essay


How important is it to label what you see?

Peep sp. isn’t the same experience as Least Sandpiper isn’t the same experience as “those little birds Kaitlyn chased at the beach” even though they might all be the same birds. Oftentimes, specificity in labeling is useful; it’s very hard to get “those little birds Kaitlyn chased at the beach” listed under the Endangered Species Act or create a conservation plan for them (although teaching Kaitlyn to appreciate and interact more respectfully with wildlife as she grows up might be a start.)

But birders, and especially listers, are often accused of being obsessed with labels to the detriment of both their own personal Zen and their grasp of birds as part of a holistic system. Being a person who thinks in words, I often worry that I may be particularly prone to this error. And for myself or anyone else who wants to take a step back from bird labels, fall migration is the time to do it.

There’s the aforementioned shorebirds of course. I believe I have made my feelings on the difficulties of shorebird ID abundantly clear, but I have to admit that there is something about the birds themselves that invites quiet contemplation (although not so much contemplation that you forget to watch your step).

Fall warblers do not lend themselves to being objects of meditation so much, on account of all the moving around, but they can be equally humbling. Take this sighting:

It’s around three pm in the Vale of Cashmere at Prospect Park. A small bird jumps out of a bush and into a more open area, allowing me a brief but relatively close look.

It’s warbler-shaped, and warbler-sized (although the beak strikes me as on the chunky side for a warbler. It’s a warm brown above (no hint of a bluish, grayish, or greenish cast) and yellow below. Legs pink, beak dark. No strong marking of any sort – no eye ring or facial stripe, no wing bars, no streaks (I do not get a good look at the tail) – with one exception: it has a collar, a single thin but distinct and unbroken black line, around its throat. It does not vocalize. After a bit it gets sick of me looking at it and disappears.

Of course, there is no such bird. But I saw it anyway. I can speculate (Hoodie in extremely odd transitional plumage? Common Yellowthroat that poked its head through a charcoal-grill grate?) but I’m never going to know.

Fall is like that. Birds change outfits and contexts. They confound birders and then move on. It certainly isn’t their problem. The immature Chestnut-sided Warbler near the Ambergill didn’t have a single trace of chestnut anywhere on hir body, and the Worm-eating Warbler I was lucky enough to spot in the Midwood was five and a half feet up in a small tree, which is about three feet further up a tree than I’m used to seeing Worm-eating Warblers (last year around this time I saw a Waterthrush five and a half feet up in a tree, which is a good five and a half feet further up a tree than I’m used to seeing them!) Baltimore Orioles bounced around in all sorts of scaly, half-in plumages. The world is also full of strange insects (notably cicadas and dragonflies), fruiting plants (it’s a great year for the jewelweed, which is good because there’s nothing like a plant that explodes!), and all sorts of other things which are awesome. And the weather is progressing nicely towards that stage where it neither bakes nor freezes the unwary wanderer.

Of course, my newfound personal Zen didn’t keep me from noticing that I’d just added Chestnut-sided Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Great Crested Flycatcher to my year list. And it doesn’t mean I won’t be listing like crazy a week from now….

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Brooklyn is buzzing with the latest boost to its tough reputation: over the past week, not one but two baby falcons have been rescued from pigeons in Greenpoint, Williamsburg’s slightly less hipster-infested, more ethnic neighboring nabe. (And, not entirely coincidentally, a major setting of my novel-in-progress, Sister Rat, a story of urban wildlife gone wrong.)

The story has legs for obvious reasons: falcons are charismatic megafauna, baby falcons are adorable big-eyed big-headed charismatic megafauna, the food chain role-reversal makes this the avian equivalent of Man Bites Dog, and frankly it’s too damn hot out to do any hard-hitting investigative journalism unless Bloomberg gets spotted frolicking with a woman not his wife under an illegally opened fire hydrant. But there are a couple of key points that this story raises that I find interesting.

1. Despite their hard-bitten reputation, New Yorkers really love them some wildlife. Even the rats and the pigeons, while we will cheerfully and futilely attempt to exterminate them, earn grudging respect for their tenacity. Anything out of the ordinary (a turkey in Battery Park, a coyote on the lam in Manhattan, an alligator in the sewer) will promptly earn a nickname and a fan club. This is of course a sign of our innate if scrappy good character and a hopeful indicator for those who want to make cities more habitatiferous. However….

2. Love is not enough. Despite widely publicized success stories (and they deserve their wide publicity, don’t get me wrong) of city-nesting raptors, urban environments make the already fraught and hazardous fledging process even harder, introducing all sorts of novel (in evolutionary terms) dangers like cars and windows. And animal lovers. It’s a catch-22, because while being in the actual street is clearly untenable for a young falcon, being chased down and handled by a Good Samaritan is stressful in and of itself, however necessary. (Figuring out how necessary it is to rescue a given bird from its present circumstances is another matter, and apparently one most people aren’t very adept at.) Given that very real, anthropogenic hazards faced by raptors and other wildlife in the city every day, it’s kind of ironic (and not in the Williamsburg ‘I’m wearing someone else’s bar mitzvah t-shirt!’ way) that the primary villains in the coverage of the incident are the pigeons.

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More than a fifth of the Whooping Cranes that were present at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last spring have since died or disappeared, according to a recent survey. While some new cranes have also been born in this time, the flock’s numbers are still down nearly 10%. Signs point to the ongoing drought as a significant cause, since less fresh water means fewer blue crabs and blue crabs are a major part of the cranes’ winter diet.

The issue of drought in the southwestern US is a painful one, and likely to get worse rather than better. Droughts have always occurred in that landscape, often lasting years or even decades. Many fascinating ecosystems have adapted to cope with this, with a combination of delicacy and toughness that favors dynamic equilibrium and weeds out rigidity.

The ecosystem of the modern, suburbanized American is not one of them.

Our culture reacts to drought by drilling deeper, pumping farther, perpetrating further vampirism on already brutalized rivers, and only imposing the weakest constraints on consumption with the maximum whining possible. The idea that there could be any virtue in doing with less anything is dismissed as hair-shirt environmentalism, a radical plan that would reduce us all to living like serfs of the middle ages the second we think seriously about turning off the tap. Giving up your lawn or refraining from growing alfalfa in the desert is somehow an evil distortion of all that’s good and true in a way that, say, the subsidies that made those lawns and alfalfa fields possible in the first place is not. Go figure.

The thing that bugs me the most is this – how many people seem to think that current conditions truly are basically down to immutable laws of reality, when in fact a bit of history shows that our current conditions – our environmental woes, our patterns of highway and housing development, the gigantic clusterfuck that is our food system, even our ideas of what freedom is (the right to choose what color car you have if you can afford a car) and isn’t (the right to not be given asthma for someone else’s profit and convenience) are often down relatively arbitrary bits of politics which are long-forgotten now.

The cranes have changed their diet from blue crabs to fiddler crabs, which can tolerate the drought-related increases in salinity in the marshes better. This isn’t ideal for them, but it’s better than nothing. The way water is used in the American Southwest in particular is also going to change, either because we decided to change it, or when there simply isn’t enough left to do what we’ve been happy-assholing along doing. This change will include inconvenience and real suffering either way, but we can plan it and try to make it fair, or we can scramble through it and let the devil take the hindmost – both in terms of less-privileged people, the poor, minorities, and in terms of the environment. Right now, our cultural attitudes seem to favor the latter.

If there were plenty of Cranes, after all, these fifty dead ones would be replaced, when the drought is over someday, by young birds from other flocks or independent individuals who fed in outlying areas – areas that are now shopping malls, perhaps. If we had let Nature take her course, the right thing to do would be to let her keep on keeping on. But what we have done precludes that option, unless we want to lose the Whooping Cranes today, and maybe tomorrow ourselves – for want of a better word, our souls.

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I meant to blog on this post of Nate’s a while ago, but I got distracted with all the crazy birding adventures and so forth. Still, better late than never.

150 years after we got the origin set out for us, the species concept remains nebulous, wispy around the edges. The endless lumping and splitting, along with oddball hybrid birds popping up to frustrate local committees, have given us ample notice that birding as we know it and the world as we find it don’t always map perfectly to each other. Still, like many scientific concepts with a wispy edge, the species idea remains robust in the center, and it’s hard to see how even the most holistic birding could dispense with it entirely.

But if we get to a place where many species of bird cannot be reliably identified in the field using our current tools, what then?

The Technocratic Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke goes birding): Nanotechnology creates iPhones powerful enough to perform the work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Super-focused microphones let us tune birds in and analyze their flight calls on the spot. No matter how far this goes, however, it’s difficult to see how it could apply to species distinguished only by the quirks of their DNA – to analyze that, you need physical specimens, and there’s no way that birding could return to a collector’s ethos under our present circumstances. Still, technology being what it is and the market for birding gadgets being what it is, I expect we will see big leaps forward to help with the audio side of the problem.

The Dystopia (George Orwell goes birding): The new, subtle species distinctions forever slay the citizen-scientist and sunder the expert from the hobbyist. The former stretch limited grant money to cover only the most urgent or trendy species while the latter are reduced in significance to something between a trout fisherman and a stamp collector. Frankly, certain big listers won’t have far to fall in this scenario; and there would still work to be done for citizen scientists doing things like observing life cycles, habitat preferences, etc. for the birds that can be identified. It need not be Birding Apocalypse Now. Still, losing the connection between the scientist and the hobbyist would mean losing the thrill of the chase as a tool for drawing people into ornithology, and that would be a damn shame.

The Totally Unforeseen (Philip K Dick goes birding): Just because it’s hard to see doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Birding becomes about displaying great technical skill in observing every facet of a single individual bird, in a single instant, and recording it totally in every aesthetic dimension using technology yet unknown…. or birding becomes about tagging a bird once, with minimum intrusion, and then following the rest of its lifecycle with tiny cameras and GPS, every bird a bird cam… or hell, birding becomes about taking psychoactive drugs developed by the CIA and communicating with birds telepathically and reporting back on what they tell us. I mean, this is the future we’re talking about here.

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By synchronicity, I come across this news article as I am also reading The Western Paradox: A Bernard DeVoto Conservation Reader – a volume that combines Bernard DeVoto’s unfinished last work with many of his essays against the economic exploitation of public lands.

It’s interesting, because the subject of the article is clearly exactly the sort of person who DeVoto worked himself to death opposing – someone who is willing to do permanent damage to a public resource for short-term gain, and not even willing, but has constructed a world-view in which he is awesome to do so. Look at some of those quotes. He clearly thinks he’s some sort of a Trickster figure sticking it to Da Man, and everyone likes tricksters who stick it to Da Man. If you can convince yourself that some relatively weak opponent (the Forest Service, or the tree-huggers, or if you prefer working in a cozy east coast office you might use Ivory Tower professors, feminazis, PC liberals, there are lots of choices…) is Da Man, then you can be a cross between Bugs Bunny and Robin Hood practically every day. In your own head.

Outside your own head, of course, you’re being a spoiler and a gangster, a childish figure who causes destruction just to demonstrate power. “Nice park, shame if anything should happen to it.” DeVoto demolished the argument that the Forest Service was Da Man, coming from similar people for similar motives, back in my grandparents’ day.

Now, unfortunately, a perfect regard for the rule of law forces me to say that if this guy wins his case on a by-the-book basis, somebody is going to have to pay him some money, and he’ll walk away thinking he’s a big winner. Too much attention to him will probably just cause him to raise the price on his blackmail demands. But in a world where people still make fun of a woman who sued McDonald’s even though McDonald’s actually put her in need of skin grafts, the idea that anyone would valorize this guy for his expertise in system-playing makes me sick.

(As an aside, the whole idea of being able to “sell” mineral rights separately from the rights to the land on top of them has always struck me as a bit odd, and should probably be rethought. It seems set up mainly to privilege large corporations in extractive businesses, who can lock in future profits at low current prices, over individual humans who move around, die and pass property down, and might learn more about what their land is really worth as time goes on.)

It is really exhausting reading DeVoto’s work, and seeing how little has changed, but also inspiring.

Here’s a guy, little remembered today, who went time after time into the fray with people who would lie for profit, lie to stick it to the “socialists” (they didn’t have the phrase tree-huggers yet), and handily label anything that results in a smidgen of profit or a momentary sense of triumph for themselves as a great All-American good. And he didn’t lose. He didn’t win, exactly, but the opposition goal then as today was ultimately to get all public resources into private hands for exploitation (at the time, a few cattlemen and sheep growers were openly speaking of obtaining all the National Parks as potential grazing land) and that didn’t happen. Here’s a guy who was warning us before World War II that we needed to pay attention to watersheds and take it easier with irrigation, or the American West could find itself in a really bad fix. A guy who looked at the deserts and said that they couldn’t be what our triumphalist mythology demanded, so mythology, not the deserts, needed to yield.

The Western Paradox is the first thing I’ve read by DeVoto, but I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to him.

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The Inimitable Todd and I go to the Union Square Farmer’s Market to pick up something for dinner. We’re food nerds, he and I. He loves to cook; unfathomably, it relaxes him. I grew up on a farm and am snobbish about the notion that when I eat something, it should taste like it had something to do with a plant or animal in the not-too-distant past. We both grok that shipping apples to Brooklyn from Africa or chowing down on burgers that are really mostly corn that is really mostly petroleum maybe isn’t the best plan in a world of finite resources, and we are blessed with the economic privilege to do something about that.

So we’re at the Union Square Farmer’s Market looking for something for dinner. And, since it’s Union Square, I have an eye out for improbable birds.

Up in a tree is a shaggy lump which is not at all improbable; a Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tails are the ubiquitous hawks of North America, thanks to their high degree of adaptability. If a thing is smaller than a Red-tail and moves, the Red-tail will probably try to eat it; if the thing is larger than the Red-tail and sits still, the Red-tail will probably try to build a nest on it. Kestrels, house cats, carp, grasshoppers? On the menu. Saguaro cacti, building ledges, trees of all kinds, the Unisphere? Home sweet home. As a result, the Red-tail has a population estimated at up to a million individuals at any given time.

So. We buy some pork chops from pigs raised at the Queens farming museum, where a Red-tail probably soared overhead looking for rats attracted to feed spillage. And we buy apples from New Jersey, where a Red-tail probably perched in one of the taller trees and scanned the orchard for Robins slower or stupider than the rest of the flock. We buy potatoes and onions from upstate, where a Red-tail might have picked off a tasty nightcrawler or a young, foolish raccoon or a confused field mouse turned up by the plow. And all the while, above us, the Red-tail eyed a stupidly brave squirrel. His dinner, when he gets it, will have ours all beat for being local.

The New York City Audubon Society has announced the most dangerous buildings for birds in NYC. The top three deathtraps:

* The Metropolitan Museum of Art
* The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
* Bellevue Hospital Center

I’m not surprised that these buildings are killers. I am surprised that the article describes glass-intensive buildings as green, unless “green” is here, as it is so often, not “green” as in environmentally friendly but “green” as in “demonstrating that the architect and buyers/renters have green cash money to chase trends.” Walls of glass, unless intelligently placed and equipped, make apartments a bear to heat and cool. It’s akin to certain yuppies I could mention who buy organic milk for their kids because that’s what good parents do, but can’t be bothered to recycle and hop in the car to drive three blocks – it’s about status, not a stand.

Of course, it’s not exactly news that environmentalism and status have become tangled in often contradictory, self-undermining ways. Ideally, environmentalists want products that don’t push the true cost of production – in packaging waste, pollution, or whatever – off onto the Commons, but that often means that these products are more expensive at the point of purchase. And generally, the poor pay at both ends – taking the brunt when the air is fouled, the soil soiled, and the waste needs to be dumped somewhere, and only able to afford deliberately-disposable crap that increases the problem. Meanwhile, upper-crusters take on “green” projects as though they were detox diets or some other form of ritual purification – all personal, never political, and ultimately ineffective except as a way to demonstrate your virtue in public. And the marketplace chases both sets of people around like interchangeable sales units, resulting in all sorts of absurdities.

My colleague David Barouh has written a series of articles on how this plays out in the world of drinking water. You can read the first two here and here. As David lays out, bottled water perversely captured people who probably bought organic fruit and single-source cheeses, by selling itself as healthy and exclusive. By doing so, it’s undermined the idea of clean water as a public resource. (David’s articles and hard work were instrumental in getting the Park Slope Food Coop to stop selling bottled water.)

Or consider the issue of coffee. Fair Trade, shade grown, organic – it’s right, but it’s also ritzy, in part because our system makes it cheaper to do the wrong thing. Again, the problem of companies who externalize costs onto their producers and the environments that provide raw materials is the tooth-breaking core of the problem. But on the American end, the perception is that environmentally friendly (well, friendlier) coffee is a luxury, a status symbol.

But when the environment is considered a plaything for the rich, there’s a danger of backlash, either suddenly in these economically trying times, or over the long term as strivers emulate the top dogs and the trendsetters decide to move on to something else (consider how white bread went from status symbol to just the opposite over three generations.) Species and ecosystems can’t wait around to come into style again, or long withstand stupidly symbolic, counterproductive gestures like building a glass atrium and putting a tree inside.

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