International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

The great broad wings tilt slowly, spilling the sun-warmed air, sacrificing lift, then they tilt to the other side, and again, again. The vultures spiral, drain out of the sky.
Just so, they’ve drained out of nearly the whole subcontinent, felled by cheap drugs for cows, of all things – drugs that were banned in your country long ago – banned to use but not to make.

So begins a short science fiction story* set in India and Nepal. The decline of the vultures, unfortunately, is not the SF-nal part.

And this is not a problem that American birders can regard smugly as far away and Third World. We’ve done pretty much the same thing to our own most magnificent vulture (no relation) with both DDT and lead. Even though you wouldn’t know it by their numbers today, the Turkey Vulture once suffered from DDT poisoning too – and from the benighted blasts of gunners who thought that the “buzzards” were a threat to chickens or game birds or just their sensibilities.

There’s a tendency, I think, to cast judgment on endangered species; the same Just World fallacy that allows so many people, particularly Americans, to sit back and try to figure out what a crime victim or a person in poverty did ‘wrong’ also leads us to think of lost and at-risk species as finicky narrow-niched things that brought their distress on themselves because they just couldn’t cope with the rough-and-tumble human-dominated world. Of course, this is pretty rich coming from the humans that invaded a continent and in short order wiped out the most common bird and the swarmingest insect (along with most of the humans who were already there, most of the apex predators, most of the vast herds of large herbivores, etc., etc.)

If that weren’t enough to give us a hint, the plight of the vultures proves that it’s just not a few fringe weaklings at risk. So much of what we think of as ‘normal’ in the modern world is built on a foundation of poison; so few of our systems are set up to take into account all the real costs of our actions to our fellow beings. Vultures, the opposite of finicky, pay the price when they try to perform the valuable service of cleaning up after us.

Only with active awareness can we hope to set right what has gone wrong.

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*which I hope to finish any day 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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So, in my last post, I mentioned niblets of hope. Here’s another one.

The Bronx River, like most bodies of water in major urban areas, has historically had a little pollution problem, by which I mean it spent over two centuries being used as a giant open sewer and disposal unit for points from Westchester down to the harbor. Although it is by no means pristine, it’s made some progress since an agreement by the relevant communities to stop using it for sewage overflow…. which they finally figured out was a bad idea in 2006.

Compared to the vast sweep of the history of life on earth, the millions of years it takes to carve a river and evolve the critters to go in it, or even the amount of time it took to make the river as dirty as it was, 2006 is not very long ago. Still, it’s long enough for things to begin to look up. In fact, it was in 2007 that a beaver was spotted in the river, to much rejoicing throughout the city (one of the things that living in NYC has taught me is that many people have a fierce pride in the toughness of nature here, to go with their urban chutzpa. Look at the cult of Pale Male or the celebrated if ill-fated Manhattan Coyote for additional anecdata.) Now, alewives have also returned, albeit with a little help from the evil human overlords.

Alewives are a fish of the herring type. Like their more famous cousins the salmon, some populations are born in fresh water, swim out to sea for some schooling (heh), and then return to their natal streams to breed in their turn. Also like the salmon, this migration was once a magnificent phenomenon involving numberless shiny silver creatures traveling en masse, but humans, with their damming and harvesting and polluting and whatnot, fucked it up. In the case of the Bronx River, we fucked it up so bad that the alewives disappeared entirely. However, in 2006, 201 young alewives were moved from Connecticut to the Bronx. They spawned, and this year their offspring have returned.

Of course, all is not shiny. The river is dammed, and the dams, dating back as they do to the beginning of the Open Sewer Era, are historical structures. So fish ladders must be installed with a great deal of delicacy – but these ladders are needed to give the spawning fish access to less turbulent waters, and thus a better chance of success.

Still, if the fish can do it, maybe we can too.

The spikedace: tougher than the Lone Ranger

The spikedace: tougher than the Lone Ranger

The New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association and a coalition of county governments from New Mexico and Arizona recently sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that FWS overstepped its bounds in setting aside critical habitat for the spikedace and loach minnow, two threatened piscines. Not content at first eliminating the critters from 80% of their historic range, nor even at getting the critical habitat designation reduced from 900 miles to 500 miles of river, these cowboys wished to beat the tiny fish back even further, and suspend all habitat protection. Apparently humans just aren’t sucking enough water out of the southwest for inefficient and over-subsidized agricultural purposes yet.

But in one of those classic moments that old Aesop would have loved, the Center for Biological Diversity countersued and yesterday judge John Conway instead ruled that the habitat designation was probably not expansive enough, and had most likely been tainted by pressure from disgraced deputy assistant Interior secretary Julie MacDonald (who was forced to resign back in 2007 after her little habit of overriding scientist recommendations in order to produce decisions more amenable to her political overlords and their economic overlords came to light.) The current protections for the spikedace and loach minnow will remain in place while the Fish and Wildlife Service studies what more should be done.

I believe the appropriate phrase, in the parlance of our times, is “Ha-ha”.

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I had a really spiffy post written for your weekend perusal, about my trip to the Olde Homestead and the marvelous bird observations I made there, but alas, I left it in my notebook at work, so I guess it will be for your coming workweek perusal instead.

In the meantime, though, I’d like to highlight some awesome at another blog. You see, while I’ve been fucking around misplacing my notebook and contemplating the eternal mystery of where the Cliff Swallows came from and where they went to (of which more in due time,) Charlie over at 10000 Birds has been productive in a more meaningful way.

He’s on a mission. And his mission is to raise money to support research into the Sharpe’s Longclaw through the Small African Fellowship for Conservation. Sharpe’s Longclaw is a highly endangered bird endemic to the grasslands of Kenya. Clicking on this handy link will take you to an explanation of the project, a virtual tip jar for donations, and some beautiful pictures of the Longclaw – a Meadowlark look-alike that is very underdocumented in the wild. Do it because Charlie’s awesome, or so I don’t have to write a species eulogy for a little brown-and-yellow bird in this space. Do it to make the world a better place. Do it to embarass me because I don’t get paid until the 1st of September. Do it because, in the immortal words of Richard Thompson, generosity is like a lucky charm. Go on, then. Do it.

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