Birds and alligators, and our extinction problem

A snowy egret at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine

Week before last, Sally and I drove down to St. Augustine for the Florida Birding and Photo Festival.  We saw a lot of birds, and I took a lot of pictures, of which these are a few.

Tricolored heron with eggs

We were especially delighted by the Alligator Farm, a zoo that hosts nesting migrant wading birds.  Dozens of families of egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and storks build nests and hatch their chicks in trees above dozens of alligators.  There’s a boardwalk through the area, and some of the bird families are very close to it. The parents fly back and forth bringing nesting material and food for the noisy chicks.  

Wood stork

It was both beautiful and strange to see all those birds and reptiles together.  Apparently the birds like to nest there because the alligators protect their broods from predators.  Of course, there’s an inherent danger for those new chicks: if they fall out of the nests, it’s curtains.  

We also saw a lot of shorebirds during a couple of boat trips on the Intercoastal Waterway and hiking Anastasia State Park.  I attended nature photography workshops by some highly accomplished pros, including Charles Glatzer, Lewis Kemper, Roman Kurywczak, Scott Bourne, Jack Rogers, and Joe Brady, and learned a lot.  

A roseate spoonbill

The more time I spent with the birds at the Alligator Farm, the more I saw, and felt.  On the first day, I was excited just to get a good view of several species that weren’t familiar to me.  But after a few hours, I started keying into family relationships — expectant and new parents, nestlings, and fledglings.  The nests of different families and different species were close together, like high rise apartments, and I watched as the birds worked out conflicts over space.  They spent time grooming themselves, working on their nests, and flying out and back with food for the little ones. The nests were busy places.

The birds seemed not at all bothered by the humans watching them and taking their pictures.  They must be used to it.

A great egret family

It’s encouraging that there are places like the Alligator Farm where humans are devoting some resources for the benefit of non-human animals, and where we can learn about their world.  But we need to do a lot more. Last week I finished reading (actually, listening to) Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.  I was glad to find it not all gloom and doom; there were various lively characters and stories.  But the overarching story of what homo sapiens have done, and are still doing, to the planet is deeply troubling.

Planetary destruction ought to be a big news story, though it seldom makes the front page, and I’m afraid there are a lot of people who still haven’t got the message.  Maybe that’s changing. Just yesterday, the leading newspapers reported at length on the new United Nations report on the global threats to biodiversity and the critical need for conservation efforts.  The full 1500 page report is not yet available, but the summary is out and the key findings were reported in the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal , the Washington Post, and the Guardian. As they all noted, the UN report says that more than one million species are at risk of extinction in the near future.  

The UN panel connected various interacting threats to biodiversity, including  habitat loss, water pollution, soil exhaustion, over-logging, overfishing, transportation of invasive species, and burning fossil fuels.  It emphasized that these human activities together are threatening the basic natural resources (like food and water) on which humans depend.

The report didn’t seem to give much weight to the inherent value of non-human species.  The idea that the only purpose of nature is to serve humankind is deep-seated, and arguing against it might sound strange, if not treasonous. So the report’s authors could well be hesitant to argue against the idea that humans have an inherent right to kill everything that’s not human.  Anyhow, if the only thing that will mobilize humans to stop destroying the natural world is raw self-interest, the report authors should be thanked for making an effective appeal to that self-interest.

I’ll just note briefly that there are alternative views.  Of course, we’re strongly conditioned to think of nature as our inferior and our enemy in a war for survival.  But it’s dawning on us that this line of thought has taken us to the brink of disaster, and that we ultimately rely on the natural world for life.  In place of a war footing, it’s possible for humans to regard themselves as connected to and part of nature.

It’s not easy to let go of the idea that we’re in all regards superior to nature and entitled to exploit it without limitation, but it can be done.  This opens up a vista of nature in its beautiful complexity and ourselves a part of that. The challenge is to discover balance and harmony within this constantly changing reality.  

Meanwhile, there’s the problem of eating.  I highly recommend checking out the Times’s recent feature on how our eating affects the environment.   It explains that our food system is an enormous contributing factor to our environmental problems, and that eating more plants and less meat would help.