Monday, October 14, 2013

We really should consider the birds

 Emma and Blake at Wildlife Habitat, Port Douglas, with a pair of tawny frogmouths.

 I have to add this albino kookaburra from the Zoom Wildlife Dome, Cairns. He was beautiful.

Two members of our household have been interested in birdwatching recently; my nephew, Jarrad, and my daughter, Emma. They both bought new cameras to help them zoom in really close on their subjects. And next door to our housing estate is a wetlands area which is a haven for birdwatchers. All this probably helped spike my interest. I've just finished reading an interesting book called, "Consider the Birds" by Debbie Blue, and I've been mulling over some of her stories and research. Not only have different birds stood as symbols of different things for aeons, but I've been thinking about how the state of human beings and our priorities may be reflected in the health of our bird populations. Most of the facts I cite here are from that book.

Back in the 1960s, America almost threatened one of its prized emblems, the bald eagle, with extinction. It was all because of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT to spray crops. It seems one of the side effects impacted the eagle. It interfered with their ability to process calcium. As a result, their egg shells were so frail that they'd crack when the parents sat on them to keep them warm. The situation got so serious that there were only 417 recorded nesting pairs across the nation in 1963. Although DDT has long since been banned, it's only been 2007 since the bald eagle has been removed from the endangered species list.

More recently, the massive oil spill off the American coast from the Deepwater Horizon rig had devastating effects on the pelican population. It unleashed more than 170 million gallons of crude oil straight into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, pelicans were drenched and immobilised, unable to try to stretch their wings without agony. This sort of 'accident' is not OK. It's far more than just a simple "Ooops."

In Genesis, man was given the mandate to be a good steward of that which was entrusted to him. It's both heartbreaking and scary when you consider that birds, which have been linked in their genetic makeup to dinosaurs, with their ancient history on earth, may be threatened by ignorant and thoughtless human activity within a decade, a few years, or maybe even a day in the case of massive oil spills. It would seem that humans are definitely the most dangerous breed of mammals. Some of us Aussies may be old enough to remember our TV personality, Derryn Hinch, shaking his head sadly in the '80s and saying, "We treat this planet as if it belongs to someone else."

I've heard people say, "What's a few bird species, anyway? People are more important than birds. I don't get environmentalists. Let's concentrate on making living conditions better for human beings." And some even consider certain birds a type of pest, and that they are doing the world a favour by getting rid of them. In the light of these further stories in the book, I consider this sort of thinking shortsighted to say the least.

When you look at vultures, you may see creepy-looking opportunists, hovering around to take their bit of flesh without any choosiness at all. They were the subjects of horror stories which gave me the heebie-jeebies. Yet at one time in India, Nepal and Pakistan, a painkiller named diclofenac began to be fed to lifestock from a pharmaceutical company. It turned out to be poisonous to the vultures which fed on their carcasses, and as a result, tens of millions of vultures died from kidney failure.

What people didn't expect is the havoc to the environment which resulted from the loss of the vulture. Festering cattle haboured anthrax, and there were surges of rabies due to an increase in the population of feral dogs, which were thriving without vultures around to compete for the food sources. Harmful diseases began to spread everywhere, and as you'd expect, once humans were directly affected, it became a different story. The drug was banned to save the vultures.

Even common little grey sparrows have an important role. (My daughter, Emma, loves these, by the way. Their ordinariness seems to be endearing to her.) In China, Mao Tse-Tung encouraged people to eradicate the tree sparrow, in his "Four Pests" campaign. The other three were rats, flies and mosquitoes. So the little bird was brought to the brink of extinction by over-zealous followers, and suddenly locusts and other crop-eating insects flourished, which were definitely far more of a pest. There were no sparrows to eat them, so they were free to decimate human crops. The resulting crop loss contributed to the Great Famine which killed more than 30 million people. How amazing, that a disaster of this immensity can be linked to the loss of a drab little grey bird.

It seems Mao ended up taking the sparrow off his hit-list, to replace it with the bedbug.

This sort of story speaks to me. We can apply it further than the birds. We should respect ourselves. Even when we don't seem to be contributing much, (or are even called repulsive or a nuisance in some cases), we are really serving a grand purpose in the ordinary roles we have, of caring for our families, keeping things clean and offering kind words to others now and then. Nature is designed by a wise creator. We meddle with it at our peril. These birds obviously served an important ecological function which was discovered and appreciated almost too late.

An internet quote going around tells us, "A man is judged by the way he treats those who can do nothing for him." And in the case of the birds, it turned out to prove that they really were doing something for mankind after all. It all suggests that we shouldn't underestimate any creature. St Francis of Assisi went around calling the bird and animal kingdom his brothers and sisters. I think he was onto something.

Not long ago, I was walking around my neighbourhood and witnessed an act of heroism. A poor, noisy lorikeet was getting pounced on by a cat. The cat had him, flapping around in his jaws, and then another lorikeet swooped down from a tree and zoomed straight for the side of the cat's head. The action saved his squawking friend, because the cat got surprised, loosened its grip, and both birds flew away.

Those who talk about the 'dumb' beasts may need to re-think their definition of intelligence. Any creature who migrates for miles with their own wing power, without the benefit of maps or compasses, and sits patiently on their nests until the job is done deserves a bit of respect.

One night, my son, Blake, and I were walking in the dark and weren't far from our house when we saw a huge tawny frogmouth sitting on a short pole. These are Aussie birds which look a bit like owls and also a bit like a tree trunk. It let us walk right to it and just stayed, giving us this wise sort of scrutiny from its big eyes. We were even talking to it, wishing it would talk back. I couldn't help wondering what it was thinking, and if it was there as we passed for any deeper reason.

It looked so settled and peaceful, I said, "Would you mind staying there for a moment, while we go home and get our camera? It'll only take about two minutes." We hurried off but when we got back, he was gone. We've never seen a tawny frogmouth out in our part of suburbia again, let alone such a bold one, and I can't help wondering what he was all about.


  1. I wish more people thought like you, my friend. I spend a lot of time feeding and photographing birds and other wildlife. They always manage to do something that surprises me.

    The frogmouth was probably hoping that if he stayed very still, you would think it was a piece of wood. There are owls here that do the same. Keep your eyes peeled. Maybe some day you will spot another. That is one of the things wildlife has taught me. You have to be aware of your world to notice its little secrets. :o)

    Vultures are neat. We see turkey vultures around here all the time. When the gas company lays new pipes, they pump an odor into their pipelines that smells like rotting meat. If vultures gather over a section of pipe, they know there is a leak there. Vultures are one of the only (the only?) birds with a sense of smell, so they are always used to test gas lines.

    Peace and Laughter!

  2. Hi Cristina, I love the way you post your wildlife photos, especially because I like to see what our two countries share in common and what are completely different.

    If only one of the older kids had been with us too, I could've left someone behind to keep staring at the tawny frogmouth while I went to get the camera, but Blake was still a bit small not to get freaked out about being by himself in the dark. You can see from the photo at the wildlife park, how easily they fit in with tree bark.

    I like the way vultures can be used to test gas leaks in your area. What an economical and reliable method.

    Yes, once you start looking out for little secrets like that, you just want to keep going.


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