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One less Warbler, one less Grebe

May 28, 2010

New I and the Bird #126 at Coyote Mercury


I didn’t see a Chestnut-sided Warbler this year.

Memorial Day Weekend is traditionally the end of terrestrial bird migration across most of the northern hemisphere so it’s an appropriate time to sit back and reflect on my own haul for spring 2010.  I did slightly below average but respectable for someone staying in the Piedmont, tallying 21 species of warblers along with the regular Grosbeaks, Tanagers, and Cuckoos that arrive in numbers in April and May.  That may still increase if I still add Kentucky and Swainson’s, two nesting species that require a little effort on my part, but I missed the Chestnut-sided this year, one that I look forward to finding annually.  It occurred to me, in light of massively depressing environmental news from around the globe, that this is how extinction works.  You may look forward to seeing a particular species every year, and one year, you just don’t.  And that’s it.

That’s not to say that Chestnut-sided Warbler is in any danger of extinction, because it’s not, and even in North Carolina it’s one of the most common species in the mountains where even this year there are many thousands of pairs on territory.  The fact that I missed it this year isn’t particularly indicative of anything other than my own bad luck, but is it that hard to imagine if it wasn’t?  Extinction isn’t abrupt or flashy. It’s a slow taper, a series of lowered expectations until one day, there’s nothing.  Another light blinks out and in most cases, few notice.  So this idea was already rolling around in my head when I heard the recent news from Madagascar, that Birdlife International has officially pulled the plug on the Alaotra Grebe.

The Grebe was a victim of introduced species, like so many others found on islands.  This time it was carnivorous fish that did it in, but the general concept has been repeated many times.  Island species are at a particular disadvantage in that they often occur in low numbers and occupy extremely narrow niches.  Such is life on an island where space is always at a premium and survival is always precarious.  Species like this already live on a razor’s edge, evolution having shrunk their margin of error well beyond that found on the continents.  It’s the catch-22 to the incredible speciation that can occur within those geologically imposed boundaries.  This is well known, but that only makes its extinction understandable, not acceptable.

Birdlife goes farther though, asking us to answer the question posed to them by the media when such sad announcements are made, why should we care?

It’s certainly a poignant question.  After all, how many of us have even heard of the Alaotra Grebe before this announcement of its demise?  I certainly hadn’t, being fairly ignorant of birds in the Old World save the flashy ones, of which Alaotra Grebe could hardly be considered one.  In fact, it would be truthful to say that the extinction of Alaotra Grebe probably doesn’t directly impact me in the slightest.  But it still resonates.  Why?

It feels good to say that the loss of a unique life form, the product of a very specific bit of natural selection that led it to its corner of Madagascar, is reason enough to mourn its passing.  That we should honor every example of biodiversity on the planet equally is an admirable, but ultimately hollow sentiment.  I care about the planet’s loss of this grebe, but not as much as an individual species, but as a symbol of what we’ve lost. Another drop sprung from an increasingly leaky bucket.  Another light out, even a distant one, leaving us one candle closer to darkness.  And a corner of the sky that darkens on the horizon means the horizon grows ever closer to me, to my backyard, to my missing Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Conservation is local, it’s ultimately about self-preservation above all.  So many of us feel completely overwhelmed by the events in our own region that the loss of a grebe on the other side of the world is merely a roadsign on the broken feedback loop on which we’re maddeningly stuck.  In my most existential moments, like say, when a hole tears in the earth and vomits a never-ending stream of toxins into the ocean and the suddenly insignificant-seeming labors of every conservationist in my lifetime appear to be washed away in an unrelenting sticky red tide, I ask myself what we think we’re doing anyway.

When my son Noah came along, I wondered whether I was doing the right thing bringing him into a world where things are clearly going to be difficult.  Ultimately I felt that raising him to be an active participant in the solution would be a responsible way to approach parenthood.  After all, someone has to tackle these issues, why not Noah?  But even now how can I raise him as a nature lover when I’m watching that nature fall like an slow-motion chain of dominoes?  I already have to raise him in a world without Alaotra Grebe, but will I have to raise him in a world without Chestnut-sided Warblers too?  Because I don’t think that’s something I’m prepared to do.

It may well be something I can avoid.  Because even in light of all the horrible things going on, there are actually times when I feel like there’s some hope, there’s still an opportunity to put a finger to the dominoes.  The Alaotra Grebe is gone, and the sad truth is that it probably won’t be the last, but they don’t have to die in vain.  Why should we care?  We should care because, as North American birders, our history is checkered with our own lost charismatic birds.  We know that if we don’t, this will repeat itself until it’s once again on our own door.

The Chestnut-sided Warbler, at least, will come again next year.  Maybe I’ll see it then. But it will only continue to come if we continue to care about the fate of Alaotra Grebe.

  1. May 28, 2010 11:37 am

    Grebes as a whole don’t do well on the ‘surviving the 20th century’ thing. The Alaotra Grebe didn’t make it; neither did the Atitlan Grebe, or the Columbian Grebe, and there are a fair number like the Junin Grebe that are critically endangered. That said, I wouldn’t give up ALL hope for the Alaotra Grebe. The Madagascar Pochard (incidentally, also “only” found in Lake Alaotra) and was declared extinct in 2006. Well, technically it was declared “possibly extinct” by the IUCN, but that’s besides the point. The point is, that very year, Madagascar Pochard were discovered alive and well in a remote lake. And this isn’t an “Ivory-billed” rediscovery, either. They found adults and chicks and started a regimented breeding program. So, yes, this bodes poorly for the Alaotra Grebe and speaks poorly upon human-kind… but there’s always that sliver of hope. We don’t often get a do-over when it comes to extinct species, but if the Madagascar Pochard’s told us anything, it’s to never stop looking for when that chance comes along.

  2. May 30, 2010 10:07 am

    Nate, this is a wonderful post. I too read the sad news of the Alaotra Grebe, and you’re right – it doesn’t matter that it lived far away. I still feel the loss of its light.

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