.

First, in "Straight--No Chaser," Mel White brilliantly advanced the argument that if birders still feel that it is affordable to travel to distant locations simply in search of a rare sighting, then gasoline doesn't cost nearly enough. As he says in the tagline to the article's title, "It's time to reconsider traveling just to add a checkmark to a list."

"I remember one January when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher appeared in central Arkansas, attracting a mini-convention of birders the next morning (I was in attendance) hoping to see this stray from the tropics. Lots of $1.19 gasoline got burned that day, nearly everybody saw the bird--and it meant nothing, except that everyone's state and United States lists (and many world lists) advanced a notch. It wasn't a precursor to range expansion, it wasn't an endangered species, it wasn't part of a significant migration trend. It was just a mentally or physiologically defective individual that flew a long way in the wrong direction. When a severe cold front passed through a couple of days later, it no doubt met its Darwinian fate and became, as somebody said, 'possum food.'"

Amen to that. When the world is confronted with the kind of climate crisis we now face, and when the vast majority of the people in the world are confronting daily challenges in meeting their most basic needs, chasing birds simply for the purpose of expanding one's list at the expense of environmental protection is the height of self-centered arrogance.

I wrote about this briefly in a post last November, when I acknowledged that I no longer maintain lists for birds outside of my county. Think globally, but bird locally. It's the grown-up thing to do, people.

Of course, I leave myself open to the criticism that by even listing in my county I am pumping CO2 needlessly into the atmosphere, to which I can only say mea culpa. But nothing is simply "good" or "bad." I'm willing to compare my county-only carbon footprint to anyone else's state- or nation-wide footprint any day. A time may come when none of us will go anywhere for any reason unless it's under our own power, at which point I will change my goal to a list of birds seen anywhere I can ride my bike to. But we all have to start somewhere, or at least we all SHOULD start somewhere. Leaving behind the selfishness of natural history jet-setting for no good reason is a good place to start.

White's piece was followed by Jack Conner's In the Field column, called "The Accidental Phenologists," in which he counselled natural historians to pay attention to the actual timing of events, and hence seasons, where we live. We might come to notice that we don't experience the four traditional seasons but rather something more like two ... or twelve ... or fifty-two. For years now I have berated my students for not paying closer attention to the actual rhythms of the natural world, rhythms that change tempo and melody through the year and can only be discerned through careful, purposeful attention to what is real (a close approximation of how Tom Fleischner encourages us to view the practice of natural history).

Several years ago, I began experimenting with different ways of subdividing the year based on my field observations. To be honest, I've yet to come up with a single scheme that I think is clearly superior to all the others. Some of my schemes focus on what the birds are doing (e.g., The Week the Phoebe's start singing), some on the trees (e.g., Leaf Out), some on the weather (e.g., When the Ice Breaks), and some on ad hoc combinations of all three. But for me, finding the superior scheme has not been the point. My goal has been to focus on nature's patterns; paying attention to what is going on where I live ... even down to the most minute details that wouldn't merit notice in a field journal under most circumstances ... is its own reward.

And here's where the two articles intersect. Think globally, but bird (or whatever) locally. It is only by foregoing the chase for the rarities and oddities that you can truly get to know a place. Intimacy can only come from familiarity, which can only come from attention to detail and full engagement with where you live. If you can't even describe the TRUE nature of the seasons where you live, then it's time to scale back your territory and open your eyes.

Read More......