Bird Extinctions May Hold Clues to Human Survival, Author Says

Robert Twigger
for The Independent (London)
August 10, 2001
Mauritius, home to the unlucky dodo, was also where the Mauritius red
hen met its end, eaten by sailors, one of whom wrote in 1638: "They bee
very good Meat, and are also Cloven Footed, soe that they can Neyther
Fly nor Swymme."

Being smaller and less noticeable than the dodo,
the red hen might have escaped but for one flaw: It was irresistibly and
fatally drawn to anything red. Caps, socks, shirts—any piece of red
cloth dangling from a stick would bring the formerly numerous red hens
of Mauritius running.

Add to that misfortune the catastrophic
coincidence that the standard sailors' hat in the 17th century was made
of red cloth and you have the makings of a peculiarly unlucky
extinction. At the same time, one can easily imagine those hungry
sailors, rubbing their hands together at the good fortune of it all.

Extinctions have a lot to teach us. We, the extinctors, can discern a strange yet familiar image of ourselves, like a photographic negative, or a shroud image of the body beneath, from the sad stories of those species we have helped speed towards oblivion.

We can observe the bad habits we had in the past and try to correct them, but what about the new bad habits?

Theories proliferate in the face of the fact of annihilation, but the annihilations continue. Take the great auk, or garefowl, whose story is so well told in Errol Fuller's immaculate new book, Extinct Birds. The northern hemisphere version of the penguin, the great auk was hunted to extinction in the 19th century by sailors anxious for the flesh and feathers of this flightless bird.

Those sailors! How heartless they must have been! But also, at the back of our minds, there is the suspicion that the great auk had it coming, must have been a bit thick, a bit of a dodo really to be caught napping by a bunch of jacktars armed with billyclubs.

It is looking into the details of an extinction that you discover the really useful information that seems to apply to our own predicament as a species with suicidal tendencies.

The details of the great auk's demise are fascinating. The last major colony was on Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. The colony was huge, numbering tens of thousands of birds. But, every year, sailors would come and capture as many as they could take away.

They even built stone corrals to hold the birds before slaughtering them. It wasn't that the great auk didn't have a chance. It had lots of chances. The birds could swim, and there were many inhospitable islands nearby to which they could have escaped. But they didn't, despite the fact that at some stage they must have moved to Funk Island in the first place.

The problem for the great auk was the size of colony needed before any sort of action can be taken. For great auks, that is thought to have been about 10,000 birds.

Eventually, their number fell below that, upon which they were paralyzed into inaction, waiting for direction that never came, doomed to be knocked off one by one.

Biologists call this quorum-sensing. It has been observed in even the lowly bacterium: Below a certain number, bacteria are "unintelligent," but once a colony grows all sorts of clever moves become possible, including the formation of a protective biofilm by those bacteria nearest the surface.

The great auk was dead a long time before the last bird was killed around 1844 on a remote sea stack off the Icelandic coast. It died when the will of the "community" to keep going was lost.

We see ospreys and peregrine falcons clinging on in their ones and twos, perhaps congratulate ourselves on their recent "recovery" in numbers—still pathetically low, of course.

If one is in the mood to make comparisons, one can enjoy the vague smugness of knowing that, unlike them, we have numbers on our side.

The sheer ubiquity of the human race makes it psychologically hard to conceive of our total disappearance.
Those rare birds are different, they're the ones at risk; and you can see this thinking reflected in the conservation strategies of birdheads and nesties.

History Tells Us Big Populations Are Vulnerable

But if the history of extinctions tells us anything it is that big populations are vulnerable, too. Take the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird on earth, blackening the skies of North America, blocking out the sun with their vast continental journeyings, so common, so profligate in number that in a 19th-century hunting competition a minimum of 30,000 birds needed to be killed to win a prize.

Such numbers are almost inconceivable in this age of vast fields of factory food whose summer silence is broken only by the buzzing of electricity pylons overhead and the combine harvester crashing through genetically enhanced identical stalks of corn.

The passenger pigeon was first observed by the French navigator Jacques Cartier in 1534, off the coast of Prince Edward Island. In 1749, it was observed that a multitude of such birds stretched over a distance of seven miles (11 kilometers) when they alighted in a wood, covering every tree like a plague of locusts.

In flight, such a crowd could measure four miles (6.4 kilometers) from the leaders to the followers and at least two miles (3.2 kilometers) in width. In the 1830s, the ornithologist John James Audubon wrote: "The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday obscured as by an eclipse...pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession."

By 1900 there was only one wild passenger pigeon left. It was shot by a 14-year-old named Press Clay Southworth, was stuffed, and is still exhibited in a museum in Columbus, Ohio. The very last passenger pigeon of all, a female named Martha, died in a Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The passenger pigeon once accounted for 40 percent of America's bird population; within the lifespan of one human being, it's thought, it was lost entirely.

But why? The bird was fast, capable of flying over 60 mph (100 kmh). The incubation time was short—from egg to chick in 12 or 13 days, with a nesting cycle of only 30 days from start to finish. They could escape, and they could breed—so why did they so completely disappear?

The key lies in the 1870s. At the beginning of that decade, there was no noticeable decline in pigeon numbers, despite decades of heavy hunting. Ten years later, the population had been ravaged and, more importantly, scattered into small groups all round America.

No hardened hunter sought out these isolated groups to polish off, systematically, every last member of the species. There wasn't any need. Once the big flocks were broken up, the passenger pigeon, like the great auk before it, just gave up, quit breeding, and died. By some quirk of evolution, the pigeon just couldn't exist below a certain huge flock number.

One is reminded of the mysterious and worrying plummet in Britain's sparrow numbers—from 2,603 recorded living in Kensington Gardens in 1925, to the grand total last year of eight.

94 Percent of Avian Species Are Extinct

It has been estimated that 94 percent of all avian species that ever existed are now extinct; more than 80 species have vanished since 1600. Does it matter? Do you care?

When I was writing my own book on the subject, The Extinction Club, I kept asking myself those questions; and—although I wanted always to answer: "Yes, it does matter. Yes, I do care"—I had to conclude that my actions proved otherwise. I may have "cared" about disappearing sparrows, shedding a tear even; but what was I doing about it? Nothing.

Maybe nothing can be done. We don't really understand extinctions, despite our grotesque confidence when it comes to building new species: Frankenstein Foods designed to resist Roundup pesticide—perhaps it'll just be a matter of time before humans are bred to resist Roundup pesticide too.

Until then, we should take heed of the sobering experience of London Zoo, which tried from 1987 to 1996 to save the humble Partula turgida snail from extinction.

You'd think a zooful of world-class experts would know what they were doing. They didn't.

On January 1, 1996, at 5:30 p.m., the last Partula turgida snail on the planet keeled over. It was one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful conservation programmes in history.

Maybe snails like company too. Maybe the boffins at the zoo had a dead species on their hands the moment the snail population dipped below a certain magic number. Nobody knows.

Nobody knows. Just as nobody knows why the New Zealand quail should have died out so completely in two decades in the mid-19th century.

When Captain Cook arrived a century earlier in 1769 it had been reported as quite common. By 1868 or 1869 it was quite extinct. Avian diseases, burning off forest land, hunting—all these theories are advanced but nobody knows.

If we don't know what ultimately does in a bird or a snail, how much more unlikely is it that we will know what threatens the human race with extinction?

Such thoughts are necessary ballast in the face of the colossal arrogance of modern science and technology, whose most articulate apologists—the Hawkings and Dawkinses of this world—imply that we pretty much know it all now, or all the important stuff, at least.

Of course we don't. Nobody does, and certainly not anyone at the controls of SmithKline Beecham or the Monsanto corporation.

The birds that disappear are usually the ones that cross the path of Western man out to squeeze a profit in a remote and inhospitable place. Birds on islands do particularly badly: dodos, of course, but also the Marquesas fruit dove, the broad-billed parrot, the Molokai 'O'o, the Cuban red macaw, and the grotesquely unlucky Stephen Island wren.

Perhaps the only perching bird incapable of flight, the Stephen Island wren was discovered by the cat of the lighthousekeeper on Stephen Island, a rocky island close to New Zealand. For a few months in 1894, the lighthousekeeper's cat set the ornithological world alight by bringing in example after example of the hitherto unrecorded species. Unfortunately, this feline accessory to science brought in every specimen dead—and before the year was out had ceased to bring in any.

No one has ever set eyes on a Stephen's Island wren since. (This is may be the only example of the extinctor of a species also being its discoverer.)

Extinction follows discovery with a horrid regularity. It is as if the cultural requirements for a discovery (men of science, rationalist culture, earnest periodicals) were necessarily bound up with those needed for an effective extinction (curiosity without wisdom, unfettered greed, machines that make travel and killing easy).

As a Chinese animal collector once told me, when I quizzed him about the potential extinction of the bird of paradise: "Ah, but there is no paradise left for the bird of paradise to live in."

Is there any hope to be had from surveying these vast numbers of diminished or downright disappeared species?

When I was researching my book, I found some solace not in contemplating rare birds but in an equally threatened species of deer. Named after its discoverer, Pere David, this curious ungulate—with a tail reminiscent of a donkey and antlers that look as though they face back to front—disappeared in China 100 years ago, during the Boxer Rebellion.

Fortunately, a few years earlier, Pere David had initiated a plan to smuggle some out. In England, the eccentric Herbrand Russell of Woburn then devoted his life to gathering together and saving the species. He succeeded, and in 1985 a herd of Pere David's deer were returned to China.

I wondered if there might be a clue in the fact that individuals rather than institutions had been involved; two men rather than two zoos or two organizations.

Institutions never care enough. Institutional people are too worried about their careers, or getting funding, or office politics, or having to toe the party line. More than anything else, an institution is incapable of love—the fierce kind of respectful interest, agape rather than eros, that is the main energy of this planet.

Not understanding this, we may send shuttles into space, but we won't save a living thing from dying out.

During this runaway age of industrial capitalism, more species of bird have disappeared per decade than at any time in history. In making things and enjoying them immensely we have lost sight of a great deal.

In settling for simple mechanical answers to the important questions—"Why am I here? What should I do? Where have I come from? Where am I going?"—we have become mired in pointless extravagances on a planet which has enough for everyone if we can take steps at last to learn how to be human again, how to love without limit or sentimentality or hope of reward.

Is not a community best defined as a group in which such love is possible, and in which it can be learnt? And what size would such a community be for it to feel itself alive, for its quorum-sensing requirements to be met? It certainly wouldn't be a community of one.

Extinct Birds, by Errol Fuller, is published by Oxford University Press. Robert Twigger's The Extinction Club is published by Penguin.

Copyright 2001, The Independent (London)

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