Feathered change, and hope

Coccothraustes vespertinus (Evening Grosbeak), Wikimedia Commons, by Mdf [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Memory is constructed, and fallible. Nonetheless, sometime in the late 1960s (let’s say 1969, for the sake of argument), my nine-year-old self peered out a kitchen window, atop southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge escarpment. An ornamental spruce tree’s branches just beyond were laden with heavy snow, a common winter occurrence there in the 1960s and 70s, at 36.733 degrees North latitude and 3,000 feet (914 m) elevation, along with deep, wind-driven snow drifts that sometimes lasted well into April or May, and extended sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures (sub-minus 18 Celsius). Today, these conditions represent weather anomalies.

The moment I looked out, a big flock of birds like the male depicted above, along with drabber but equally intriguing females, swept down onto the branches.

By “big” I mean 20 or 30. After a moment spent checking out the scene, they dropped down onto the ground and onto feeders we had stocked with sunflower seeds, which hitherto had attracted a typical winter mix of purple finches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and white- and red-breasted nuthatches, along with episodic visits from blue jays and common (then “purple”) grackles. Other species went for different seeds and beef suet, such as downy, hairy, red-bellied, and the occasional pileated woodpeckers; dark-eyed (then slate-colored) juncos; Carolina wrens; mourning doves; eastern (then rufous-sided) towhees; American goldfinches; pine siskins; and white-throated, song, and fox sparrows.

The novelty and spectacle of these big yellow, black and white birds on those snowy spruce needles literally made my jaw drop. I had never before seen their like. But by then, I was already a sapling naturalist, having spent a plurality of my waking hours soaking up daylight (and a big chunk of nighttime) outside, digging under logs, splashing through creeks, turning over rocks, and searching every corner of our farm for life in any guise, be it salamanders, lightning bugs, British soldier lichens, old man of the woods mushrooms, or garter snakes. So, it was only a few minutes until I uttered this new bird’s name, chosen from a matching plate in my Golden Guide: “Evening grosbeak.

Those flocks were a common sight for me and many others in the US northeast and mid-Atlantic states throughout the next decade plus. Although total numbers varied from year to year, they came almost every winter to our sunflower seeds, devouring 25-pound sacks almost faster than we could replace them.

And then, gradually, year by year, they dwindled, until they finally stopped coming altogether — as did the purple finches. Sometimes a few stragglers will still appear unpredictably, but nothing like those former winters, highlighted by hordes of hungry grosbeaks, wandering south in their thousands.

That decline of winter grosbeak “irruptions,” massive but episodic southward seasonal migrations, in the eastern United States since that time has been an ecological mystery. Various hypotheses include the decline of spruce budworms, a favored food source in the species’ boreal forest breeding range, from pesticide application; habitat loss from timber harvest and replacement by plantation forests; gradual warming from climate change; and a few others.

The really bad news about evening grosbeaks, however, is not the pang of nostalgia I and others feel toward these once regular winter visitors, but the fact that their populations overall have gone into steep decline.

Fast forward 50 years from that sighting, or 59 years since my June 1960 birth onto this planet. OK, maybe the grosbeaks first showed in 1970, not 1969. But you get where I’m headed, if you’ve read anything about the state of North American and global environments over the last few days. Just in the course of my relatively short lifetime, total bird numbers (the average of all species populations, not just evening grosbeaks) have declined by a shocking 30%. North America is down an estimated three billion birds since 1970.

In case you haven’t read about it, you can do so here, here, here, here, and here.

Thirty percent in fifty years! Take a moment to extrapolate into the future.

I’ll wait.

— — — —

Now that you have my mental framework, I can fill in some additional bits. In late September of my second Earth year, a shy but determined zoologist named Rachel Carson published an earth-shattering book, Silent Spring. I of course knew nothing about the book, and did not read it until many years later. Its basic premise is now known to many: the specter of future springtime, bereft of bird song as a result of persistent chemical pesticides.

Carson was of course vilified by the chemical industry and various ideologues, and those attacks continue even today. Despite the onslaught, her conclusions were borne out by the science; for a deeper dive into the attacks, and the facts about Carson’s legacy, I highly recommend Chapter 7 of science historian Naomi Oreskes’ excellent book, Merchants of Doubt. And just recently, new evidence points to bird declines from widespread systemic pesticides now used to coat crop seeds.

Two months before my birth, in April 1960, Carson received surgery for breast cancer. She died in April 1964, two months prior to my fourth birthday, and seven months before my brother’s birth. Just a few years after that, those snow-backed evening grosbeaks broke into my consciousness, irreversibly sealing my own future as a committed naturalist.

These dates and events represent landmarks within my lifetime, trail markers for my own perspective and career. And within this single lifetime, populations of many of the birds that thrilled and motivated me over the years, time and time again, are now in big trouble.

Since those early years of natural history immersion, I was lucky enough to land a career in college teaching, which involves an annual course in conservation biology. I’ve taught it for over 20 years. Every fall semester, I describe a “Litany” (to paraphrase the Danish author and environmentalism skeptic Bjørn Lomborg) of environmental problems underlying what a consensus of experts now views as the Sixth Extinction, or sixth crashing loss of biodiversity in earth history. The previous one saw the demise of non-avian dinosaurs (yes, birds are dinosaurs!), 65 million years ago.

All fingers point in the same direction, as this poster featuring an Okefenokee Swamp ‘possum illustrated for the first Earth Day, held in April 1970, just two months before my tenth birthday:

Walt Kelley / Pogo, public domain

I always begin the class by telling the students that we must first understand the outlines of the problem. We need to know what’s happening, and what the best science tells us, before we can address it. The scale of the problem is nearly overwhelming, but we have to at least trace the outlines. I try to leaven the bad news by entreating them to hold on until the last part of the semester, where we’ll explore “solutions.” I remind them that conservation biology is an applied science that stakes out an ethical position (foes of normative science, cover your eyes now). Much as public health and medical practitioners regard disease as an undesirable state, conservation biologists regard human-driven biodiversity loss as undesirable, not only for the species themselves, but for humans.

In the twenty plus years of teaching this class, I now have a sufficiently seasoned perspective to look backward on a number of environmental trend lines.

Year on year, the problem of floral and faunal population declines, followed by endangerment and extinction, have not just gotten worse; they have accelerated. By 2019, my now ripe career of teaching conservation biology has been served a definitive diagnosis, a solid consensus arrived at through massive, compelling, and corroborating scientific data: Bird populations in North America are in free fall. In addition, a million total species of all organisms known to science are at risk of global extinction. On average, wildlife populations have declined 20% (some by dramatically more), and global ecosystem extent and quality have dropped by nearly half, continuing to degrade at a rate of 4% a decade.

In the meantime, political gridlock, anger, tribal resentments, and recrimination are on the rise. Current levers of American government are tilted heavily toward gutting or dismissing legal protections and agency regulations designed to protect biodiversity, from the Endangered Species Act, to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, to the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental regulations normally in effect for National Parks and protected areas. Increased resource extraction is the prize, along with building walls that will destroy wildlife migration corridors. Some of these initiatives are designed to fulfill myopic campaign promises; others to keep the economic machine humming and political donors smiling.

Abroad, tropical deforestation and burning are on the rise again, aided and abetted by promises of foreign-backed “development” of places like the Amazon’s rainforests. As others have noted, this will mean the ecological annihilation of those forests.

Meanwhile, many in the environmental movement itself waste time arguing among themselves over single causes, from human population to consumer choices to technology. It’s almost as if the I=PAT equation never existed.

Four percent ecosystem decline every decade, with half already gone! Take another moment to extrapolate into the future.

I’ll wait again.

— — — —

Where is the hope I need to give my students?

In a 1998 essay for Harper’s magazine titled “Planet of Weeds”, science writer David Quammen considered the long view of paleontologists, along with the more immediate view of ecologists and biodiversity scientists. This was just over 20 years ago — soon after I started teaching conservation biology. The essay is well worth reading again for its perspective. Quammen’s essay shows that the outlines of untimely, massive, human-driven wildlife population declines and extinctions were already well known by the late 1990s, just as the science supporting human-caused global warming and climate change was already well understood decades before our current inaction and denial-laden political gridlock.

Here are Quammen’s conclusions, from 1998:

Here . . . is what I’d like to tell you: The consensus among conscientious biologists is that we’re headed into another mass extinction, a vale of biological impoverishment commensurate with the big five. Many experts remain hopeful that we can brake that descent, but my own view is that we’re likely to go all the way down…

…“Are you hopeful? …” [Quammen asked the paleontologist David Jablonski].

Given that hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt, I’m surprised when he answers, “Yes, I am.”

I’M NOT. My own guess about the mid-term future, excused by no exemption, is that our Planet of Weeds will indeed be a crummier place, a lonelier and uglier place, and a particularly wretched place for the 2 billion people comprising Alan Durning’s absolute poor.

And that’s where I think we’re likely headed too: all the way down, from triple blows — anthropogenic climate change, extinction, and political paralysis.

Maybe something unprecedented will galvanize us to action, but effective change isn’t coming via consumer choices, or through collective “simple things you can do” (although we should, of course, do them). The real elephant in the room is the fact that Pogo’s “us” is our collective Faustian bargain: Economic growth, endless, at any cost, which grinds ecosystems inexorably to dust. Solving that problem would mean massive sacrifice on a scale that’s simply not conceivable, let alone acceptable, to those now wedded to the comforts and luxuries of cheap energy. The dissonance is simply too disquieting to acknowledge, so it must be shoved aside while we salve our conscience by carrying cloth bags to the grocer.

It’s true, as a recent editorial notes, that we’re not facing the equivalent of mobilization for a third World War in solving these problems. The stark reality is that we need a complete overhaul of culture, a re-visioning of meaning and purpose, and a remaking of every political and economic system that we know and take for granted.

And that is why I also think we’re likely to go all the way down.

I am, of course, reminded repeatedly that bad news elicits helplessness and shuts down action, and that people need hope. Here is what I can offer: Find community. Take individual and group actions in your own corner of the world: Reduce impacts, implore and elect politicians who support environmental protection, support habitat protection and restoration. Find small ways to do good work and focus on your gains; find medium-sized and big ways if you can, individually and collectively.

Find peace and focus through action.

But here is what I really want to tell you. We need to understand that the first and most necessary step is to break a pervasive spell of illusion, by understanding the outlines of the real elephant in the room: A finite planet cannot indefinitely sustain growth, of anything.

As it turns out, hope really does boil down the thing with feathers, that is never silenced, and that now must be borne forward on the wings of determined young people — like the ones currently upbraiding members of state legislatures and the US Congress.

Godspeed to them, and to us all.

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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