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By the pond

An argument that’s for the birds


This column is strictly for the birds. Hummingbirds primarily, but parrots, peregrine falcons and flocks more. There’s also a touch of cautious optimism (not quite hope).

The column returns to a favorite theme -- that environmental destruction is a combination of ignorance, arrogance and greed -- and introduces a new theme.

The fresh theme is Congressional politics (where birds of a feather are more likely to vote for hunting Cock Robin than saving his habitat), and the importance of mobilizing environmentally concerned people to push that politics in a more eco-friendly direction.

First ignorance. In this case, mine, emblematic of what’s been going of for two centuries.

More than 30 years ago, in the mid-1960s, we had a house and an acre on the Delaware River with 160 feet of river frontage. A decrepit house, true -- but we were fixing it up. There was a view from the front window over the river. Running up outside the kitchen window was a vine with bright red flowers.

Picture this. Late afternoon we could sit and eat while, eight inches away, on the other side of the window glass, rufous hummingbirds hovered, flitted and fed.

As birds and humans dined, we could look into each other’s eyes. Precious.

So, comes the fall, I cranked up the old mower and mowed the last time before winter, cutting away grass, old sticks, dying-off plant stems. Yes, I mowed away the vine. And the next year, no hummingbirds. A year later the house was sold for we were back in Britain.

When I mowed away the vine, I simply didn’t think about what I was doing.

Not to excuse my stupidity over the hummingbirds’ feeding needs, the fact is that three decades ago most of us were actually pretty ignorant about birds and ecological and environmental issues.

As a schoolboy I knew about birds’ migratory patterns -- we all did -- about their nesting requirements in general and physical despoliation’s intrusion on it.

But we never put two-and-two together as we raided their nests for eggs for our collections, or used them for target practice with slingshots. Or watched the bulldozers crash across fields for new post-World War II housing.

Then came Carson, and we all started learning together. Particularly from television programs. The needs of the natural world came into living room. Our consciousness was being raised. The rise of environmental organizations buttresses the point.

In the 1960s, the National Audubon Society had less than 100,000 members (now it has almost 600,000). The Nature Conservancy was barely 15 years old with well under 60,000 members. Today it has a million.

The Wilderness Society and the World Wildlife Fund, both 1935 foundations, today have 200,000 and 1.2 million members respectively.

A caution here, from Ben Beach at the Wilderness Society.

“The early 1990s was a high watermark for the environmental community,” he said, “Exxon Valdez in Alaska, needles on the beaches in New Jersey, and the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. Then the fervor died down,” which means that membership figures have eased, or stayed flat, he said.

Yet in this decade, a new matrix of concern was laid across the world, making the connections among millions of ordinary people everywhere committed to protecting their local environment.

The people connection at times mimics the birds’ migratory patterns. The common starting point for many winged travelers is the Alaskan Arctic. For tundra swan and sandpiper, for red-throated loons or Black Brant geese, for plover or peregrine falcon, the Arctic is home.

Environmental groups have focused assiduously on saving pristine Arctic breeding grounds.

But like northern Americans who winter in Miami (hence “snowbirds”), the Arctic flocks soar south, far south, as winter approaches. So it became environmentally necessary to follow the avian travelers as they visit “truck stops” -- such as the Cheyenne Bottoms in central Kansas where flocks of 100,000 to 300,000 sandpipers stop-in -- or Guatemala’s half-million acre Lacandon National Park, stopover or winter quarters for 40 percent of North America’s migratory birds.

Also attracting attention are such crucial winter habitats as Belize’s Rio Bravo and Costa Rica’s Talamanca Corridor parks and preserves. The Nature Conservancy notes that Talamanca is “no virgin forest,” but a place where cacao, for chocolate, is grown as a cash crop “in the traditional manner with the rainforest canopy protecting it from direct light.” This requirement, including the human environment, is essential for any programs that seek to endure.

While environmental groups are not averse to publicizing and cooperating with each other, they do take on special projects.

World Wildlife Fund, with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, is deeply committed to halting parrot smuggling. Some people apparently think NAFTA means North American Feathered Traffic Act.

The Nature Conservancy has a “Wings of the Americas” program highlighting and seeking remedial action not only to protect the 4,500 bird species breeding in the hemisphere but also the habitat.

The Wilderness Society’s society’s major campaigns “are framed by efforts to protect America’s Arctic and the Alaska coastal rainforest, and centered on building a long-term national constituency” to protect another 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness.

The National Audubon Society has an action agenda for the 106th Congress, and many of its 11 items are bird-connected. Does Congress care?

With Audubon’s Perry Plumart, I reviewed the agenda, and each item’s chances.

1. Supporting Better America Bonds, a Clinton proposal that would use the bonds to leverage $700 million in federal tax credits. Chance of passage? “Forty percent,” he said.

2. Designating Alaska’s coastal plain -- and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- as wilderness? “Zero. But that doesn’t mean they’re about to open it to drilling,” added Plumart.

3. Urging President Clinton to permanently protect the Forest Services’ remaining roadless, scenic wildernesses? “A chance.”

4. Opposing legislation that restricts family planning and population assistance by adding riders to appropriations. “A possibility of success.”

5. Increasing National Wildlife Refuge System funding through the Interior Appropriations subcommittees in House and Senate? “A reasonable chance.”

6. Reauthorization of a stronger Endangered Species Act? “If you’d have asked me two weeks, zero. But apparently it has a marginal chance. There’s something interesting going on there.”

7. Full funding of the president’s Clean Water Action Plan? “Something’s happening,” said Plumart, “but I don’t know how much.”

8. Funding the Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program? “Something good there.”

9. Funding the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetland Reserve Program? “I think good action on this.”   

10. Reinvigorate the Everglades ecosystem restoration proposal? “I think we win.”

11. Increase protection for migratory birds by cosponsoring the Neotropical Migratory Bird Habitat Enhancement Act? Replied a delighted Plumart: “Bet the ranch.”

Well, maybe the birdhouse.

Back here in Virginia, what about the birds on our sloping half acre?

Yep, it’s rufous hummingbird territory. But when it comes to hummers, I learned that too much knowledge is a depressing thing. Now I know they’re the nastiest, most aggressive of all the hummingbirds and think nothing of pushing lesser hummingbirds to one side to make sure they eat.

Nature’s always got a rough edge.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999