For the Birds Radio Program: So Much Violence

Original Air Date: Jan. 8, 2013 Rerun Dates: Jan. 30, 2014

Laura’s been reading too much bad news about birds.

Duration: 5′00″


This morning, January 7, I woke to a news story about how researchers are suspecting invasive species such as quagga mussels, zebra mussels, and round gobies are responsible for the deaths of thousands of loons washed up in Lake Michigan this fall. This bodes ill for the future. (

Today I also got Steve Wilson’s email with the results of this year’s Isabella Christmas Bird Count. This count once led the continent in the number of Gray Jays seen, with 154. This year it had less than a tenth of that, only 13. Steve sent a graph showing how many Gray Jays are counted per party hour on his count. The downward trend since the 80s is alarming. If that graph represented an individual’s or a government’s financial holdings, they’d take drastic steps to get back on track, but somehow we don’t have a sense of urgency when it’s wildlife rather than money that is plummeting.

The decrease in Gray Jays is almost certainly directly due to climate change. They store up huge amounts of food in fall, counting on consistent icebox conditions till spring; thaws cause their food stores to rot. These are the food stores they vitally depend upon during their extremely early breeding season. Small wonder they’re declining.

It’s bad enough when human thoughtlessness leads to the invasion of exotic species or to warming temperatures. But sometimes it’s outright human cruelty: on January 2, an off-road vehicle intentionally plowed into a flock of Dunlins on Washington State’s Long Beach Peninsula, killing at least 92 of these inoffensive little shorebirds in one fell swoop. So far there are no leads on who was responsible.

( Even if they do find out who killed so many birds and even if an arrest is made, the criminal justice system doesn’t seem to take crimes against wildlife very seriously. In the past few years, people have shot Whooping Cranes and wiped out an entire Minnesota breeding colony of American White Pelicans with hardly a slap on the wrist.

As a species, we humans have always looked to wildlife for food and sport. It took a major effort by the U.S. government to set precedents for wildlife protection with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and regulations to protect populations even as hunters harvested a surplus. It’s been four decades since we passed the Endangered Species Act, which has been wildly successful for such species as Kirtland’s Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, Trumpeter Swan, Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Whooping Crane. But from the moment the law took effect, people have been trying to gut it, and it’s extremely difficult to list dangerously declining species so they can get that protection. Sage grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chickens should have been listed decades ago. With numbers for both in a tailspin, there is no “surplus population,” just as there’s no surplus of moose in Minnesota, yet these vulnerable species are still legally hunted.

It seems ironic that at the very moment in scientific history when we’re finally accepting some of the abundant evidence that many species are intelligent and that individuals of many species have uniquely individual natures, we’re increasing the number of species that can be killed for pleasure, and accepting canned hunts in which hunters shoot at scores of bewildered birds released for quick and massive killing. But I shouldn’t be surprised, not in a world where researchers get federal permits allowing them to decapitate birds simply to prove that the birds feel a human-like pleasure listening to their species’ music.

In the face of all this violence, to say nothing of recent mass killings against our own species, I feel helpless. But this year I am saying no to violence in my own life, by giving up all violent TV and movies. It will limit my entertainment options, but that’ll just give me more time to focus on the many pleasures to be had in the civilized company of birds.