Arts & Culture Literature

Lessons from a Super Bird; One species, homo sapiens, responsible for mass extinction of many species

By Dr. John O. Hunter
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  (John Muir)
My backyard has become a great hatching area for sparrows. Each summer evening I watch flights of hundreds of them, flying across the yard to their roosting places in the Box Elders and Cedars. I call to them and wonder why they don’t pay attention to me since I am the provider of approximately 25 pounds of seed for them every week. But they have resigned me to the role of observer and nothing more. Still, once in a while I spot a particular bird in the bush at my window who has fattened on my feed and preens a sleek brown feather coat. He is an athlete, only a couple of ounces in weight but a survivor in his bird world.
I am attracted to him because  he reminds me of a world champion bird of incredible strength and brilliance who travels in a much more expansive realm, immeasurable by our means, up-and-down the entire planet Earth. By his conquering of it he is not only a victor but a messenger of the mystery and power of nature.
He is a mighty robin -sized shorebird, weighing in at 4 1/2 ounces, a Rufa red knot by classification. I discovered his story in a book by Philip Hoose, Moon Bird: a Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B- 95.
Each February B-95 takes off with his flock of 1000+ Rufa red knot companions from their winter ground in the Tierra del Fuego (southern tip of South America) for a journey of 9000 miles to their breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic. Late in summer they begin the return journey, 9000 miles back to where they started.
Why do they do that? Why don’t they stay in one place and live and adapt as other creatures do? How are they able to navigate unerringly such a journey? And a special question: B- 95 has made the journey  20 times; how much longer can he do it? What gives him such amazing power and longevity?
There is more than one story involved with Moon Bird. There is the individual survival story of B-95. There is the story of the great bird migrations. There is the story of dedicated scientists such as Patricia Gonzalez and Brian Harrington and their colleagues who bring the glory of the red knots into our lives. And there is a looming story of extinction.
In the 20 years B-95 has been flying, the Rufa red knot population has declined by 80%. Bird scientists declare that the main reason for the sharp decline is that the stopover sites  for migratory shorebirds are being littered with trash, dug up, polluted, poisoned and otherwise degraded. It is a serious question if we shall see shorebirds in the future.
Happening now is a mass distinction of many species. It is not the first time in the history of the world that this has occurred. But the extinction wave happening now is different: It may be likened to the extermination of the American bison in the 19th century. At the beginning of that century there were over  50 million Buffalo roaming the planes. By the end of the century there were a few hundred left struggling for survival in the Yellowstone.
One species– Homo sapiens– is responsible for wiping out thousands of life forms by consuming more than half of the world’s freshwater, radically altering the Earth’s resources, and indiscriminate slaughter. Commandeers for new wells are no longer satisfied with the traditional methods of land and water exploitation. Now there are new techniques of hydraulic fracturing deep into the earth and the oceans without real knowledge or regard for long-term consequences. In this context, extinction of the shorebirds may be a minor consequence, hardly worth noticing.
Why should we care about shorebirds? Why care about anything that does not benefit us directly or give us pleasure? Before we were knowledgeable enough even to raise such questions, the American Indians knew the answer. Everything is connected! And behind the material things of this earth there is a Great Spirit that does not bless destruction or clumsy  rearrangements of His creation.
Each species belongs to a complicated web of energy and activity called an eco- system. Together, these webs connect everything from the smallest, most obscure living things to the big trees and rivers and mountains, the kings of our environment. We do not know how these eco- systems can be unraveled or the consequences of that happening. Yet God gives us examples of the mystery and the power. One such example is the fascinating little Super Bird, B- 95.
Every life form is fascinating and mysterious in its own right, and each species with which we share the Earth is a success story. The Lord God made them all and made them to work according to His design. It’s the responsibility of Homo sapiens to understand and protect them. And, yes, to enjoy them! just as I enjoy the sparrows in my backyard.
And just to replicate on the power of love, here is another story about another little bird, taken from “Sketches from the Underground”, by Ivan Turgenov:
                                                          Only By Love
I was on my way home from hunting, and was walking up the garden Avenue. My dog was running in front of me. Suddenly he slackened his pace and began to steal forward as though he scented game ahead.
I looked along the Avenue, and I saw on the ground a young sparrow. It had fallen from the nest (a strong wind was blowing and shaking the birches of the avenue), and there it sat and never stirred, except to sketch out its little have grown wings in a helpless flutter.
My dog was slowly approaching it, when suddenly, darting from the tree overhead, an old black throated sparrow dropped like a stone right before his nose, and, all rumpled and flustered, with a plaintive desperate cry flung  itself, once, twice, at his open jaws with their great teeth.
It would save its young one; it screened it with its own body; the tiny frame quivered with terror; the little cries grew wild and hoarse; it sank and died. It had sacrificed itself.
What a huge monster the dog must have seemed to it! And yet it could not stay up there on it’s safe bough. A power stronger than its own will tore it away.
My dog stood still, and then slunk back disconcerted. Plainly, he too had to recognize that power. I called him to me, and a feeling of reverence came over me as I passed on.
Yes, do not laugh. It was really reverence I felt before that heroic little bird and the passionate outburst of its love.
Love, I thought, is verily stronger than death and the terror of death. By love, only by love, is life sustained and moved.  (Ivan Turgenev)
There is a question about reality constantly before us, so pervasive and so simple, it’s on the lips of every  child: “Do you love me?”

About the author

Dr. John O. Hunter

President Emeritus, Alfred State College, SUNY
President Emeritus, College of Lake County, IL
Founding President, Penn Highlands College,PA
Phi Theta Kappa Distinquished President, WV Northern College
Dean of College, NCCC, Sanborn, NY

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