Washington, D.C. was recently captivated by the arrival of a snowy owl downtown. The raptors don’t normally find their way this far south, but apparently much of the country has seen an influx of these beautiful birds. The reason for the snowy owl invasion is not quite clear, but some ornithologists hypothesize that a successful breeding year has driven many of the birds further south to establish their own territory. Regardless of how the bird got to the city, it was welcomed with coverage in the Washington Post under a “breaking” headline. Social media buzz about the bird’s location also brought onlookers to the city block where it rested before a night’s hunt. People took pictures from the sidewalk and from cars, and traveled from other parts of the metro area just to catch a glimpse.
Within five days of all the buzz, the snowy owl was hit by a bus, and taken to veterinarians for treatment. The Washington Post covered the owl’s fate, and reported that a police officer rushed the owl to the National Zoo for treatment. This story, and many other stories of public concern for wildlife always provide me some hope that there remains a reservoir of genuine care for wildlife, even if that care is buried under layers of human materialism and consumption. These stories also bring me back to question how public statements by the wind industry regarding bird kills actually gain traction within the community that is supposed to be the vanguard of wildlife preservation.
The wind industry explains away a growing number of annual bird kills at wind projects – currently estimated at 500,000 per year – as trivial compared to other sources of bird mortality, such as vehicle strikes, and domestic cats. The industry is correct – more birds are killed every year by other human causes. But the comparison only serves to minimize a growing threat to birds and their habitat, and masks the fact that wind turbines can threaten different species and places than other human causes. Domestic cats may kill more birds than turbines, but cats don’t kill golden eagles in the western Mojave Desert, or red-tailed hawks in Nevada. If this were the assault rifle and high capacity magazine debate, the wind industry’s logic would be translated as “hammers kill more humans than assault rifles every year, so we shouldn’t regulate assault rifles.” (yes, that logic was actually applied by parties interested in averting high capacity magazine regulation)
There is a reason we want to protect wildlands – we have already transformed our cities into a human-dominated ecosystem where only certain species can thrive, and the snowy owl’s injury by a bus is illustrative. We may adore wildlife, but we have made cities largely incompatible with this love. Raptors like the snowy owls don’t look both ways before flying across the street, accustomed to narrowly focusing on the prey they are pursuing. We poison the rats and mice that raptors eat, sending toxins into the food chain that result in the deaths of key predators that serve as a more natural, and safer version of rodent control. We count on open, pristine lands to provide the habitat and resilience wildlife need to survive outside of out own severely altered abodes.
What is scary about the industry’s dismissive attitude toward 500,000 annual bird deaths is that it actually works among some environmentalists, who repeat the tag line to reassure themselves and others that it is okay to continue writing the industry a blank check to kill wildlife. It is probably easier to care about wildlife when it is right there in front of us than when it is a statistic in an environmental impact statement or a press release. Without that instant gratification of seeing a snowy owl right in front of us, maybe it’s difficult to care about its well-being and habitat far away. Without it right in front of us, we seem to revert to our fascination with the human ability to transform the world and our mantra of consumption for the sake of growth. Wildlife just seems to get in the way of that never-ending march.
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