A member of the public called the American Bird Conservancy’s offices in Washington, D.C., recently to follow up on a story we had reported. More than 500 birds had been killed at a West Virginia wind-power facility, just one of many similar events occurring across the country throughout the year, every year. The caller asked several questions specific to this incident, and then asked another, more general question: Why can’t the birds simply learn to avoid the wind turbines? We explained that the first encounter most birds have with a turbine – or for that matter a tall tower, glass building or any other structure, together responsible for more than a billion collisions each year – is usually fatal, so there is little opportunity to learn from the experience.
The caller’s question is not uncommon, but behind it lies evidence of a troubling philosophy: that it is up to wildlife to adapt to each new human change on the landscape.
There are two problems with this notion. The first is that changes in nature take time, whereas human impacts are nearly instantaneous. It took the golden eagle millennia to evolve its highly effective hunting strategy of soaring above the ground, scouring the landscape below for prey. It never had reason to look up to see what lay in its flight path because there had never before been anything there to collide with. But suddenly the eagle’s airspace is peppered with turbine blades spinning at 100-plus miles per hour.
The second problem is that each human-created threat does not occur in isolation. Collision with man-made structures is only one of many new and growing hazards that birds now face; hazards that run the gamut from environmental contaminants such as pesticides and lead, to overfishing, invasive species, introduced disease, to the ubiquitous specter of habitat loss, alteration and fragmentation. Asking animals to adapt to all of these threats at once is asking the impossible.
Nature is totally unaware that it is engaged in a deadly game of chicken with the human race. The juggernaut of human progress is careening down the road toward it at break-neck speed, giving species no time to get out of the way. Our impacts on the environment are outstripping the pace at which populations can naturally adapt; we cannot expect birds to simply evolve their way out of the onslaught.
But extinction is a perfectly natural phenomenon, so why should it matter if bird species disappear for good? Behind this question lies another dangerous assumption: that the loss of birds and other wildlife has no impact on us; that we are somehow immune to the impoverishment of our environment. It is certainly hard to convey, other than perhaps in emotional terms, how the loss of a single bird species – for example the Po’ouil, a small Hawaiian songbird that went extinct in 2004 – affects humans, particularly when most of us would never have seen it anyway. But cumulatively, species loss amounts to death by a thousand cuts. Each tiny incision produces a barely noticeable drop of blood, but together they contribute to the slow, inevitable exsanguination of the planet.
Birds pollinate our crops, control our pests, disperse our seeds, and fertilize our earth. They alert us to environmental contamination. They bring joy to millions and income to millions more in the form of the bird-watching and bird-feeding industries. Instead of asking why birds don’t adapt to the changes we cause, we should be asking how we can adapt our behavior and technology to protect birds, their habitats and our shared planet. Their conservation should be a significant long-term priority for our society – a promise to keep for the generations that will follow us.
Gavin Shire is vice president of the American Bird Conservancy.
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