Mrs. Brown and Other Gods of Nature (and Why I Think There Are "Too Many" of Them)
By Barry Kent MacKay
Mrs. Brown was someone I knew when I was a kid, in the increasingly distant days of the 1950s. She was one of a very few women in Canada who were licensed to band birds. My mother was another. Mrs. Brown did not live far from where my family lived and it was only natural that we would come to know her. We sometimes joined her on field trips where we'd use special nets to capture birds and place on their legs numbered aluminum bands provided by the Canadian government. We also each banded birds in our own gardens. The bands, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (and using that agency's return address), were to help to understand more about the biology of these birds, with particular reference to their migration habits and longevity.
In those days the term "animal rights" was yet to be coined, and the philosophy behind the phrase was certainly unknown to me. While I liked animals and disliked cruelty, I "bought into" many of the arguments made in justification for various forms of animal abuse. So while it wasn't something I would have done, I was not particularly surprised or deeply concerned that Mrs. Brown killed starlings. A lot of people killed starlings.
The Eurasian Starling is an introduced, or non-native, species whose numbers caused problems for other, native birds and for people, or so we were told. The Eastern Bluebird was particularly hard-hit, or so the argument went, and might become extinct as a result of the presence of starlings. Starlings, you see, bullied the smaller bluebirds out of their nest-sites, with both species given to nesting in cavities, such as those left by woodpeckers. Neither starlings nor bluebirds are able to excavate their own nest sites. Thus bluebirds could be encouraged by use of nest boxes with holes small enough to prevent the starlings from getting in, but still large enough to accommodate bluebirds. That was one way to help bluebirds to recover their numbers. Another way was to kill starlings.
Mind you, the fact is that both Tree Swallows and House Wrens also nest in the kinds of cavities bluebirds do, and also compete with bluebirds. House Wrens will destroy the eggs of other hole-nesting species while Tree Swallows can drive away the bluebirds. However, as the swallows and wrens are native, and not as ubiquitous as starlings, they were somehow not implicated in the decline of the bluebirds. (There were exceptions: I remember my shock upon visiting the farm of a well-known Disney wildlife photographer, in rural Ontario, and discovering that he shot all House Wrens on his property so they would not interfere with bluebird nests. I was, however, not particularly surprised that he fed baby starlings to a Great Horned Owl in his care.)
Wrens and Tree Swallows, plus one or two other cavity-nesting bird species in our region, such as the Great Crested Flycatcher, somehow did not seem to suffer as much as bluebirds from competition with starlings, although I have see the latter species actually take over from a Northern Flicker. Flickers are sharp beaked woodpeckers and are larger and stronger than starlings, but still can't always defend themselves against the European Starling.
What Mrs. Brown did with a starling was this: she put the bird in a paper bag and then, with a pair of scissors, she cut off its head.
That part sickened me, I admit, but I was too young to think things through. The "common knowledge" of the day was that starlings were "nuisance" wildlife that had to be "controlled" for the sake of native species. So while I didn't really like what Mrs. Brown did to starlings, I understood that there was a reason and it was one that I thought was valid. European Starlings, or at least what they did, were "bad", thus eliminating them was "good" even though I had to suppress my natural feelings of compassion to feel that way. (In those days I did a lot of such suppression of emotion, thinking it was what I should do; but we will deal with that topic in future installment of Opinionatedly Yours.)
Then, one day we visited Mrs. Brown as she was banding birds in her garden. She had just caught some American Goldfinches. These are a charming little native bird and about as innocuous to any human interest as any animal can be. As Mrs. Brown held one of the birds in her hand she looked at it speculatively and mused, "You know, for some reason there's a lot more goldfinches this year than I've ever seen before. I wonder if there's too many?"
Both my mother and I spontaneously protested that we thought there weren't too many goldfinches. I think both of us had immediate visions of Mrs. Brown putting goldfinches into paper bags and cutting off their heads in the interest of restoring the balanced world in which animals were not more common than they "should" be. In those days the word "epiphany" had yet to gain its current popularity, but I think that I had one when Mrs. Brown mused about goldfinch numbers. Who are we to decide when there are "too many" of something?
Mrs. Brown was a God-player. She felt she knew what was "right" and what was "wrong" in the environment. Hers was an attitude that is far from rare; in fact it is common and something we are conditioned to accept from infancy as a "given". The world is full of God-players and many of them are wildlife managers whose salaries we pay through our taxes. God-playing is a profession.
The contention that there are too many (or too few) of any species of wild plant or animal is incomplete. Too many for what? Invariably a value must be evoked to justify the contention. What, in other words, is the problem?
Deer Me ...
From the days when I knew Mrs. Brown, let us flash forward more than 40 years to the present. In temperate eastern North America, where I live, the original forest cover has been fragmented over the last two or three centuries. In many regions it has been eliminated over wide tracts of what are now productive farmland, as well as urban sprawl. The process by which this happened is often called "clearing," a non-too subtle suggestion that trees are in the way. The trees were indeed in the way of other interests, such as farming. The farms feed people. Even a vegan requires fruits, grains, and vegetables. Producing farmland has a greater capacity to support humans than does forest. Forest has a greater capacity for supporting non-human animals.
However there are remnant patches of forest and wood lot here and there, plus orchards and irregular appearances of second growth wood lot, quite different from the full climax beech and maple forests of the Great Lakes region in primordial times. Some of the remnants of native forests are preserved in parks or sanctuaries.
One such park is Presqu'ile Provincial Park (more or less pronounced "Pres KEEL"; it means "almost an island"). Presqu'ile is a small park surrounded by the waters of Lake Ontario and linked to the mainland by a peninsula of land consisting of beach, wonderful sand dunes studded with poplars and juniper, white cedar woods, and cattail marsh. Within its boundaries this wonderful park contains deciduous wood lot, some planted non-native evergreens, stands of white cedar, meadows, sand beach, shingle beach, limestone outcroppings, abandoned orchards, and extensive cattail marshes. It also has commodious campgrounds and playgrounds. And it has White-tailed Deer.
There is no doubt that within a year or two it will be decided that there are "too many" deer. Their numbers are increasing each year (although this winter some aboriginal hunters trying to assert what they felt were their treaty rights were arrested after illegally killed some 27 of the semi-tame deer). Wildflowers that are eaten by the deer are decreasing, and so eventually a decision will be made. While I can't predict the details, barring more poaching I can foresee with confidence that the decision will be made to kill a significant percentage of the deer within the next few years. Similar decisions have been made for other small provincial parks in Ontario, and for similar regions in many U.S. states, particularly in the northeast and midwest.
I was the head naturalist at Presqu'ile nearly thirty years ago. There were deer in the park then, but not nearly so many as are there at present. Nevertheless even in those days we were told there were "too many." Deer love to eat White Cedar and you could stand back and look at stands of White Cedar and see no green foliage beneath the level deer could reach when standing on their hind legs. This area of defoliation is called the "browse line" and it seemed to almost offend some of the biologists, as if it were "wrong."
A few years ago a massive windstorm swept through Presqu'ile and blew down many of the older trees, opening up areas in the woods to more sunlight, hence allowing increased regeneration. This "blowdown" also provided ample food for White-tailed Deer. Presqu'ile was on the very edge of a massive, long-lasting ice storm last winter, which brought down still more branches and trees.
The woodlands of Presqu'ile look very different than the woods I remember from my youth. And one of the main differences is the reduction of a beautiful early spring flower called the White Trillium. The White Trillium is the provincial flower and school children are taught not only to identify it, but to leave it alone as the whole plant will die if it is picked. It grows in great mats that cover the woodland floor in early spring, before the overhead canopy of leaves has emerged. Along with violets and Adder Tongues, Dutchman's Breeches, Bloodroot, Mayapple, Jack-in-the-Pulpit and other species, it helps to define the early spring to those of us weary of winter and overjoyed at the arrival of such beautiful manifestations of the long awaited end to winter.
Although there are a few trilliums left in Presqu'ile (contrary to reports that they are gone) the deer have eaten most of them. Removal of the part of the plant that is above ground kills the plant. Deer also eat the saplings that struggle for life in sunlit clearings created by past storms. The deer are changing the nature, the very structure and appearance, of the woods. The openings the deer unintentionally help to maintain can, unlike deeply shaded climax forest woodland, be utilized by many non-native plant species designated as "weeds." These are plant species that evoke none of the joy to be felt at the sight of a carpet of trilliums, and are species that, unlike delicate native plants, can be found in any roadside ditch here or in many other parts of the world. As the woods changes species of birds and other wildlife that require wooded habitat fail to survive. All of this is seen as "wrong" to those who value the woods as it was -- a place special to this region as a remnant patch of a specific admixture of plants and animals unique to this part of the world -- over what it is now becoming, and who value the more vulnerable, rarer, native animals and plants over the widespread "weed" species.
This process of alteration of the woods by the deer has been called "an ecological disaster." Assuming you are reading this because you care greatly for animals and what happens to them, you might not agree that there is any such "disaster." You might even prefer lots of deer and weeds and few or no trilliums. But before we dismiss the concept of this being an ecological disaster, what if the loss of wildflowers was entirely the result of vandals? What if a motorcycle gang had moved in and destroyed wildflowers and saplings? What if some industry decided to pick all the beautiful wild flowers and sell them, and cut down saplings and leave red-backed salamanders, star-nosed moles, American woodcock, Whip-poor-wills, and other woodland wildlife species stranded? I think we might suggest that such things not be allowed. Is it different when the deer do it? To me it is fundamentally different if the deer do it, but from the standpoint of the trillium, the salamander, the mole, the woodcock, or the Whip-poor-will there is no difference whatsoever.
And how long can it go on? No species can experience unlimited exponential growth. It is ironic that humans, themselves undergoing precisely such unchecked growth, should dare to point a finger at any other species. In spite of all the wars and famines, diseases and both natural and human-caused ecological disasters that so affect us we continue to replace ourselves faster than we die off, and inevitably there must come a reckoning.
Same with deer. Disease and starvation, lowered fertility rate and migration to the mainland, and even some predation will all kick in, eventually. In fact, one of the main reasons I have against the lethal culling of these deer is the fact that it prevents such natural controls from happening. By abruptly reducing the number of deer we reduce the demands on the environment, making for less competition within the species. Each surviving deer has more to eat and thus the body reacts as though there is more available than is the case. Mortality decreases, fertility increases, and the "problem" continues. This, too, seems to be a difficult concept for people to grasp, and we'll deal with it in greater detail at another time.
The issue is more complicated than simply destroying enough deer to allow restoration of the woods to something we, or some of us, feel is more desirable than what the deer are doing. Habitats change through time. One reason there are so many more deer now than before is because the woods, having been protected from both fires and logging interests, is much more shaded than it was before. Storms, a definite part of nature, helped to open up the woods (just as fires sometimes do). That led to conditions more favorable to deer as it allowed increased new vegetation growth at deer-level. Furthermore, deer on the mainland are hunted in the fall, and are exposed to people and dogs and heavy automobile traffic. There may be heavy die-offs of deer in winter. But, possibly as a result of global warming (experts being divided as to whether or not human-caused global warming is actually occurring, but whether it is or not the fact remains that on average it is steadily growing warmer) the deer are less challenged by winter cold than were their ancestors. And the park, being a park, is a safe haven for animals moving into the region from the mainland.
Change is the only constant. The vast boreal forests to the north of where I live have a timeless, eternal look to them, but in fact they are of relatively recent origin. A mere ten thousand years ago they did not exist, the whole area then being under glacial ice sheets. The change has been enormous. In my own lifetime there have been some quite astounding shifts in populations of birds and other wildlife, usually in response to human endeavors. Many such changes are have led to serious decreases, endangerment and even extirpation [extirpation occurs when a population of a species is entirely eliminated from a region, but is not extinct as members of the species exist elsewhere]. Others have seen species spread into new regions. And yet it is also understandable that we cling to "ideals" as to what is or is not "right" for a given region. If deer are eating plants that are the sole food of a given species of butterfly found nowhere else in the region, should not the interests of the butterfly be protected? It is the rarity, not the deer, and isn't there enough endangerment, extirpation and extinction without us standing idly by as the butterfly goes down the tubes?
Such questions are not academic. They go to the heart of some management decisions where even the decision to do nothing is nevertheless a management decision. I don't wish to over-generalize, but at least in some instances I can say from experience that if anything separates "environmentalists" from "animal rights" advocates, it is the response such questions evoke. While the animal rights advocate may claim not to be "speciesist," in the real world I think many animal rights advocates would argue to lose the butterfly on the grounds that it is letting "nature" take its course -- an argument that conveniently ignores the fact that "nature," if such is defined as processes not derived via human technology, had nothing to do with the butterfly's plight. Conversely, and again not wanting to over-generalize, I think on average most environmentalists would, while acknowledging the "right" of the deer would also recognize the "right" of the butterfly (and the plants) and would place a higher value on the survival of any given species than on the protection of one or more individual of any species. I am not, for a moment, suggesting there may not be a third alternative (on the contrary, I have fought all my life against what I call the "final solution school of wildlife management" that turns to killing as the resolution of such conflicts) for those willing to search for one or commit the resources that may be required for non-lethal responses to such dilemmas.
Watching All the Gulls Go By ...
Usually when someone says there are "too many" of this or that species, it is because the species in question is doing something that the person making the determination does not like. For example, each summer the city of Toronto was inundated with inexperienced, immature Ring-billed Gulls (invariably called "seagulls"). These birds nest in large colonies along the waterfront. Their numbers are increasing in the Great Lakes region. They are scavengers who benefit directly from our own species' massive and increasing waste production. And, they sometimes prey upon the eggs or young of "more desirable" species of birds -- species that are fewer in number or in decline (such as the Common Tern) and do not associate with human beings, and are thus "more desirable." Gulls are everywhere and easily taken for granted.
Many of the young birds failed to survive. It was not unusual to pick them up in states of emaciation so advanced that the birds literally lacked the strength to fly. Many were filled with parasites or suffering from lung infections. Many wound up with broken wings from an inability to dodge traffic or dogs or thrown stones.
In short, it was agreed upon by most people voicing an opinion that there were "too many."
And so the city engaged in a gull control program. The method was simple. They simply removed the freshly laid eggs. Through trial and error it was discovered that the gulls had low "nest site tenacity" when they first started to lay eggs, but developed very strong nest site tenacity thereafter. That meant that by chasing them and removing eggs at the commencement of the nesting season the gulls could be kept from nesting in certain areas and allowed to nest in others.
The goal was not to destroy all the nests or eliminate gulls --- far from it --- but to contain the city's major gull colonies and thus control the size of the overall population. And it "worked." There are still large numbers of Ring-billed Gulls in the city, and there are still problems with young birds winding up starving or injured, and there are still complaints about the mess gulls can create. But it's "under control." There is a balance, if you will, that satisfies most interests while not satisfying all interests, from those of people like me, who would allow them to nest unimpeded, to those who would prefer that there were none at all.
The major nest site is a man-made landfill extending out into Lake Ontario, so it might fairly be argued that having created the place where the gulls can nest, we humans have the "right" to determine where, upon that site, they should not be allowed to nest. As an extra bonus the "more desirable" common terns have taken to nesting on floating rafts covered with sand, provided by the federal government specifically for that purpose, and from there have re-colonized areas of the landfill that were previously occupied by gulls who then displaced the terns.
While I would never have argued for the control (and, indeed, at the time API waged a successful campaign to assure that the Ring-billed Gull maintained its status as a species protected by the Migratory Birds Convention Act, holding a one-day conference on gull problems in conjunction with the Canadian Wildlife Service, with famed naturalist Roger Tory Peterson as the guest of honor) neither can I say that it has not achieved a workable compromise for all concerned, including the gulls. To a much greater degree than the marshes, stands of cedars and wood lots of Presqu'ile Provincial Park, the city is a highly human-created environment, and the control of gulls through egg destruction is analogous to, if much less invasive than, the spaying or neutering of companion dogs and cats. It is not my solution, but a compromise that is working in a world where my esteem for all animals is far from universal.
Too Many Sea Otters?
When I first heard complaints from abalone fishermen that there were "too many" sea otters in California, I was incredulous. The sea otter had nearly been wiped out by the fur industry of the 19th century, but with careful protection and translocation had recovered to what was still a shadow of its former size, but enough to probably assure survival. How could there now be too many?
In purely materialistic terms, sea otters are a major tourist attraction, at least partly responsible for a positive cash flow into California coastal communities. The sea otter is the kind of "charismatic megafauna" so well known and beloved by so many people who can otherwise name or identify very few animals. But apart from all of that the sea otter, unlike the human, has an absolute requirement for such things as abalone, and other marine life, as an essential part of its diet. And that diet is what helps maintain the very environment that allows the sea otter and the abalone to live. Yes, it's one of those food-chain scenarios whereby the sea otter's prodigious appetite for prolific sea urchins keep the sea urchin's population from consuming all the kelp, which provides the kelp forests that are the nutriment-rich starting point for many food chains that help support the sea's rich biomass, which, in turn, is source of income for many people (too many people, in fact; there simply aren't enough fish to supply all human demand).
In Alaska depletion of salmon stocks by human fishermen plus a reduction of sealions has forced orcas (also known as "killer whales") to shift feeding habits to eat more sea otters which in turn has led to sea urchin proliferation that, in turn, destroy kelp beds which, in turn, support food-chains that feed salmon and other fish that feed the humans who take too many fish in the first place. It is not that there are "too many" orcas; their numbers are probably well below primal levels. If there are too many of anything it is humans who have, unlike any other species, access to technology that allows them to take far more of the world's living biomass and waste far more than any other species can come remotely close to doing. But it's easier to say there are too many orcas than to take responsibility for our own excesses. It's easier to blame sea otters for declines in abalone if you like to dive for abalone off California's coast on the weekend and don't want to stop doing so.
Even the Mediterranean monk seal, a critically endangered species, is still a species of which there are "too many," according to some fishermen in the Mediterranean.
It is hard to think of a species that is common enough to be noticed that has not been declared "too many" and therefore needful of control. Everyone loves robins, but I wonder how many people, including us vegetarians, drinking cranberry juice or eating cranberry sauce give a thought to the thousands of robins killed by the cranberry farmers because robins also eat cranberries?
Crows, red foxes, coyotes, elk -- even the American Bison -- there are somewhere "too many."
Are You Bothered By Too Many Coots?
As I type these words, January 1999 is about to close. It was in this same month that Merit Property Management, in Mission Viejo, California, decided that there were "too many" American coots in the lake that is within the Sam Lark Housing Development.
Before I tell you what was done about it, I want to briefly tell you about American coots.
Coots are shaped a lot like a duck and do a lot of swimming, but instead of having webbed feet, they have flattened lobes on their toes, a rather cool arrangement as the lobes compress, to reduce resistance, as the foot is moved forward in the water, and then splay out, to offer as much resistance as would webbing, when the bird pushes back, thus providing propulsion. The plumage is softer than a duck's and mostly a lovely dark, sooty gray, becoming velvety black on the head and neck. The beak is snow white with a couple of maroon dots, and continues up onto a "frontal shield" that covers the forehead. The iris of the eye is dark red, and the bird has a permanent droll look. The American Coot is totally innocuous, although if you hold a coot he will kick out with his great feet with surprising vigor. In the wild, when a predator nears a flock of coots, they dive off in all directions with much noisy splashing in an instinctive effort to confuse the enemy. They usually don't try to take to the air because to do so they have to run along on top of the water, rapidly churning those great feet, until they become airborne, and at such times they are certainly vulnerable to an attack by a hawk or eagle.
In the spring they pair off to nest, in wetlands throughout much of North America, particularly in the prairies. They have complex displays of mating and fighting. While the latter involves much splashing and kicking, it draws no blood. Coots are particularly noted for laying their eggs in each other's nests.
The pairs seem to mate for life, or until one is lost and remating occurs. Their chicks are black, with bright red heads and bob about like corks in the company of their parents.
In the winter American coots may migrate, some going as far as South America or Hawaii, or they may stay in the general area of where they nested, but they tend to move from reed beds or cattail stands out into open water, forming flocks.
One such flock of 200 was wintering on the lake at the Sam Lark housing development. That was deemed "too many." And so, with the legally required blessing of the federal government, they were poisoned. They would have moved off the lake soon, had they been left alone. The migrate in late winter to breed, perhaps locally, perhaps some dozens, hundreds or possibly thousands of miles away. The lake was ornamental and it's hard for me to imagine why anyone would not be pleased with the sight of these rather amusing-looking, quite vital and utterly harmless birds. There were the usual concerns about bacteria counts, but the lake was not used for swimming, and unless one drank from it or ate uncooked coots or fish from it, it's hard to see that there would be any serious problem. No such problems, so far as I know, were recorded.
The arrogance of the God-players is boundless and is universal. The same fishing industry that is responsible for the catastrophic collapse of what were once incredibly vast populations of cod and other northeast Atlantic fish stocks quite blithely says there are "too many" harp seals, eating "all the fish." American coots; African elephants; American alligators; mountain lions; great white sharks; alewives; muskrats -- too many; too many; too many.
The Wolf at the Door ...
The wolf is of particular interest to me because it seems to exist in one of three circumstances as far as public opinion is concerned:
One: there are too many;
Two: it is endangered;
Three: it is extinct.
Everywhere the gray wolf (or the endangered Red Wolf of the southern U.S.) exists, it can be argued that people are screaming that there are "too many" unless it is "endangered." Even then, putting some back into the environment, as is being done with the Gray Wolf in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, or the Red Wolf in North Carolina, still means "too many" wolves for some people.
And where I live, in Ontario, where the Gray Wolf is most certainly not endangered, there are constant concerns that there are "too many."
A Deer Swallow Tale ...
One of the favored propaganda tactics of the final solution school of wildlife management is to argue that lethal culling is for the animals' own good. If animals are "out of balance" or there are "too many," the claim goes, they will starve or contract disease and this is much less humane than simply shooting enough to reduce or even eliminate the likelihood of that happening.
But they are highly selective about what species engender such "humanitarian" concerns. More than a dozen years ago there were serious concerns about "over"populations of White-tailed Deer at a place called the Peterborough Crown Game Preserve, in eastern Ontario. A lethal cull was proposed amid dire predictions of mass starvation of the poor deer. Hunters just itching to get at the deer, who had, being protected, become quite tame, were positively lurid in their ghastly descriptions of what would happen if the population was not "controlled." I was almost alone (although I did actually have one or two hunters on my side -- they really hated the idea of shooting such tame animals) in going to the area and arguing against the lethal cull that had been proposed.
I had done my homework. A site visit had revealed that there was, indeed, a "browse line" below which there was little vegetation, but to me that meant that the deer had the option to move elsewhere, and that survivorship would depend on the ability to survive under such circumstances. I was shown some white cedars not eaten by deer, and this, too, might well be a trait "selected for" as the cedars also evolved within the context of an environment that included deer. But I also traced records of significant winter "starvation episodes" of the species in the scientific literature and discovered that when there were such episodes, they happened whether or not the population had been reduced by fall hunting -- usually as a result of exceptionally bad weather. On average it appeared to be something that happened about once every seventeen years, or so, or about once every several deer generations.
I presented all that information at a public hearing, being subjected during the process to crude jokes and veiled threats by numerous potbellied men in flannel shirts of camouflage coveralls. During a break in the proceedings a deer biologist who had been publicly arguing against me took me aside and told me to "keep it up"; that I was right. Somehow the lethal cull was stopped. I had won, but I wondered if I would be subjected to a barrage of "I told you so's" if, in fact, there was a massive deer starvation that winter.
There wasn't, nor has there been to the present day.
I mentioned, above, the Tree Swallows whose nests sometimes usurp those of the much rarer Eastern Bluebird. The Tree Swallow is, where I live, the first of the swallows to return in the spring. In fact, of the six species of swallow who nest in Ontario, the Tree is the one whose wintering grounds are the closest to their northern breeding grounds -- as near as the Carolinas or Georgia. Although they are typical swallows with long wings and swooping flight that allow them to be masters of the air who feed on flying insects, they also have evolved an ability to eat small berries, and this allows them to stay in the continental U.S. during winter.
Just as the early bird gets the worm, the early swallow -- the first ones to return in the spring -- finds the choicest nest sites. This gives such birds an advantage over late arrivals. However, winter does not end abruptly and sometimes, after the earliest swallows have arrived, the weather turns cold again, or perhaps a blizzard sets in.
I recall from my childhood opening the top of a bird nest box and looking in, and seeing about eight tree swallows huddled in the bottom for warmth, their eyes closed. No nest competition here, the birds had gone into a "communal roost" in a desperate struggle take advantage of each other's warmth to survive.
And they had lost. They were all dead. The cold weather had prevented there from being enough insects to feed them. The amount of energy expanded searching for food and keeping warm was simply much greater than the amount taken in from what, if any, food was found.
Dead swallows were found in nest boxes and tree cavities everywhere, in the early weeks of that cold spring, but a few weeks after that you there were plenty of Tree Swallows around -- birds who had migrated a bit later. The later arrivals had an abundance of food and choice of nest sites. The early migration strategy usually works for the species, but sometimes it does not.
That's how nature works.
No one has suggested that, in order to protect the swallows, we should kill half of their population, or any at all. If we reduced the population in such fashion, swallow mortality would go down, because there would be fewer swallows. The fact is, wildlife managers and government agencies don't much care as what happens to individual swallows provided that the species is not endangered. There are lots of Tree Swallows.
Mr. MacKay Goes to Washington ...
When I began this essay, I was going to talk about the plans to cut in half the central population of Snow Geese. We, at API, are currently fighting hard to prevent that, as we're being told there are "too many" Snow Geese by some (not all) scientists and bureaucrats.
In this same month -- January 1999 -- that they killed 200 American Coots at the Sam Lark Housing Development, Mission Viejo, California, my Canadian colleagues, Ainslie Willock and Dr. Vernon Thomas and I were scheduled to meet with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The meeting was to be on Friday, January 15, the very last day of the public comment period for response to the proposal to initiate a country-wide mass increase in the killing of snow goose, because there were "too many." The concern, as explained elsewhere (see The Great Goose Hoax), is that the geese are eating too much vegetation in the far north, where they breed. Dr. Thomas, a university professor of zoology who has studied snow geese in the north for many years, disagreed, as did other scientists, naturalists, and, perhaps most tellingly, the native people of the region who depend on wildlife for much of their food and have lived there for thousands of years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had steadfastly refused to provide a reasonably high level meeting, and when it finally did, there was simply not enough time to get native leaders from the far flung regions of Canada down to Washington. Indeed, nature played a hand by bringing on a massive snowstorm that closed the Toronto airport. The airport dug out, but another, larger storm was on the way. Our original plan was to fly down for a meeting with the Council on Environmental Quality on Thursday, the 14th, and then meet with the government the next and last day. But with the storm coming on Ainslie and I made a quick decision to leave early. Dr. Thomas, with student exams to administer, could not leave a day early. And so Ainslie and I left Wednesday night, ahead of the storm. Dr. Thomas managed to make his way to the airport the next day, but, as predicted, it was shut down by the blizzard.
And so Ainslie and I were in Washington on Thursday, the 14th, with time on our hands before our first meeting, late in the afternoon. That is when I decided to visit Martha, or what is left of her.
Martha died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoological Park. She was the very last known Passenger Pigeon. Her skin, artfully stuffed and mounted, in on display at the Smithsonian Institute. Nearby there are quite a few more Passenger Pigeons, stuffed and mounted, on display, many in dioramas that replicate their appearance in the wild. It's not surprising that there are so many specimens of an extinct bird; after all at one time the Passenger Pigeon was, by far, the most abundant of all birds on the continent. You can understand how people would have thought that there were far "too many."
Just to give you an idea of how many there were, one flock, estimated to be 240 miles long, was also estimated to consume at least 17,423,000 bushels of nuts and acorns -- per day! That is what I would call an environmental impact! The birds were slaughtered by the millions, but that was not enough to exterminate them. They were shipped to cities for food or fed to hogs or simply used for manure, and while the slaughter was massive, it, alone, was not enough to account for their eventual complete disappearance.
I'm sure that at least someone, back in the 19th century, must have worried about the fate of the species. But surely if any such person spoke his or (more likely) her concerns aloud, it was only to be called foolish. Everyone could see that there were simply billions too many Passenger Pigeons.
We also had a look at the only mounted Guadalupe Caracara I've ever seen in a museum. Caracaras are large, hawklike falcons found only in the New World. Unlike other falcons they have are not great flyers, preferring to take carrion or weak prey they can kill with their strongly hooked beaks.
The Guadalupe Caracara was very different from the Passenger Pigeon in that it was found only on Guadalupe Island, off the west coast of Mexico. The island is an arid, desert island but some people, back in the 19th century, thought it would be a good place to raise goats. They were concerned, however, that there were "too many" caracaras. It was possible that the Guadalupe Caracara could eat into profits by eating into newly born kids -- baby goats, that is. And so they were controlled by shooting. A scientific collector who landed there around the turn of the century collected quite a few specimens, apparently not realizing how rare the bird had become. At any rate, by about 100 years ago, the species became extinct.
I wonder if, among the goat herders, anyone was concerned about the caracaras. If so, I'm sure they were considered foolish.
The island turned out to be a lousy place to raise goats (big surprise!) and soon after the Guadalupe Caracara was extinct, the island and the goat-herding venture were abandoned.
The Smithsonian Institute also has a diorama display of stuffed and mounted Carolina Parakeets, flying about in synthetic snow, designed to show that how they once lived. The Carolina Parakeet is the only parrot species native to eastern North America. I suspect that as colonists planted corn and orchards the parrot numbers may have increased, as this was food they loved. The parrots cut into profits and so there were "too many." Fortunately for the concerned colonists, the parrots were attractive both as pets and as game birds. They were taken into captivity and they were shot for sport and food in order to control the population.
I know a few folks were worried but such concerns were of little use to the parakeets, as by the time it was realized there were no longer "too many" the species was obviously endangered. No one knows quite when it became extinct. There were rumors of birds seen as late as the 1930s and even the early 1940s.
The next day, with colleagues of the Humane Society of the United States, we met with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explain why we felt that there were not "too many" snow geese. It was not to our surprise that we were told how foolish we were.
While we were in Washington D.C., we received, via telephone, an excited call from back home. Word had been leaked to our friends that the Ontario government would very soon announce an end to the spring black bear hunt. It is an issue that has preoccupied Ainslie since 1995 and we at least had that to celebrate.
Well, the announcement was, indeed, made a few days later. That does not make it law and at the moment, as I conclude this column, the outfitters of Ontario are up in arms fighting to have the government back down. Just four days ago I received a phone call from a member of the hand-picked government's wildlife advisory board (all pro hunting and fishing types) dramatically telling me I would have "blood on your head" as the outfitters who guided mostly American hunters to kill bears were so ruined by the government decision that at least some would doubtless commit suicide. It would be all my fault.
Today, Saturday, January 30, 1999, as I complete this Opinionatedly Yours column, the local newspaper is filled with letters, pro and con the government announcement. Of course none of the ones who are opposed to the spring bear hunt ban (not yet legally in place) discuss the orphaning of cubs, which is the issue the government claims is responsible for the decision. Shooting female bears in spring has been illegal but hunters can't always tell the sexes apart and sows with dependent cubs sometimes will send the cubs up a tree before entering a bait site, looking as though they did not have dependent young. The only mention of cubs by the pro-spring hunt group is either to deny that any are orphaned or to claim, with logic I can't quite follow, that because cars and male bears kill cubs it somehow doesn't matter anyway.
But of course, the another major and even more illogical argument made in defense of the spring bear hunt is that there are "too many" bears, and the hunt is required to "control" the population and keep their numbers down for the safety of us tree-hugging, berry-picking, bird-watching, Bambi-loving, Granola-bar-eating city folk who might wonder into the woods next summer and turn up on a Black Bear's menu. (The likelihood of that happening is less than the likelihood of dying from a bee sting, and with 90,000 people killed by other people to every one iced by a bear, I'll still take my chances in the forest, thank you very much.)
Most hunters who come to Ontario to hunt bears in spring come from the U.S., from places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where, I suppose, there were also once "too many" black bears, but where now there are not enough.
Oh, Mrs. Brown: I don't know what ever became of you, but what a lesson you unintentionally started to teach me that day you held a harmless little goldfinch in your hand and wondered if, in fact, there were "too many" American Goldfinches. Long may they chirp and twitter and glow in the summer sun in whatever numbers there are.