This week I saw another inevitable sign of spring; a dead, naked House Sparrow chick, tumbled from an ill-placed or ill-made nest to lie on the sidewalk looking pink and vulnerable. From now until it gets too late for the adult birds to attempt another brood, these will be a regular feature of life for those who look down, along with a smaller number of prematurely fledged robins and pigeons and the occasional smashed egg.
Call it the dark side of all the activity I saw last week. But dark is not the same as bad. It’s not good, either (unless you’re a small scavenger) but it is necessary, by the nature of the world system. Evolution doesn’t function right without it, nor do the assorted calories and nutrients keep cycling if you don’t have death. And when you’re talking about House Sparrows, well, another one will be along, and another, and another (at least here in New York. In their native habitat, things aren’t going quite so well). Still, it’s the end for that sparrow.
Also this week, Condor 286 died. 286 was known as Pinns by some of the researchers on the California Condor project, having been one of the pioneer condors released over Pinnacles National Monument. He mentored other young condors there before being transferred to Big Sur. He was one of the senior birds of the reintroduction effort – and yet, given that he was not one of the original birds captured from the wild in 1987, he cannot have been more than 21 and probably significantly younger. Condors can have a lifespan of up to 50 years, but 286 died a bullet-riddled, lead-poisoned veteran before he was even old enough to buy a beer. If condors drank beer.
Condors are not quite like sparrows. Another one will not be along in a minute. There are currently just over 300 California Condors in the world; it would take me no trouble at all to see 300 House Sparrows in one day in Brooklyn. House Sparrows reach breeding age at a year and scatter young hither and yon, hoping that some of them will stick, classic r-strategists. Condors take six or seven years before their thoughts lightly turn to wooing, and then they raise one chick a year – they may lay a second egg if the first is lost but condors are only children by tradition and necessity. Parents take a great deal of care of this one chick, teach it what it needs to know, and if they succeed – which of course, very often they do no, even among the most dedicated K-strategists – it has few natural enemies and can expect a long life.
Of course, if one of those natural enemies is humanity, all bets are off.
286 had fifteen shotgun pellets in his body, the result of human malice, and he also carried a load of ingested lead, the result of human heedlessness. Of the two, it was the heedlessness that actually killed him, but it could just as easily have been the other. Even a strongly K-leaning species like the condor should be able to absorb the loss of one individual, but human heedlessness and malice have already killed so many of 286’s relatives that our eye must be on every single individual if they are to survive as a species. In a way, this is a profoundly unnatural situation. But right now, it is the only way.