Sunday, March 13, 2016

For the Love of the Songbirds

Last weekend I went to see the film The Messenger. It's about the demise of songbirds. It had some amazing shots of birds in flight, and there were really interesting vignettes, but the overall message missed the mark.

Standing in line before the show, my daughter and I were among the rare few under 60. The film primarily attracted the retired birding crowd. Before the film, the birders in line compared notes about the trips they've taken and ones they're planning to see the greatest number and variety of birds possible. The chitchat soon developed a competitive edge that seemed to provoke some to decide to go even further and for longer into the forests of Costa Rica, Galapagos, Australia.... Some seemed disgruntled that they hadn't actually seen that one bird with their own eyes, convinced, as they were, that it would be so much more magical in person. It was as if they expected to meet up with the same audience to compare notes again, and maybe then they could win some unspoken challenge to see birds in the flesh. It's not unlike teenagers counting the number of concerts they been to and autographs they've collected. (Autographs? How old school! I mean selfies.) Except these were grown ups.

We have a weird need to prove our value through association with things that impress us - birds, celebs, cars, locations, whatever. When teenagers are developing their sense of self, it's understandable that they'd try attaching to things to further their own exploration of identity. But you'd think that as time moved on, as we solidify our sense of self, that we'd grow out of that need. It always seemed to me that's just part of growing up. It's what my parents taught me, but, more and more, I think my parents were extraordinary people. I thought everyone was taught the old adage that people who are your real friends, won't be concerned with how impressive you are, and people who are concerned with how impressive you are, aren't your real friends, so just ignore them and carry on doing your own thing. Maybe it's that case that most are taught that but few actually learn it. It runs counter to all the ads telling us how likeable we could be if only...

Back to that movie. Songbirds are in decline. The film talks a lot about the problem with cats, and, at my screening, they gave out postcards about how important it is to keep cats indoors. It is a problem, but it's not the biggest problem by far. They lamented the harm done by the cowbird (but ignored that it can be beneficial). The film also focused on a small group of people who hunt and eat one type of songbird as a delicacy. I find it hard to be horrified by that as long as we're all happy to each chickens by the droves. Are animals more value because of the aural aesthetic they have to offer us? Is it only the animals who fail to entertain us that should be eaten? It's a loaded issue. But we can take some comfort that activists are laying in wait to prevent that illegal activity.

They had a good bit about the bird deaths caused by glass windows in cities and by the 9/11 Tribute in Lights. We love to see regular people having a positive impact on the world. A group of activists collected and tracked the numbers of birds killed by hitting the windows of buildings in Toronto, and they were able to convince some building owners to add markers to the window that help birds navigate away from them. Similarly in NYC, birds were dropping from exhaustion as they circled the Tribute in Lights in confusion. A small group of activists monitor bird migration, and have been given the right to indicate when the display need to be shut down and for how long when birds are flying overhead. So for many problems there are clear solutions and individuals necessary to take up the cause. Hooray!

But then the filmmakers mapped out the trees lost to logging and drilling for oil and digging for pipelines. The boreal forest is becoming a patchwork of trees - a far cry from a forest. And, from all I've read and seen, this is the crux of the problem: habitat destruction. There was aerial footage showing the paths ripped through the territories of birds - wide enough swaths to make it difficult to breed due to habitat fragmentation. And they had us listen to the noise of the equipment that makes finding a mate through song all but impossible. But they didn't tell us the solution to this. It doesn't have a happy ending. Studies on bird mortality don't factor this in because it doesn't directly kill the living birds, so windows and cats seem like the primary culprits when we see fewer and fewer birds each year. But they're not even close.

If we want to save songbirds, it's not enough to just keep our cats indoors and put dots on our windows. Ken Rosenberg, of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology, sees these issues as mere distractions and says "the top three threats to birds overall are habitat loss, habitat loss, and habitat loss. . . . We're losing the battle acre by acre." This is exacerbated by climate change of course. We're in an endless loop of logging trees that absorb GHGs and increasing emissions through burning fossil fuels, which is affecting the climate necessary for breeding.

In yesterday's NYTimes, Edward O. Wilson clarifies that we have to focus on habitat to save everything.
"The global conservation movement is like a surgeon in an emergency room treating an accident victim: He has slowed the bleeding by half. Congratulations, we might say -- even though the patient will be dead by morning. . . . The only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly increase the area of refuges, from their current 15 percent of the land and 3 percent of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. . . . This step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great and universal benefit, if we wish it so."  
It might seem a dramatic move, but it's time for that level of action, yet our fair leader is busy arguing that pipelines will help us become green. He needs to be convinced of his tragic error.

On top of reserves, the personal solutions to this issue are to build fewer things with wood, use fewer paper products, and travel less in cars and planes. But those birders won't want to watch a movie that tells them to stop travelling around the world looking at birds. The filmmakers were savvy yet cowardly in this regard.

I recently went to a Preparing for Retirement seminar so I'd be in the know and could advise staff if they have questions. There was a clear message there that most teachers who retire need significant funds because they almost all intend to travel. A show of hands reinforced that reality. This is an entitled way of life that must end, and better by choice than necessity. The bird lovers watching the film will learn they're absolved as long as they restrain their cats, then they can fly as far as they can afford. But, obviously, it's people that need to be restrained.


The Mound of Sound said...

A decade before the threw in the towel on humanity, James Lovelock said our only hope of survival rested upon accepting what he called "sustainable retreat." What he meant was growing smaller, reducing our carbon and ecological footprint, returning to a lifestyle more akin to what we had in the immediate post-WWII era.

I consider myself fortunate, Marie, in that I did a great deal of travel, even by today's standards, before the age of 30. I got to live in distant places and travel through countries before mass consumerism had homogenized culture. In the 80s, Kentucky Fried Chicken opened an outlet in a Tudor building within eyesight of Anne Hathaway's cottage. Today there's a McDonalds on the edge of Red Square. I have no interest in witnessing that sort of degradation.

And so, for me, my appetite for travel is slaked. A couple of weeks on my motorcycle every two years or so is plenty. From home I can make Tofino in under two hours and spend the afternoon exploring the beaches and tide pools. That's more than enough. From June through Labour Day we just hunker down and try not to get killed by tourists with giant rental RVs who have no clue how to drive mountain roads.

Our "entitled way of living" must indeed end. We've long passed the point where we could perpetuate it without robbing future generations of what should be rightfully theirs. It's a shame.

Marie Snyder said...

When we were kids, we went camping nearby for a couple weeks. That satiated everyone's desire to get out of the house and relax far enough away to no longer hear the beckoning of the peeling paint on the shed or the loose bit of eavestrough. Now vacations are an effort to do and see and experience as much as possible and photograph it all for proof. It seems to me it's progress run amok. We're so bent on having more we can't feel "enough," so we're never really satiated. I think even if climate change didn't exist, we'd still have an existential problem on our hands.

Lorne said...

A provocative and thought-provoking post, Marie. I do think you are perhaps being a bit hard on the birders, however. Although I am not one of them, I do delight in watching birds at my feeders in the backyard, and I suspect that some of what you interpreted as boasting might well have been enthusiasm for the natural world. It is the altar upon which many worship.

As for retirement travel, I think today, as a result of our consumer's sense of entitlement, many see it as a means not so much to broaden horizons as to chase the chimera of the perfect vacation. If it is of any value, I will say that I have not been consumed by travel in the almost 10 years of my own retirement. Yes, we have been to Italy, Costa Rica and Cuba, but our excursions have been relatively modest. There is much of interest closer to home, as long as we have the eyes and ears to appreciate them.

Marie Snyder said...

I think what I saw in that line was different than just love of nature - or maybe it's our new way of loving things that's the problem. It's a need to count or capture lists of names and numbers instead of appreciating other creatures without adding ourselves to their environment. At least it seemed a very ego-driven enthusiasm. We would all be better off if we could love the fact of animals in the wild - whether birds or dolphins or lions - without rounding them up or disturbing their solitude so they can be enjoyed first hand by us. And in our times, we can see anything online without needing to get up quite so close.

There's no question that travel makes for excellent experiences, but I think those experiences must come to an end. The luxury of flying somewhere on vacation has to be seen with the same disgust reserved for eating a rare Ortolan bunting. Who do we think we are that we can take such liberties with such a delicate, suffering ecosystem? Each trip is another step closer to more extinctions as we require extraction of fuels (necessitating destruction of forestry) and then burn them adding GHGs to the atmosphere just to be able to see some stuff far away.