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.

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