For the Birds Radio Program: Iraq

Original Air Date: March 18, 2003

What cost would a war in Iraq exact on birds? And why does it matter?

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Now that George W. Bush has given Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq before the bombing starts, the world is in suspended animation waiting to see what will happen next. That is, the human world is waiting.

The natural world doesn’t have a clue about these human disputes, and migration continues apace. Days are lengthening not only in the northland, of course, but throughout the northern hemisphere, including Iraq, which is at the same latitude as the southern tier of states. So of course birds are responding there as they do here. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers run through Iraq, serving as critical migration highways between birds wintering grounds in Africa and breeding grounds in Europe and Asia. Because of the importance of this migratory pathway and the critical breeding and wintering habitat the rivers and their marshlands provide, southern Iraq has been identified as a globally important hot spot for bird biodiversity—one of only three in the entire Middle East. Marshes in southern Iraq are among the most important wintering grounds for water birds in western Eurasia. Some wintering birds are still there right now, and migrants are pouring through, too. Pelicans, storks, a host of shorebirds, and even songbirds follow the rivers as they wend their way northward. The main migration in Iraq runs from the middle of March to the end of April.

Storks that have wintered in South Africa and are en route to nesting grounds in places like Estonia will soon be crossing battle zones. Like our own Sandhill Cranes which stop for feeding and resting along the Platte River in Nebraska, African storks stop along the Tigris and Euphrates to rest and refuel. Nearby heavy bombing will at best disrupt their breeding cycles for the year, and at worst will kill them outright, along with scores of other species.

It’s of course important to remember how many human beings die in wartime. In the first Gulf War and its aftermath there were 20,000 military and 2,300 Iraqi civilian deaths due to US bombing, and UNICEF reports that there were 47,000 excess deaths among children under five years of age during the first eight months of 1991 thanks to the destruction of so much of Iraq’s infrastructure, compromising sanitation, medical services, and food distribution. And 148 Americans were killed in action, 458 were wounded, and 121 died through non-combat incidents during Operation Desert Storm.

In light of the potential human devastation in the upcoming siege, with a strategy named “shock and awe” because of the total destruction we plan to visit upon this country —it seems almost sacrilegious to be concerned about any impending danger to birds. But if we’re going to declare war on a nation, we have a moral obligation to face squarely all the costs of that war. Of course, as Phil Hockey, a migration specialist with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology in Cape Town, South Africa, pointed out, “It wouldn’t be the first time in history that war has had a significant impact on biodiversity.” We humans have a bad track record when it comes to bird protection, and a man who once shot a Killdeer and wrung its neck in his bare hands, looking right at it thinking it was a Mourning Dove, a man who mocked human beings waiting on death row as he presided over the largest capital punishment state toll in modern history, is hardly going to mourn the deaths of some foreign birds he’s never heard of.

The one thing we humans have ever been able to count on in this world has been nature. Birds have long served as our canaries warning us of danger in our ecological coal mine. But they hardly stand a chance when the bombs we’re dropping are designed to kill human beings. We humans are supposed to be better than birds—after all, we’re “civilized.” If only our leaders understood the meaning of the word.