The Lord God Bird, R.I.P.

The Lord God Bird, R.I.P.

Death Stalks The Anthropocene World

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

The Lord God Bird

 

“There is terrible evil in the world. It comes from men. Men will never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”

Richard Adams

Watership Down

 

One would almost anticipate hearing weeping, wailing, and lamentations across the globe at the doleful news that the beautiful ivory-billed woodpecker had at last been declared extinct. The “Lord God Bird” had joined the growing list of species, like the passenger pigeon that once blackened our skies with its countless numbers, that are gone forever. Once gone, no species will ever be seen again.

The first response of those who sighted the woodpecker was, “Lord God!” providing it with the nickname The Lord God Bird. The ivory-billed woodpecker had once inhabited coniferous forests and lowland areas across the American South. Over the years, the great bird had become increasingly rare. As always, habitat destruction was the main culprit. When so many Southern forests were decimated by loggers, the ivory-billed’s homeland shrank to nearly nothing. Those who hunted the rare bird, seeking its plumage for women’s hats or to fill private collections, share the blame. The last accepted sighting of the bird was in 1944, and the last sighting in Cuba was 1987.

In the years since, sounds and sightings of the ivory-billed had been reported in Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and elsewhere. In 2004, Gene Sparling reported an ivory-billed sighting in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. The report was good for local business as ornithologists and bird lovers converged upon the neighboring small town. Local restaurants offered woodpecker burgers, and one barbershop provided woodpecker haircuts. The Nature Conservancy purchased 18,000 acres of possible ivory-billed habitat in hopes of preserving a small population of the magnificent bird. Alas, it all came to naught. If Mr. Sparling was correct in identifying an ivory-billed, it may have been the last surviving specimen in that area or anywhere else.

While I will never be blessed with the sight of an ivory-billed woodpecker, I have on a few occasions met one of its close relatives, the pileated woodpecker. The first time was in Ohio’s Fowlers Woods Nature Preserve. I was hiking solo, as is so often my wont, when I heard a deep drumming, as though someone was beating on a hollow log with a fence post. The pileated woodpecker, like the now vanished ivory-billed, drums in order to warn of interlopers, defend territory, or solicit mating.

What met my gaze as I came to a sudden halt reminded me more of either a pterodactyl resurrected in the twenty-first century or the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. The pileated woodpecker may have a wingspan of nearly three feet. One’s first sighting of a pileated inspires both awe and disbelief.

It seems that the numbers of pileated woodpeckers are increasing at the present. While I did not hear Woody’s raucous laugh, it is true that the popular cartoon woodpecker was modeled after a pileated. I could well imagine Woody’s hilarious laugh as he pecked down a pesky utility pole.

Sadly, the ivory-billed woodpecker was not the only species to be declared extinct in the recent report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are 22 others, including nine birds, one bat, a plant that only appears on some Pacific islands, and eight freshwater mussels. Globally, many other species tip precariously on the edge of extinction.

While some may not rue the passing of an endangered bat, in the world of nature everything has a proper place, even the often feared and loathed bat. Bats do eat mosquitoes (while mosquitoes, it seems, exist to feed bats), and they spread seeds and pollinate crops and flowers. Most of us would not give a thought to a vanishing freshwater mussel. I remember canoeing down Ohio’s Mohican River and collecting abandoned mussel shells which I used to hold paper clips and other items on my classroom desk. I hope some sort of freshwater mussel survives yet in Midwestern streams.

It has been reported recently that even the American bumble bee, one of our chief pollinators, may soon buzz no more about our vegetable and flower gardens. A variety of factors are at work in the case of the bumble bee, including pathogens, climate change, and pesticides.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that one of every five animals present today face extinction, that 28,000 may vanish in the near future. The list includes several species of elephants in Africa and Asia, as well as rhinos, gorillas, the orangutang, chimpanzees and bonobos, Indian, Indonesian and Siberian tigers, the Tibetan snow leopard, various species of sea turtles, the spider monkey, dugong, pangolin, and polar bear.

A new term has emerged in recent years to describe and define our era, the Anthropocene, a time in which humans dominate the entire globe, for better or, far more often, worse. There have been mass extinctions in the past, an estimated one every 26,000,000 years, mostly, it seems, triggered by asteroid collisions. The human footprint is responsible for the great majority of extinctions or near extinctions in our time.    

Humans may also provide the solutions. The lowly snail darter, a tiny fish facing elimination by the rising waters of the Tellico Dam many years ago, now thrives in nearby streams because of a serious effort to save it. The American bison that once covered our prairies was gunned down until only a small population remained. Now, its numbers have increased, and many are raised commercially by livestock farmers and ranchers. After President Richard Nixon eliminated the use of DDT on federal lands, many bird species began a comeback, including the red tail hawk, the kestrel, the pelican, and our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle. Even the gigantic California condor, once extinct in the wild but rescued through human intervention, again drifts across the skies above the arid landscapes of California, Utah, and Mexico.

In the short run, is there hope for preserving some species facing annihilation during the Anthropocene? Dr. Jane Goodall’s latest publication, The Book of Hope, suggests that there is. Dr. Goodall finds hope in the resilience of nature, the idealism of young people, the human intellect, and the indomitable human spirit.

These proposals deserve close examination. Nature does, indeed, tend to bounce back. Forests rise again from the ashes after devastating fires. The land eventually heals from the destruction wrought by strip mining for coal and other minerals, although the process is agonizingly slow, even with human intervention. Goodall points to New York City’s famous Survivor Tree, now blooming again after being crushed by the plummeting Trade Center on that terrible day in September 2001. She also points to the example of a huge camphor tree that survived the bombing of Nagasaki during the closing days of World War II and now lives on as a holy shrine for many Japanese.        

I have witnessed the power of young people in the course of my lengthy teaching career. In 1980, along with a friend and colleague, I formed a student chapter of Amnesty International at my old high school, where I served for 34 of my 36 years in the classroom. The students were elated when their letters to the attorney general of Mexico caused a young university student to be released from custody after a lengthy period of being held incommunicado. Later, their letters earned responses from authorities in Uganda, Mali, South Africa, and the USSR. Several years later, I formed a student environmental group. Students joined with enthusiasm, collecting wastepaper and plastics for recycling and questioning school officials about the use of such materials as styrofoam in the cafeteria. Young people tend to be sensitive to any form of injustice and to care about the world they will inherit.

What I did find was that young women filled most of the ranks. While some superlative young male students became vigorous advocates, most of our members were female. Given that overpopulation fuels all of our other dilemmas, the global emancipation of women is essential to the survival of all life on earth. Educational opportunities can inspire and sustain that emancipation, a challenging goal, particularly under such regimes as that recently re-installed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The time has long passed for women to be recognized as equals rather than marginalized, subservient baby factories in bondage to obtuse, thuggish males.

Dr. Goodall recognizes that the human intellect, properly employed, possesses the potential to solve nearly all of the problems that mar the earth, our island home, whether involving human rights or the preservation of wildlife and the natural environment. Our intellect, paired with what she calls our indomitable human spirit, can save us all. Can. Not necessarily will. That is up to all of us. Yet, Dr. Goodall points with satisfaction at the good works accomplished by her global Roots and Shoots program that inspires and motivates young persons to initiate meaningful changes in the world they will inherit. The organization, founded by Dr. Goodall, now has a presence in 140 countries, boasts 8,000 groups, and an estimated membership of 150,000 youth. The organization acts on three fronts: preserving the environment, conservation of natural resources and humanitarian interests, and promotes such activities as organic food production. Young people who make up the membership have fostered meaningful changes on the Lakota Sioux Reservation in North America, in India, Tanzania, Burundi, and downtrodden urban areas in the US.

Another term now gaining popularity is “eco-grief,” the sorrow experienced by those who know of the destruction of the natural world by human misbehavior. It would seem that there is no palliative for eco-grief other than hope. Regardless of our purist intentions and best endeavors, no one will ever again thrill to the unique, “Wuk! Wuk!” call or the deep drumming of the Lord God Bird. But there remains hope for the future of the pangolin, the elephant, the tiger, the bumbling bumble bee. A most recent fund-raising item from Defenders of Wildlife depicts two majestic gray wolves with the caption, “Don’t Let Us Disappear.”

As Dr. Goodall reminds us, only we can prevent future disappearances.

 

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